What’s in Your Code?
In Gig Harbor, our Land Use Matrix shows a table of all the city’s planning zones (there are 20 of them within our small city of six square miles) against all defined uses (69 of those). The definitions section is needed to unravel less straightforward uses, like levels of restaurants or lodging. Zones can be found on the zoning map. The “P”s in the intersection of use and zone indicate the use is allowed in the zone. The dashes mean that it is not.
If the use and a zone intersection shows a “C,” the use is allowed conditionally. Procedures to be considered for approval—a complete application by the applicant, a report by planning staff with a recommendation for the hearings examiner, and a formal hearing—are described in various sections of the code. Applicants can refer to the city’s comprehensive plan to convince the judge that their intended use fits into the objectives of the district they hope to operate within, but the code itself does not detail all criteria taken into account when determining whether a conditional use will be permitted. Clicking through the links outlining the conditional use permitting process, it is clear that approval of a conditional use adds significant time, money, and uncertainty to potential development.
The stated intent of conditional uses is that “Certain uses, because of their unusual size, infrequent occurrence, special requirements, possible safety hazards or detrimental effect on surrounding properties” cannot be allowed outright and must be examined on a case-by-case basis. It would be hard to argue that is not appropriate for some building types—say, hospitals, which are by definition large and uncommon. But in the case of small projects, such as accessory dwelling units, or using a house or part of a house as a short-term rental (both conditional uses in many places in my city), the code is being misused.
For these less unique buildings, elected officials, planning commission, citizens and staff should be able to determine what is needed to make a project acceptable within a zone and a review of whether conditions are met should be by staff, rather than by an arduous process requiring a public hearing for each instance.
Those in favor of broad use of conditional use zoning may advocate for being extra careful before allowing projects that might deviate even slightly from the norm to move forward. Conducting the hearing allows all those who might be affected by it to be informed of it and have their say. While that may be true, this benefit should be weighed against the drawbacks of applying these added layers of red tape and the inherent unfairness of ambiguous laws.