Overflow crowd debates new zoning regs

Meetings of the Planning & Zoning Commission Regulations Subcommittee don’t usually attract several 100 attendees. But the nearly 400 people who crowded into Masuk High School’s auditorium Wednesday night, May 9, sought to make their voices heard on proposed changes to Monroe’s zoning regulations.

John Kimball speaks during Wednesday’s meeting. — Robert Sample photo

This is the first time since 2013 that the Planning & Zoning Commission has made a large-scale effort to update the rules — and this time around it was done with an eye toward making regulations simpler and clearer.

Just for starters, a new district-by- district chart spells out the business uses that are permitted for each part of town — and those that are not. Because there are multiple sections in each district of town, researching the regulations could get quite complicated.

“For instance, if you wanted to know what retail uses are permitted in Monroe, you’d have to look though the code for all sections to learn that retail is permitted in just three districts in town,” said P&Z Administrator Will Agresta. “We’ve changed that to a consolidated format that is more typical of what is found in other towns.”

The revised rules also contain new definitions for a variety of enterprises and business structures. Among these, the P&Z team divided restaurants into multiple categories by size and type of business.

Patrick O’Hara speaks during Wednesday’s meeting. — Robert Sample photo

“A coffee shop with a small number of tables and chairs is very different from a large, sit-down restaurant,” said P&Z Chairman William Porter.

The following are among the new categories:

  • Accessory drive-through services, such as found at eateries and banks
  • Community-wide events (the weekly Monroe Farmers’ Market is contained within this category)
  • Pet groomers, a category that used to be covered under “personal services”
  • Contractors and building trades, a category that includes services such as plumbers and electricians
  • Health clubs, which were listed only as accessory facilities to a multifamily dwelling
  • Instructional retailers, which includes both tutoring services and karate/taekwondo studios
  • Landscapers/arborists, a category added at a P&Z meeting several months ago

Porter pointed out that the revised regulations are still very much a work in progress, which was one reason his commission sought input from Monroe residents.

Kris Carpenter, a resident of Admiral Drive, questioned whether the new rules restrict the Monroe Farmers’ Market in any way.

“The new language has a locally-grown component, and many of the Farmers’ Market vendors are not Monroe Residents. The Farmers’ Market is considered a local event for zoning purposes (and not a farm store),” said Porter. “Under our new rule the Farmers’ Market is fully permitted.”

The farm stores are the categories that have the “locally grown” language in their definition, added Porter, because they are accessories to a locally owned farm.

Patrick O’Hara, a Board of Finance member and former P&Z chair, said some of the definitions in the new rules still required more work.

“The revised code lists some of the things a nursery does, but many other things are left out — such as florist service, landscaping and hard goods,” said O’Hara, who is also the owner of O’Hara’s Nursery.

Local developer John Kimball criticized the revised regulations for not allowing certain types of businesses — such as mining operations and kennels.

“There’s no reason for some of these types of businesses to be banned outright,” said Kimball.

Kimball otherwise praised the commission for making a “Herculean effort” to improve the 2013 rules — “which were terrible.”

Elm Street resident Tracy Torres complimented the commission’s efforts.

“I would like to see telecommuting specifically excluded from the definition of ‘home-based business,’” said Torres.

A large number of attendees found the residential parking rule unnecessarily strict. Under this rule, a business owner may park just one commercial vehicle per licensed driver outside his or her residence.

Commissioner Leon Andrassy pointed out that this rule has long been in place.

“Nobody has changed that regulation,” said Andrassy.

Nonetheless, commission members welcomed further inputs.

“Come to the committee meetings,” said Porter, “bring up issues and we’ll discuss them.”

Local businessman Bernie Sippin took the opportunity to call for an amendment to the regulations that would permit area business people to park their vehicles — such as heavy-duty trucks — on their business property if they wish.

“Adding this clause to the code would help business immensely,” said Sippin.

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