Rezoning property in Columbus is a 19-step process that plays out over the course of several weeks, and sometimes years.

Rezoning property in Columbus is a 19-step process that plays out over the course of several weeks, and sometimes years.

Residents have at least six opportunities to offer their opinions or express their concerns along the way.

And yet, Councilman A. Troy Miller, chairman of the zoning committee, said last week that people strongly opposed to the new land use often wait until the last minute to voice their objections. He said he's frequently approached on the eve of a council vote by residents who had no idea they could have had any say previously or were unaware, until that day, of the proposal.

Because of this, Miller convened a briefing last week in council chambers which he billed as "Zoning 101."

The participants from groups representing residents were Clintonville Area Commission chairwoman D Searcy and Bob Thurman, vice president of the Northland Community Council and chairman of the development committee.

City staff members, a well-known local zoning lawyer and the head of the Development Commission also were included on the panel.

All properties within the city fall within one of 35 zoning districts, Miller said during his opening remarks. Each of these, from apartments to single-family dwellings on up in intensity to major manufacturing, establishes permitted uses, required setbacks, lot sizes, density and more, the zoning chairman said.

When a property owner wants to use land in a manner outside of what's allowed in its current zoning, a rezoning must be sought. Eventually, council members make the final decision, but many stops and a minimum several weeks stand between that desire and it being approved or rejected.

Breaking down the zoning process

The process begins with an application being submitted to Building and Zoning Services, according to Shannon Pine, a planner in the department. The applicant is required to meet with a member of the council staff to begin to identify the specific issues pertaining to the request such as traffic, density and landscaping, she said.

Step two is to notify the community group that covers the property involved in the rezoning request. The complete application is mailed to the community group, whether it's an area commission, civic association, architectural review panel or, in the case of the Northland Community Council, an amalgam of local neighborhood groups.

Thurman, who took over earlier this year for longtime NCC development committee chairman Jeff Murray, said the first thing he does upon receiving this notification is to contact the applicant and outline the procedures for meetings relating to the rezoning. Thurman said that he also makes certain all property owners within 125 feet of the proposed land-use change are notified. He also personally visits the site.

In the case of the CAC, chairwoman Searcy said rezoning applications are received by the head of the zoning and variance committee and the commissioner who represents the district within which the property is located. Applicants are asked to meet with residents directly impacted by the proposed change, Searcy said. Applicants who fail to do so are told they must go before the zoning and variance committee for a hearing.

The full Clintonville Area Commission votes on the request, the chairwoman said, after receiving a recommendation from the zoning and variance panel and hearing from the applicant as well as any residents opposed to or in favor of the proposal.

The third step in the process is for members of the zoning staff to visit the site, taking digital photos as well as notes about existing uses in the vicinity, Pine said. They next review the application and send comments to the individual making the request, which constitute steps four and five, according to Pine.

Gary Wilfong, an engineer in the planning and operations division of the Public Service Department, said a traffic impact review also is conducted on rezoning requests. The extent of that study is based on the city code and can range from a full impact review to a very limited one when only local access is involved, Wilfong said.

Step six involves the applicant responding to the city staff review, according to attorney Jeffrey L. Brown of the firm Smith and Hale. Applicants normally want to keep their request on schedule to come before the Zoning Commission, Brown added, so they usually hold meetings with members of the city's planning and traffic staff and then make revisions to the request based on what citizen groups say as well as the public employees.

In the NCC development committee meetings, Thurman said, the members determine if a rezoning request complies with the Northland Plan, listen to what residents have to say and then present applicants with information on what changes, if any, would be required to receive a positive vote. Searcy said the CAC process involves making certain that, after the applicant meets with residents, the request complies with the community plan and various overlays.

The seventh step involves community groups submitting recommendations to the zoning staff.

Development Commission

gets chance to weigh in

Steps eight and nine involve placing the request on the agenda of the Development Commission a minimum of two weeks before a hearing is held and a more detailed zoning staff report, both of which are posted on the city's website.

Step 10 is the public hearing before the seven-member Development Commission, the goal of which, according to chairman Michael Fitzpatrick, is to determine if the requested land-use change is appropriate or not.

Fifteen or so years ago, Fitzpatrick said, the workings of the commission were "cloaked in secrecy," which led to considerable controversy. Since then, city employees and neighborhood groups have helped to create a more open, consistent process for the commission's decision-making, he said.

"We will not hear an applicant who has not spoken to a neighborhood group," Fitzpatrick added.

In instances where Development Commission members are not unanimous in their vote, each member is asked to provide a brief explanation of their decision to be presented to the full city council.

The 11th and 12th steps involve forwarding the commission's meeting results to the applicants and receiving back any additional information required as a result. The latter step frequently involves creation of a set-in-stone site plan.

Steps 13, 14 and 15 are preparation of a draft ordinance, the creation of a zoning agenda by the chair of that council committee and the publishing of this information in the City Bulletin.

Notices of the upcoming vote on the rezoning request are mailed to property owners within 125 feet in step 16. The deadline for any amendments to the proposed rezoning is noon on the Friday before a council meeting, which is step 17.

The actual council vote is step 18, with one more to go.

When no opposition appears to exist to a requested rezoning, Miller said, it's approved on a motion from a member of council. When there is opposition, council members hear a presentation from members of the zoning staff, the applicant and residents, he said.

The final step, 19, is changing the zoning maps to reflect land-use requests that are passed by council.

"I thought it was very worthwhile," Searcy said after the briefing was concluded.

People often seem to think rezoning requests are shrouded in "smoke and mirrors," she added, but there are not only various points in the process specifically set aside for residents to participate but also the option of picking up the phone and voicing an opinion to a member of city council.

Searcy also said that she would like to see the CAC adopt the more formal, documented process for communicating with applicants that the Northland Community Council development committee has created.

kparks@thisweeknews.com