Commission OKs new building height rules. Taller projects won’t always be up to them

The county’s effort to make the land development code more efficient for building development sparked discussion of another process that board members may want a say in.

Patricia Tyjeski, a planning consultant with S&ME, suggested that the county may want to use a number of stories instead of foot measurements to govern how tall a building could be. However, a developer that wants additional height would need to come before a hearing officer in certain instances.

“When you say the max height is 35 feet, you get people trying to get three stories in there with 8-foot ceilings,” Tyjeski said. “For design purposes, sticking to stories is better.”

The hearing officer would decide on whether additional height is allowed in newly proposed mixed-use (MX) and general commercial (GC) zoning districts. The default maximum height is four stories in those zones, Tyjeski said, but a hearing officer could issue a special permit for six stories.

The new MX and GC zones are expected to mitigate urban sprawl by hosting commercial business on the first floor and multi-family uses on the floors above. Those two zoning districts are the only ones that would go before a hearing officer to request more than four stories of building height. Other height requests would come before the board, staff said.

In general, commissioners seemed pleased with the revision, which would allow for more creativity in design.

“This change would get us away from buildings that look like boxes,” Commissioner Carol Whitmore said, noting that buildings would be allowed to differentiate designs along the roof.

But the decision to allow extra floors in MX and GC uses is one that should come before the board, Commissioner Vanessa Baugh argued.

“The issue is that we’ve had a lot of things come up that we didn’t know about. We report to the public and we’re the ones that the public looks at and holds responsible,” Baugh said. “I’m very concerned about that because I know there’s a lot of things coming up that this board will not see or be involved in and I’m not so sure that that’s healthy for our county as a whole.”

“We have to be sensitive to the voters,” Commissioner Reggie Bellamy added.

Under current rules, a hearing officer already approves special permits in certain situations. Keeping the process out of the board’s hands made sense to other board members, though.

“A hearing officer makes it less political. A hearing officer has a less political look and they decide if they’re meeting the standards,” Commissioner Betsy Benac said.

The issue of building height was a prominent one for Baugh during her last election campaign, but she noted that she’d be fine with going along with her colleagues’ wishes.

“This board can do whatever you want. The meaning for this meeting today is to get in the weeds and figure out what this board wants to do. It’s an important topic and something we need to look at. It’s something board should be involved in, rather than pay a hearing officer. This board gets a salary to look at these things for the citizens,” Baugh said. “That’s our job.”

The board voted 5-1 to keep sending the special approvals to the hearing officer, but county staff said they will begin forwarding the meeting minutes to commissioners and giving them notice before the hearing officer meets.