Gadsden approves measures to update city-wide zoning

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By Lindsey Frazier, Editorial Assistant

The City of Gadsden Planning Commission is currently working to update city ordinances to better accommodate growth in the future.

When the Gadsden City Council and City of Gadsden Planning Commission introduced “GROW Gadsden,” it laid out a map of the future for the City of Gadsden. A portion of that includes redefining the zones that determine what type of building can occupy a particular space.

“We know there are a lot of changes that are needed,” said Brett Johnson, Chief of Staff to Mayor Craig Ford. “But the thing about zoning is, it gets down to the very parcel. If we don’t update our zoning… we are locked into an old economy that doesn’t really exist anymore.”

To move toward the envisioned dream of a thriving riverfront, Gadsden hired a consulting firm to help. At the Tuesday, June 18 Gadsden City Council meeting, members voted to approve a contract with Kendig Keast Collaborative for purposes of revising the city’s zoning ordinances.

Kendig Keast Collaborative has facilitated comprehensive planning programs for more than 100 communities, including Savannah, GA. Charleston, S.C. and Durham, N.C., according to its website.

For the next 12 months, city director of planning Rod Scott and city zoning administrator Tracci Cordell will work with the firm to update zoning laws.

“We formed a committee with all the appropriate team members in various departments that would have to deal with zoning and interviewed firms who submitted their SOQs,” Johnson said. “They rose to the top very quickly.”

Statements of Qualifications, or SOQs, are documents that highlight the skills and experience of a firm. One of the deciding factors for hiring Kendig Keast Collaborative was due to its partnership with Goodwyn Mills Cawood, the firm that worked with The City of Gadsden on its GROW Gadsden comprehensive plan.

“It gives them such a head start on understanding the history, the demographics, the layout of the ongoing projects and the vision of this mayor and council,” Johnson said. “They’ve got all of that already kind of in hand, and now they can focus more narrowly on the zoning piece.”

The zones will be defined in nine categories: urban core, neighborhood center, development corridor, commercial hub, industrial zone, historical residential, contemporary residential, special district and urban green space, according to GROW Gadsden’s masterplan. Gadsden currently operates under ordnances set in the 1970s, except for a few additions in the early 2000s.

“Over the course of the 1980s to early 2000s there was this revolution in urban planning that happened, and it happened without us,” Johnson said. “We are still operating off this very rigid, ‘you can build a house here and you can build a business here.’”

The three most used properties are residential, commercial and industrial. There are exceptions that can be brought before the planning commission and zoning board for owners of certain properties to operate outside of the designated use. However, the exception is owned by the property owner. Once the property is sold, the exception is obsolete.

“We are seeing these rundown, so to speak, former commercial centers that people don’t understand why they’re not thriving,” Johnson said. “Well, we’ve kind of set them up for failure by not being innovative.”

Another goal of the planning committee is to “preserve and engage” the historic commercial areas, according to Johnson, who said the committee wants to bring business back to historically populated areas. The Wall Street area where the Ritz Theater is located, the East Broad Corridor and Tuscaloosa Avenue are the three biggest ones, according to Johnson.

Currently, urban green spaces are not defined in Gadsden zoning ordinances. Noccalula Falls is zoned as residential space. Redefining this space would ensure the preservation of the park and prohibit houses from being built on the park grounds.

“Noccalula Falls is special,” Johnson said. “We don’t want residential development happening in that park area.”

Johnson noted that redesigning the ordinances will give the city more control of the city aesthetic. It will also make the process more user friendly for property owners or investors by adding renderings of what the development will look like for that zoned area.

Once the planning committee has drawn up a proposal, the city will hold a series of meetings with the public, which will give citizens a chance to view the plans and give input on the project.

To prepare for the transition, Gadsden invested in a training program for more than 20 city employees. The University of North Alabama offers a Certified Alabama Planning and Zoning Official Training designed for anyone dealing with zoning and planning, Johnson said. The course will cover the legal foundations and the different zoning types allowed in Alabama.

“We decided to send as many people as possible through the program,” Johnson said. “We have probably 20 or so people registered to go through it.

Johnson brought the idea to Mayor Ford who thought it was important as well. They feel it is crucial for members to know as much about the process as they can, since members will be administering the process, according to Johnson.

“We got as many people that will touch [the zoning process] getting this training,” Johnson said. “So that when it comes time to manage this new set of zoning ordinances and enforce them, we will know what we are doing.”

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