“The systems in Sparks are too rigid, it’s too hard to get stuff through the system,” said Matt Goebel, a consultant from Clarion Associates of Denver. “Your current zoning code is old-school format.”
Following months of talks with the business community and interested parties who could bring much-needed development into the city, Goebel painted a pathway for how the leaders and staff could revamp the old system into a more efficient, user-friendly operation.
City staff has proposed taking a three-track approach in response to the City Council’s direction in April to remove zoning code barriers to development.
Track One would be to analyze and propose “quick fix” amendments in-house. This has been completed, according to staff.
Track Two would be to undertake an analysis of the current zoning code with the help of outside consulting services, which staff has done with Clarion Associates.
Track Three is for staff to overhaul regulations affective development.
Goebel laid out an extensive summary of his findings to City Council Members Monday, giving recommendations based on analysis of the city’s zoning code and input received from stakeholders in the community.
Goebel ran through a series of findings with City Council members, including some criticism he received from the economic sector regarding barriers put up by the city’s zoning codes.
“There is a feeling the TOD codes are a great barrier to development in Sparks,” Goebel told the Council. “The substantive standards are too strict and too ambitious. They are keeping people from coming in and investing in Sparks.”
In 2009, the Sparks City Council approved a new master plan, zoning and Transit Oriented Development (TOD) corridors, standards to implement the Regional Plan policies to encourage transit-oriented development.
The TOD corridor extended into the “Industrial” area of Sparks, located east of Sparks Boulevard north of Interstate 80, west of Vista Boulevard and south of Prater Way.
The area was rezoned to Transit Oriented Development/Employment. This area was removed from the TOD map Monday with a vote from council.
“The council has recently proposed removing the Employment District from the TOD, which would require a master plan amendment, rezoning and subsequent code amendments to implement,” a staff report stated.
Land development within TOD boundaries is designed to encourage mass transit use, according to city code.
Luckily, Goebel said, Sparks code has some flexibility within it for builders to use and navigate the system. However, not enough education is put out there for them to utilize the system.
“There is a lot of flexibility in there,” Goebel said.
“Are you saying there are deviations in there to use?” asked Councilman Ron Smith of Ward 3.
There were, Goebel explained, but the city needed to draw a much more clear linkage to he deviations and the TOD manual in order for builders to better understand.
“You do have flexibility in the system. However, you’ve got to demonstrate a hardship to get a variance. There is a general perception the code is too difficult to get a variance.”
Goebel spoke with several stakeholders, or groups that have economic interests in Sparks.
“We also heard about problems with consistency,” he said. “Uncertainty translates into cost.”
Senior Planner Jim Rundle said city staff would try to do a comparative analysis and figure out what tools the city would need for flexibility and try to put that into context.
“I think it’s more of a perception problem,” Rundle said. “There are a few people who take big projects through the TOD ad say, ‘Wow, this really works well.’ I think Sparks is moving in the right direction with the TOD.”
Based on the research and recommendations, Council Members Julia Ratti and Mike Carrigan called for the council to table the issue while city staff, under the direction of Rundle, will summarize Clarion’s report and create a workshop for council members.
Staff will deliver some analysis and proposals and work with council members from there, a staff member said at the meeting.
Smith said he wanted the city to work hard to make zoning issues as easy as possible for incoming economic development.
“We need to find a way to say ‘yes,’” he said. “We as a city need to be really cognizant as a city that we have a problem. Let’s look at how we can change that.”