COLUMBUS (WCMH) — The city of Columbus could soon make a massive overhaul to its zoning code, the first major change to the code in more than 70 years.
“When you’re talking about something that hasn’t been updated since the Eisenhower administration and you consider how much Columbus and central Ohio region has changed over those 70 years, I think it’s well past time that this code has been updated,” said Jon Melchi, executive director of the Building Industry Association of Central Ohio.
“Our city has changed a lot in the last 70 years,” said Columbus Mayor Andrew Ginther. “A million people are coming to our region over the next 30 years, so the issue is, do we want to embrace that and make sure that we have the right type of growth, one that is dynamic, inclusive, prosperous for all or just let it happen.”
The city hired a California consulting firm to assess the code, which found the current code wasn’t current at all, with standards not tailored to local conditions and no priorities for housing or transit projects.
“We know we don’t have enough housing period based on the amount of people that are moving to central Ohio and so this is going to be a critical piece to our longer-term affordable housing, mixed-income neighborhood strategy to make sure the folks that live here aren’t displaced and forced out of their neighborhoods and our new neighbors that are moving into central Ohio have safe, affordable places to live,” Ginther said.
Changes to the code will impact essentially anyone who lives in the city of Columbus whether it be through personal construction projects or what is built in the neighborhoods and plots surrounding them.
“The city of Columbus zoning code sets forth all of the regulations, development standards, rules, policies about how land gets developed and used in the city of Columbus, so it truly impacts everyone,” said Jill Tangeman, a partner with Vorys law firm in Columbus. “There have been updates to the code over the years, but I would say they have been more patches as opposed to a complete review of the policies, processes, and procedures. This will be the first time, certainly in my lifetime, that there has been a really complete review of the city of Columbus zoning code.”
Tangeman has assisted in the annexation, zoning, and entitlement of several large mixed-use developments and residential properties in the region. In other words, she’s no stranger to dealing with the zoning code. Tangeman agrees with the city’s assessment of the code, especially the finding that the current code has a complex decision-making process that creates uncertainty for potential builders.
“The processes are lengthy and they lead to uncertainty in the process and as we are looking to bring new businesses, and more importantly, new jobs to the city, that zoning code can be a deterrent,” Tangeman said. “They want to know coming into the city that if they follow the processes, if they adhere to the development standards and the regulations, that they will get their approvals and right now the code just doesn’t lend itself to that kind of certainty.”
In some of the fastest-growing metros, approval for construction projects can take just weeks. Here in Columbus, it can take nearly a year.
“Right now, the processes in the City of Columbus, on average, take at least six to nine months to get through the zoning approvals that would be necessary for a business to come into the city and for many businesses, they don’t have or are unwilling to wait nine months for that process,” Tangeman said. “The zoning code and the entitlement process in the city has really been a deterrent for many businesses to locate here and I think that’s unfortunate. They are missing out on all the things that Columbus has to offer and we are missing out on the opportunity to expand.”
In many cases, developers said that process is held up during the public hearing process by community groups, delaying projects with costly changes.
“You have to meet with any number of groups multiple times, make multiple changes to projects to try to appease those groups and then, only then can you get through the process to the point where you may get an up or down vote from the different committees that the city has sanctioned including neighborhood commissions, development commission and then city council,” Melchi said. “Our members in the development community, be it a non-profit developer or a for-profit developer, are meeting with the same groups 10 to 15 times, and really, some entities don’t have an interest in getting to yes.”
Melchi hopes neighboring communities will follow Columbus’ lead and take a look at updating their zoning codes.
He said as the fastest growing city in the Midwest, other cities across the country will also be watching what Columbus does.
“I think that this is a great opportunity for us to really improve our community and see Columbus grow thoughtfully and see us into the next decade,” Tangeman said.
Given the scope of the changes proposed to the code, any updates to it aren’t likely to come until sometime next year at the earliest.