Nick Kuzmyak: Lawrence’s land development code update’s first major deliverable is ready, and your input is important (Column)

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The City of Lawrence is in the process of updating the land development (i.e., zoning) code for the first time since the early 2000s, and this time we have a more progressive comprehensive plan that the code has to help achieve. 

Plan 2040 was adopted a few years ago and specifies some course changes for Lawrence, namely more mixed-use and walkable neighborhoods with a diversity of housing. Our current land development code (LDC) is not quite aligned with those goals, so updating it is the next logical step.

A brief recap of what is included and not included in the code may help: the LDC directs what can be built where, how it can be used, and the size and shape of it, among other things. Details such as off-street parking, food sales at bars, and home business hours of operation are all in there.

What’s not included is also important, but out of scope for this current effort: existing street design, building codes, and details of historic and neighborhood-specific design guidelines.

Update on progress

Our consultant is working with staff, a steering committee, and lots of public input. Their first deliverable was the Code Assessment back in January, where they evaluated the existing code and provided ideas for how to better align it with Plan 2040. The deliverable that is open for comment is the first bit of actual zoning code, and includes a reorganization of some key elements:

  • Districts: the general vibe of each area
  • Uses: what can be done with property
  • Use standards: the rules that each use and district must conform to

What’s not included may also be of interest, since many who review the document are probably looking for it. The following will be in the next two deliverables:

  • Parking and access standards
  • Detailed design standards, including historic resources
  • Development processes, approvals, and appeals

There are a few major changes that everyone should be aware of, regardless of how familiar you are with zoning. 

There are a lot more pictures, plain language, and better organized tables so the average person can understand the code. Residential districts have been reorganized and are more permissive. A new set of mixed-use districts adds a residential component to the existing commercial zones to open up more areas for housing. Dimensional standards are getting reevaluated to see if we can make more efficient use of our land. Finally, the allowable uses (principal and accessory) have been updated to reflect the evolution of business models over the past 20 years.

How to translate proposed updates to how it might affect our built environment

You may already realize just how much of our city and our lives are affected by the LDC: who can start a business and where, what type of housing (and, effectively, what price point) is allowed in each neighborhood, or how far we have to travel to access daily needs. 

This is why the LDC update is so important: we can have our voices heard now, when the fundamental laws are being set, rather than later when we hear of a development we don’t agree with or are frustrated at the slow pace of housing construction. If we agree on a sensible framework now, we can guide the type of development we think our city needs to thrive.

As you read through the draft of Module 1, here are some items that are worth thinking about:

  • When you see a regulation against something, whether it be telecom tower colors or B&Bs or crop height, ask yourself: “Who would this hurt?” Dimensional standards are a great example: If a property owner wants to build an addition toward the street rather than away from it, thus preserving their backyard or parking or whatever, is this something we need to regulate? Say a neighborhood business wants to come right up to the sidewalk to encourage pedestrian customers. Who is hurt by removing front setbacks?
  • Type B home occupations are a critical part of the economic ladder before the big step of a brick-and-mortar presence (e.g., therapists, barbers, music teachers). These are small businesses that require a few clients or employees to visit one’s home, but there are some important restrictions that may be worth evaluating, particularly in light of lessons learned from COVID. Some examples:
    • Do we need to prohibit all outdoor business at homes?
    • Why prohibit small engine repair for home businesses but not for homeowners not engaged in business?
    • Context sensitivity matters. Restrictions on visitors per day in suburban neighborhoods may be unnecessary in more lively neighborhoods.
  • Accessory dwelling units (ADUs, aka “granny flats”) and duplexes are proposed to be permitted for all residential districts. This is a huge step for opening up neighborhoods to housing diversity, and recognizing that different people have different housing needs. A 3,000-square-foot house may not work for a recent divorcee, grown child, or retiree, but by excluding these options from most neighborhoods, we’ve made it very hard for families to adjust their housing style and continue to live where they already have roots.

Regardless of your views on land use, I hope you’ll find time to review and comment on the code, and maybe come to a few meetings to learn more. It’s a once-in-a-generation opportunity to set the course for how our city looks and functions, and all voices matter.

— Nick Kuzmyak is an environmental engineer who works with municipal infrastructure, and he has also worked as a Realtor. He is serving on the land development code update steering committee in his capacity as chair of the city’s Multimodal Transportation Commission.

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