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COMO’s Evolving Zoning Code

Comos Evolving Zoning Code

The still-new regulations guide development and property protections.

Six years ago this spring, the Columbia City Council adopted a new zoning code, a voluminous set of ordinances that consisted of more than 400 pages and scores of amendments that came from a series of protracted public meetings and hearings the previous year.

What’s the verdict six years later?

“Functionally, the code works well,” says Pat Zenner, Columbia’s development services manager. “Do we have things that are confusing? Yeah.” (If a landowner wants to build a new gas station, for instance, that allowed use is found under “vehicle service and repair” on the city’s list of permitted land uses for specific zoning designations.)

But the code is “evolving,” he says. Pat oversees the review of rezoning requests and development plans. The “living document” zoning code, formally known as the Unified Development Code (UDC), certainly has kept Pat and his team of three other staff members hopping, trying to anticipate what future needs will be and where to prioritize their focus while “doing the day-to-day plate spinning” of plan reviews.

Incidentally, the ongoing, chronic labor shortage has also pinched the city planning department. Pat’s office, which has taken on 275 cases since October 2022, has two vacant positions. 

“It keeps us relatively occupied,” he says with a laugh.

Overhauling the code

The zoning code was initially adopted in 1936 then overhauled and readopted in 1964. The next update was adopted in March 2017, following months of public hearings.

“The terminology in the code back then was significantly out of date,” Pat says, referring to the previous zoning code as “quite unwieldy.” The code wasn’t fully updated — more “cobbled together,” he says — between 1964 and 2017.

A 2008 city-led visioning process known as Columbia Imagined aimed to update the city’s overall comprehensive plan. In addition to a new zoning code, that process also led to modifications of subdivision regulations and recodification of portions of city rules regulating stormwater and land disturbance.

Although the UDC process was initiated by Columbia Imagined, the push to update the zoning rules and regulations kicked into even higher gear as a result of the proliferation of student housing developments that began enveloping downtown Columbia a decade ago. In fact, a moratorium on downtown development — a building freeze — was in place from May 2016 to mid-2017 until the new zoning code was in place.

The zoning overhaul included more than 1,000 changes to how the city regulates planning, construction, and zoning, and put tighter restrictions on downtown development and development in residential areas, especially those closest to downtown.

Codifying neighborhood protections

The new zoning code covered myriad regulations, including general zoning provisions; subdivisions; parking and loading; tree preservation and landscaping; special rules for mixed-downtown development, or M-DT rules; a new table of permitted uses; the length of time required to develop a preliminary plat; rules for continuing nonconforming use of property; and neighborhood protection standards.

Some developers, property owners, bankers, and business assailed the zoning code revision on several fronts, warning that the new code would run counter to the city’s aim for more affordable housing by increasing costs for builders and buyers — and thus discouraging investment in the growing community.

Also, P&Z commissioners routinely observed the wide disagreement between property owners who wanted to preserve the single-family character of their neighborhoods and property owners who wanted to maintain the right to build multifamily apartment buildings or townhouses on lots they bought as investments.

Those conversations and disagreements continue, but there are now processes to resolve them. For most of his professional engineering career, Tim Crockett, professional engineer and partner at Crockett Engineering Consultants, has filled the role of negotiator, if not diplomat, on behalf of his clients and is typically one of the first contacts for city staff reviewing development plans. That has led to usually amicable agreements to address parts of the code or processes that might still be unclear.

“It takes time, but we will get through the revisions,” he says. “The city recognizes this, and we work together to make it work.”

‘A living document’

Among the more visible administrative changes in the 2017 document, the new code shrunk the number of zoning designations from 26 to 13, each with unique standards and compliance requirements, along with spelling out permitted uses. Commercial, industrial, residential, and mixed-use designations — and variations thereof — are now more clearly defined. Prior to the new code’s adoption, developers who anticipated needing variances and other uses for a tract presented those projects as planned developments.

“We no longer need to negotiate various items of the development at the P&Z and council stage as the UDC already covers those items,” says Tim. 

While the still-new zoning code is sometimes still open to interpretation, it is “a much more comprehensive document” than the pre-2017 zoning code, he says. 

Pat often refers to the voluminous UDC as “a living document.” That phrase also stood out during the UDC’s formation throughout much of 2016, when — from May through November — the planning and zoning commission hosted more than a dozen public hearings. The sometimes-contentious hearings in September and October that year often lasted well into the early morning hours and combined for more than 40 hours of P&Z time.

“Like any large comprehensive document there are bound to be things that weren’t contemplated when it was written — or ambiguity to some degree,” Tim says, echoing city staff’s terminology. “A document like the UDC is meant to be a living document, meaning it will need to be revised over time to account for small changes.”

The student housing surge

One of the major changes for city staff and developers is that there are fewer requests for planned developments, a process that seemed to mire the approval process in administrative reviews and multiple meetings or hearings with developers. 

The city still gets planned development requests, but fewer than before the new UDC was adopted. Tim also makes that observation, adding that city staff, the P&Z commission, and the city council — along with developers — see less need for planned developments.

“I think it works better for both sides,” he explains, reiterating that the use of open zoning still provides the protections of a planned district. In addition, the process is “more straightforward and less cumbersome.”

Downtown development has been snail’s pace slow compared to pre-UDC regulations when downtown was besieged by new student housing structures. Downtown development is now guided by form-based codes that are “more in keeping with the historic vibe and fabric of the built environment,” Pat explains.

“We’re not seeing the level of development we had in the past,” he says.

He points to specific sites and projects — My House at 119 S. Seventh St. and Raising Canes Restaurant at 203 South Providence — as examples where the form-based code had an impact on development. Rather than downtown redevelopment on significant scales, the planning staff sees more requests for interior renovations and upfits, with little or no modification of building exteriors.

The mosque at the Islamic Center of Central Missouri at 201 S. Fifth St., was among the first sites where the new code was applied. The mosque built an addition that mirrored the rest of its architecture, which was one outcome of the form-based code change. Meanwhile, the former U.S Bank building on the southeast corner of Tenth and Broadway is being redeveloped as a mixed-use building, with retail office space on the bottom floor and the upper five stories as residential apartments.

More infill coming?

One new scenario that is happening with   increasing frequency is land that has been vacant for a long time — as long as two or three decades, in some cases — is now coming up for development.

Pat also expects that his staff and the P&Z commission to begin seeing more requests for infill development — the process of developing vacant or under-used parcels within existing urban areas that are already largely developed.

“We’ve been pushing development outward and allowing urban sprawl,” Pat adds. “We’ve reached our outer limits. Some of the more challenging sites are now being considered for development.”

The UDC gives more opportunity for the public and affected, neighboring property owners to weigh in on rezoning and development requests. Likewise, Pat says, there are also processes in place for appeal.

“We’re not so dogmatic that the owner is left without options,” he notes, adding, “We’re pretty consistent and we’re pretty effective at getting our applicants coming in to be compliant with the code.”

Working together

Even five years into the new code’s application, amendments have continued.

“We’re taking care of things that were confusing or addressing things that we didn’t think needed to be addressed,” Pat adds.

Tim shares that observation.

“A document as large and as comprehensive as the UDC is, there was no way that we were going to get it perfect right out of the gate,” he adds. “We work with the city to identify these issues and then we try and make the needed changes.”

He also agrees with Pat that there’s still some public misperception about the muscle behind the zoning code and protections that are now codified.

“The public has the perception that planned development zoning has more protections and restrictions as opposed to an open zoning district,” Tim adds. “What a lot of the public does not understand is that there are a lot of protections and restrictions written directly into the UDC. The old zoning code did not account for these items.”

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