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Stow looks to rewrite zoning code from scratch after report calls it ‘unclear and inefficient’

Stow’s planning code is vague, complicated and off-putting to residents, businesses and developers, according to expert consultants hired by city officials to rate the city’s zoning laws.

The consultants presented their findings at a Sept. 29 council meeting, where council members agreed the city needs a total rewrite of the planning code. Taller buildings, smaller homes and more walkable routes could be in the future for Stow residents.

Stow Director of Planning and Development Nathan Leppo said the city commissioned a review of the code by independent experts at ZoneCo last year.

“The process of updating zoning codes is complex, time consuming and controversial,” said Leppo. “Zoning is necessary for the character and identity of the city and its residents, and also instrumental in maintaining property values while affording privacy and safety for residents.

“I have been in this role for a little over a year, and it is no secret how I feel about the code and it can certainly be improved. Over decades, it has become unnecessarily complex. We are not unique, and many communities are in this situation.”

The report from consultants ZoneCo was introduced by its senior urban and environmental planner, Nolan Nicaise.

“A zoning diagnostic report can be compared to a physician’s examination,” Nicaise said, “to provide a third-party evaluation of current conditions and provide tips for achieving one’s health goals.”

Nicaise compared the existing planning code with Stow’s 2017 Comprehensive Plan Update detailing the city’s goals for the future, and established seven key objectives. With line-by-line examination of the code, he highlighted where the code helps and hinders meeting Stow’s aspirations.

The objectives he outlined are clarity and efficiency, environmental sustainability, walkability, population, tax base, redevelopment of commercial strips, and community identity, and Stow was benchmarked against ‘peer cities’ across Northeast Ohio.

“We found the existing code effectively promotes environmental sustainability with floodplain and wetland provisions, open-space mandates, stormwater control, and emphasizing preservation of natural amenities,” said Nicaise.

But that was about all the existing code currently gets right, according to the report.

“Some objectives are scarcely addressed by the code,” he said. “It includes few regulations that would yield an increased sense of community identity, such as development surrounding a town center, natural feature, or institution.”

Other objectives “hindered” by the code including walkability, which is restricted by codes designed to promote vehicle use, and population and tax revenue growth, both held back by zone codes which promote the development of larger homes and commercial businesses and large amounts of parking spaces.

“The code shows its greatest failure in the goal of clarity, efficiency, and consistency of law and administration,” Nicaise said. “It lacks important definitions … resulting in an unclear and inefficient code that may be difficult to use, administer and defend.”

He said this means the code is costing businesses more money in building and opening new operations, and it is costing the taxpayer and city with burdensome regulations.

Proposals for a new code include clearer definitions and fewer layers of bureaucracy, including delegating some planning application decisions to officials instead of having to go through planning commission and council.

Commercial buildings could be allowed up to 42 feet in height, making more efficient use of space for businesses. The current code favors single-story buildings which require more car parking spaces.

Nicaise said the existing code also gives greater priority to larger commercial buildings, making Stow less attractive to smaller or new businesses – but the city relies much more heavily on employment taxation than property taxes.

It also gives priority to larger, detached family homes – with some districts in the city having no provision for multi-family development such as apartments, townhouses, long-term care facilities and nursing homes, which is off-putting for future population growth for younger and older people.

He added that walkability is seen as vital for modern cities.

“The Stow plan is chock full of comments on walkability,” Nicaise said. “We see walkability as a goal in nearly every community. Those parts of the country that are truly walkable have high property values and quality of life.”

Yet, as the code stands, Stow requires large turning circles for cars and has long city blocks, which encourages speeding and puts walkers off due to the dangers posed, said Nicaise.

He said the current code also makes it difficult to redevelop older strip mall retail units. As the code stands now, different types of businesses have different requirements for parking spaces and are set back from the road, which means changing the use of an empty unit to a new purpose can be nearly impossible.

Council members agreed that trying to fix the code by amendments would make the problem worse. They were backed by all four planning commission members in proposing that consultants should be commissioned to completely rewrite the city code, which could take up to 18 months.