Editorial: A simpler, smarter rule book for development in Sacramento

Published: Friday, Apr. 12, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 12A

There are very good reasons why the building industry and business groups, architects and design organizations, and environmental, bicycling and walking advocates all support modernizing Sacramento's cumbersome and antiquated zoning code.

The City Council followed suit Tuesday night, agreeing to streamline the development rules, which hadn't been overhauled for more than 50 years.

With lower fees and fewer layers of approvals, the costs in both money and time for many projects could drop by 30 percent. Buildings with affordable or senior housing or that are "green" will be allowed to be taller and bigger. The new development standards will be more flexible, smoothing the way for infill projects that promote mass transit and add to the urban fabric.

Officials hope for more projects like La Valentina, the award-winning, residential-retail development that opened in Alkali Flat last August. The $25 million project, touted as a model for urban renewal, took 18 months and 16 permits and variances under the old zoning code, according to the developer. It would be approved far more easily under the new one.

Most proposed developments will be reviewed by staff. Only major or controversial ones will go to the city's Preservation Commission or Planning and Design Commission. Council members will no longer have the power to demand a full council hearing on any project in their district.

While they rarely used their authority, council members have called up parochial zoning disputes that consumed too much time and attention. Their proper role is to set policy and to appoint thoughtful, knowledgeable people to the planning or preservation commissions.

Doing away with the call-up provision caused Vice Mayor Angelique Ashby to dissent in the 7-1 vote; she opposed any move to limit council members from advocating for their constituents. Residents and developers, however, can still appeal a staff decision to the Planning and Design Commission, or a commission ruling to the council. There will be plenty of opportunity for public input.

The changes will take effect in six months, plenty of time for applications to go through the existing zoning code so projects don't have to be redesigned midstream.

There are two more updates to the zoning code on the way. By the end of 2013, rules for mixed income housing are to be revised and a new flood ordinance approved. On the agenda next year are completing the sign ordinance and adopting energy efficiency standards.

As many said Tuesday night, this overhaul is long overdue. Now, the city has to make it work to create a Sacramento for the 21st century.

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