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A minor problem

Submitted by on 1, September 11, 2009 – 6:00 amNo Comment

The Planning Board hashed out some particulars of a plan to streamline the city’s design review process in a three-hour study session Thursday night.

Planning staff wants to streamline the process and to deal with problems with cost recovery and notification of neighbors regarding projects in an effort to make things clearer for people with building projects – and easier for the planning department, which was chopped in half in a recent round of layoffs.

They’re also talking about putting all the projects up for review online, on the city’s website.

Sounds like the big trouble is with the department’s minor design review process, which is currently used for projects under 80 square feet, signs in commercial districts, minor changes in parking lots and work done in places like Harbor Bay, where the homeowner’s association has to sign off on modifications to homes.

The city doesn’t notify people about projects in the minor design review process. Planning Services Manager Andrew Thomas said that neighbors have become angry in some cases when they find out too late that they could have appealed a project they don’t like.

And because the projects are relatively small, people are apparently walking in with plans they or a friend have drawn up (instead of an architect), which ends up taking up buku staff time – at considerable cost to the city.

Thomas said the department wants those projects to also face a major design review, which has more comprehensive neighborhood notification requirements and also better cost recovery for the city (they charge a flat fee plus time and materials, where minor design review is just a flat fee). Right now, major design review covers pretty much every big home and commercial project (anything that adds 80 square feet or more).

The board also talked about clarifying which projects would be exempt from the design review process. Thomas said the planning department went several rounds with a homeowner who wanted to put an exterior air conditioning unit it their yard, because planners couldn’t figure out if the project was exempt or not (and as you can guess, the guy was thrilled).

Sounds like fences, skylights and certain windows (don’t ask) could be on the list, cell phone antennas are off and solar panels are iffy. And a plan to exempt rear-yard, first floor additions under 500 square feet sounded kinda up in the air, too.

The design review process was basically set up to prevent people from doing anything ugly that we would have to look at to their homes and businesses. (I think interior improvements are exempt from the process.)

Thomas said he hopes to have something for the board to vote on at its October 26 meeting.

Three of the board’s members – Art Autorino, Anne Cook and Patrick Lynch – were absent from Thursday’s study session on the changes.

Oh, and if you’re wondering what happened with that smoke shop I mentioned the other day – sounds like the item was continued (I missed the reasons why because my DVR went on the fritz). More to come, I’m sure.

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