Mi Fiesta

Diners at Mi Fiesta in downtown Frankfort. (Photo by Fred Petke)

The Franklin County Fiscal Court moved to table an issue that has loomed large over the city, county and its joint planning commission since the start of the year — an update to the area’s comprehensive plan.

The court had before them an agreement to enter into a contract with the city and the Frankfort-Franklin County Planning Commission to pay a total of almost $289,500 to McBride Dale Clarion, a Cincinnati-based planning firm. The county’s contribution would have been $136,750, the same as the city’s.

The court moved to table providing its share of the contract, raising concerns about the firm’s plans with regards to local zoning ordinances. Magistrate J.W. Blackburn, who led the discussion by advocating for form-based code, said that he wanted to see more zoning work included in the plan.

A form-based code focuses more on shaping the built environment — building heights, street improvements, the distance between buildings and streets, overall density and more — as opposed to regulating specific land uses, as the current code does.

The scope of work provided by McBride Dale Clarion does include a review of the area’s zoning codes, as well as production of a “zoning diagnosis overview,” but does not include a rewrite of zoning ordinances.

Both Blackburn and Franklin County Planning & Zoning Director Robert Hewitt agreed that the zoning ordinances would benefit from an intense review and a later rewrite. Hewitt, who along with City Planning Director Eric Cockley and Planning Commission Chair Sherron Jackson negotiated with McBride Dale Clarion, said that a zoning code rewrite was in the original scope of work but was left off to help bring the total price down.

Judge-Executive Huston Wells encouraged the court to consider approving the agreement before them and amending it after the fact to include more on the zoning code, but he noted that a majority of the court appeared to support holding off on the matter. County Attorney Rick Sparks also advocated for figuring out the total cost and scope in advance of signing on the dotted line so as to avoid “mission creep.”

Hewitt said on Wednesday that he was still working this week to meet with McBride Dale Clarion, Cockley and Jackson to see if the firm could provide an alternate scope of work and cost estimate that would include a zoning code rewrite. He said that he would likely have that information to them before a planned city-county joint meeting on Thursday, Sept. 16.

Form based code?

The possibility of implementing elements of form-based zoning into the area’s code dominated discussion leading up to the court’s decision to table approving its share of the comprehensive plan cost.

Advocates for form-based zoning say that it allows for more development flexibility, walkable spaces, and a dynamic mix of uses within a single area.

Traditional zoning, also known as Euclidian zoning, focuses primarily on the intended use of a development. 

Blackburn, calling back to a letter from Envision Franklin County President Chris Schimmoeller to city and county elected officials, asked Hewitt how he felt about moving towards a form-based code.

Hewitt did not say he was against such a measure, pointing out its good intent with regards to public spaces and the urban environment, but his response focused on its potential pitfalls.

“My concern with a form-based code is that it does not separate land uses,” Hewitt said. “It is focused on aesthetics and not uses. I receive a lot of concerns and complaints about an activity that occurs on a next-door property. Euclidean zoning separates uses to minimize incompatibility.”

Concern about the intended use of property is often at the top of nearby residents’ minds when a development seeks approval through the local zone change process. Hewitt pointed out that limiting incompatible uses is the key objective of Euclidean zoning, an objective shared by residents who successfully opposed the controversial proposed zone change on Duncan Road.

Hewitt also mentioned that he thought form-based zoning might be more suitable for urban areas than out in the county.

He also said that form-based zoning would be a tremendous change for local planning departments, as Euclidian zoning has dominated most American development patterns in recent decades, though form-based codes are starting to catch on in some places.

“I’m not used to that,” Hewitt said. “Every jurisdiction I’ve worked for has been Euclidean zoning with planned developments. It would be a huge transition to this community, and a complete clean slate wiping away of what we had.”

Blackburn said that he believed a form-based zoning code would allow for a more streamlined development process, where developers have more clear expectations as to what type of building they can erect and more latitude as to that building’s use.

“I just want to streamline our growth and have a plan that suits our own community,” Blackburn said. “It would take years to see the results of it, and it would be an expensive process to transition. But I think we would see immediate benefit in the way that things are developed, and I think it would make your job easier.”

Blackburn added that use is also a component of form-based code, so it wouldn’t kick off a complete disregard for a building’s purpose.

Magistrates Sherry Sebastian and Michael Mueller appeared to agree with Blackburn’s conclusion. 

Mueller even suggested re-bidding for the comprehensive plan with a different proposal shaped around what elected officials want.

“​​Looking at this is probably the biggest thing that the court has before us… so I’d like to see it thrown back out there,” Mueller said. “It sounds to me like the whole RFP should probably be rewritten to what exactly we want them to do for us. I don’t like the idea of knocking the numbers down just to get it through.”

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