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Updated: March 8, 2022 @ 11:57 am
It’s a topic that may strike some people as dull, but last week Meadville City Council began a six-month process officials say will be among the most important issues the city confronts this year.
For the first time since 1994, council is considering a major revision of the city’s zoning ordinance. A schedule provided by Gary Johnson, the city’s assistant city manager and zoning officer, laid out parts of the new ordinance for council to review at each meeting from March through September. The plan also calls for public outreach sessions about midway through the process in May or June.
“I promise it won’t be too long,” Johnson joked as he began an overview of the zoning ordinance update at council’s meeting Wednesday. “As exciting as zoning is, you can only take so much at a time.”
Discussions of zoning may not send the blood racing, but for Councilman Jim Roha it’s hard to underestimate the role the update under consideration could play in the city’s future. The ordinance, Roha said in an interview Monday, is “probably the most important economic development tool” available.
With the current zoning ordinance nearly three decades out of date, there could be avoidable obstacles to both commercial and residential development, according to Roha. Land use guidelines that made sense in the mid-1990s are likely to have evolved in the years since.
“If we want economic development, we have to have a zoning ordinance that recognizes the current best use of properties. People want to be able to do what they want,” Roha said, “in an appropriate time frame — usually as quickly as possible. If they have to go through an extra step for routine changes, that’s an issue.”
The revised ordinance up for consideration adopts a different approach to zoning than the traditional approach of the existing ordinance. Where traditional zoning typically defines what uses are allowed based on location, form-based zoning focuses less on how structures are used and more on how they fit in with their surroundings, according to Johnson.
The change of philosophy, Johnson told council, came largely as the result of My Meadville, the grassroots community development effort that drew input from residents across the city and surrounding areas from 2016 to 2018.
Councilwoman Autumn Vogel served as project coordinator for My Meadville and was excited to see the result of five years of effort by project participants, community members, the city’s Planning and Zoning Commission, and other stakeholders come before council.
“The evolution was a pretty neat partnership,” Vogel said, pointing to additional contributions by Allegheny College, the Crawford County Planning Office, and Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development (DCED).
A recurring theme of the community input elicited through My Meadville, according to Vogel, was the importance that city residents place on neighborhood character. The form-based approach taken in the proposed revision is intended to maintain the feel of neighborhoods that residents value.
An important step in the ordinance revision came when My Meadville was recognized with an outstanding project award from the Pennsylvania Chapter of the American Planning Association in October 2018, Vogel said. The award brought the organization to the attention of DCED, which encouraged Meadville to apply for grant funding to support a comprehensive revision of the city’s zoning ordinance. An update had been on the radar for years, Vogel said, and piecemeal revisions had been adopted, but without external funding a complete revision was unrealistic.
“We don’t often get told that we should ask for money. We usually beg,” she joked. “It took getting this attention that My Meadville got us.”
Having completed an overview last week of how the revised zoning ordinance was developed, council will continue its consideration on March 23 with a closer look at specific form-based regulations proposed in the new ordinance. Discussion will continue on April 6 with a look at specific changes to zoning districts. Council meetings begin at 6 p.m. in the City Building, 894 Diamond Park.
Mike Crowley can be reached at (814) 724-6370 or by email at email@example.com.
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