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Recoding the Code: Forward SGF calls for major overhaul of city codes and ordinances

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Springfield City Council approved a comprehensive plan to guide land use for the next two decades in November 2022. The plan, called Forward SGF, outlines a wide-ranging vision for the city and includes 10 main goals, which Springfield Business Journal is unpacking in this series. This installment, our ninth, covers the key initiative titled Comprehensive City Code Update. Catch up on coverage at SBJ.net/ForwardSGF.

It’s not as alluring as some of the other key initiatives of the Forward SGF comprehensive plan, but the effort to fully update the city’s land development code and accompanying ordinances may be one of the most transformative.

Written code that guides land development is the basis of every project that happens in the city. It’s not the development game but rather the rule book for the game.

As the Forward SGF document notes, “The comprehensive plan is a policy guide that should inform decision-making for years to come, but it is not regulatory. The city needs to update the development regulations to support the plan’s vision.”

The city’s land development code and code of ordinances are constantly updated and may be viewed at Library.MuniCode.com/mo/springfield. These are the documents that the update initiative primarily refers to, although development guidelines show up in various other documents as well, including neighborhood plans, corridor plans, land use regulations and subdivision regulations.

The initiative to update the land development code is related to another one that shifts to a place type approach for city planning, rather than a full reliance on conventional zoning.

The Forward SGF plan offers general guidelines for land use and character in areas throughout the city, with added detail offered through descriptions of functional subareas downtown. As an example, the plan points to a desired transition away from heavy industrial uses historically located along downtown’s rail corridors and the expansion of institutional uses like the Jordan Valley Community Health Center.

The move reflects a shift in the culture from a manufacturing-based city to one that The Wall Street Journal singled out in a Feb. 13 article as the top city for people to live as they work remotely. History buffs likely have seen illustrations of cities from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, with progress depicted through the inclusion of smokestacks emitting plumes of black smoke. Today, progress is viewed by city officials through a different lens – one that includes quality-of-life measures of the sort outlined in the Forward SGF plan, like corridor improvements, neighborhood commercial hubs and connecting to nature.

Quality of place
Bob Hosmer, the city of Springfield’s planning manager, said updating land codes is a basic step toward fulfilling the vision of the comprehensive plan.

“It’s about creating a sense of place,” he said.

While a sense of place is an idea with a wide lens, how the city gets there is more focused, Hosmer noted. Steps might include relocating overhead utilities underground, providing pedestrian lighting, adding medians, establishing parks and even beautifying functional structures like retaining walls.

Susan Istenes, Springfield director of Planning and Development, agreed.

“One of the things we’re looking at on the appearance front is our streetscapes and major intersections,” she said. “We’re trying to enhance and beautify those major entrances into the city into something that really adds character and tells you this is the entry to Springfield.”

That’s not something that happens by accident. Rather, it happens through code, with examples including ordinances for the size and appearance of signs, provisions requiring landscaping and buffers for developments or a requirement to place parking lots in the back of a building instead of in the sightline of passersby.

“This is our guiding post,” Hosmer said. “We’re trying to put that into reality.”

Aligning guidelines
The bulk of the work that will be done is in updating the city’s land development code and subdivision zoning regulations, Hosmer said. Istenes added that cleaning up the city’s zoning map also is a focus, especially for land that has been annexed into the city.

“The county has its own zoning. When property comes into the city, it’s supposed to be rezoned to a city zoning designation,” she said.

Hosmer said the last time a major overhaul of these documents happened was in 1993, with a new map in 1995. The city’s subdivision code was crafted in 1956, with bits and pieces changed over the years.

“This is a wholesale update, in part to implement the new comprehensive plan, but also to update the regulations themselves,” she said.

The city plans to hire a consultant to update the codes and regulations.

Hosmer said over the years some sections of code have been updated, but continuity and consistency have suffered.

“We’ve updated some sections and found out later on another section had a contradiction or some problems with implementation,” he said.

The updates also will bring more readability with contemporary graphics.

“It just needs another fresh look, and this is a big part of that,” he said.

Forward SGF’s focus on place types offers a different lens for thinking about land use, though it does not replace or alter existing zoning requirements.

“Land uses that are specified aren’t necessarily going to go away,” Istenes said.

However, the revisions should offer some more flexibility for neighborhoods and subareas.

“If you have a commercial zoning district and somebody wants to build multifamily apartments or condos, why not? There’s some flexibility that way, whereas now it’s very strictly commercial,” she said.

As a benefit, she added, the flexible approach will help to bolster the city’s housing inventory.

“There’s a missing middle,” Hosmer said. “We have big multifamily and single-family (housing), but we don’t have what’s in between – duplexes, fourplexes, ADUs.”

An ADU, or accessory dwelling unit, is a standalone dwelling located on the same lot as a home; an example might be an apartment inside an attached garage.

Updating codes and ordinances will allow the vision of Forward SGF to come into view, according to Hosmer.

“It’s a complicated thing understanding what a comprehensive plan does,” he said. “There will be more standards and guidelines. Instead of negotiating back and forth, it’s going to be clear cut.”

The result could be less friction for future developments, he said.

“Developers are going to know what’s going to happen; neighbors are going to know what’s going to happen,” he said. “It’s really unforeseen things people are wary of. If everyone has knowledge and awareness, the fear is taken away.”

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