Ennis' draft zoning ordinance met with questions, concerns
Ennis Town Council held a special meeting March 13 to review the town's updated draft zoning ordinance. If council enacts the draft, following work sessions and public hearings, it would replace the current town zoning ordinance in its entirety. The current Ennis zoning regulations were enacted in 2002.
Senior planner Jerry Grebenc, with Great West Engineering, and a council-appointed committee have been working on the draft ordinance for more than 18 months. Grebenc began the meeting with a PowerPoint presentation to answer questions and concerns. “This is going to be a very long process, and everything is going to be broken down,” he said, stressing the importance of public input. “Homework I would ask you to do is at least read the current ordinance.”
Grebenc said the zoning committee has been working to update the zoning code, subdivision regulations, transportation standards and a town annexation policy, but the draft zoning ordinance required the most time and was the most complex.
The zoning committee, appointed by the town and required by state law, consists of town residents Kaye Suzuki and Mark Odegard, and Ennis councilmember Lisa Roberts.
Members of the public asked why only three members serve on the committee. Councilmembers responded there is a current lack of volunteers, citing the example of the Ennis Planning Board. The town joined the county board after struggling to fill town board positions. Council advertised the need to create a zoning committee and Suzuki and Odegard volunteered to serve on the committee.
According to state statute, city zoning ordinances must comply with the town’s growth policy and be designed to secure safety from fire and other dangers, promote public health and safety, and facilitate adequate provisions of infrastructure and services. Other considerations the zoning ordinance must comply with include providing adequate light and air, the character of districts and their suitability for a particular use and conservation and value of buildings.
The main purpose of the March 13 meeting was to begin addressing public concerns, while also encouraging people to get involved in the process by reading both the current and updated draft, Montana Code Annotated and providing written comments.
Grebenc described the 2002 zoning ordinance as a “boilerplate” code, adding it looked like a cut and pasted document from another jurisdiction, and cited language from 1996 that was outdated. “Goals of the zoning commission are predictability for property owners, protecting property values, preserving the unique character, achieve goals of the growth policy, promote a walkable and bikeable community, promote year-round business opportunities and minimize impacts on the environment,” said Grebenc. “This is just a starting point.”
As the town opened the meeting for public comment, most voiced concerns of transparency and being able to follow any and all changes made to the document. “Not being able to see changes I think is what’s scaring people,” said Carl Kautz. Kautz also asked if dead or decaying buildings would be addressed in the new ordinance, citing the old IGA building as an example. “If that’s something the community wants, we have to be comfortable adding criteria,” answered Grebenc.
Some people expressed concern the ordinance sounded similar to a homeowners association agreement, with rules stipulating landscaping standards and house trim colors. “That’s one thing we are not trying to do, legislate taste,” said Suzuki. “This is why public input is so important.”
John Heckler proposed the ordinance be thrown out and a new group restart, saying the update does not reflect the community nor does it support the 2014 growth policy. In a letter addressed to the town, Heckler stated “for a community of small size as Ennis, and our limited future capacity to grow, this document is inappropriate, circuitous, over restrictive, punitive in nature and certainly does not support the 2014 Ennis Growth Policy as it is purported to do.” Heckler also accused Grebenc and the commission of plagiarizing the document from another community.
Grebenc assured Heckler the updated document was not plagiarized and encouraged all in attendance to look closely at both the current 2002 ordinance, updated draft and current Montana statute. “Look at what you have before you tear apart the proposal,” stated Grebenc.
Councilmember Brian Vincent said it’s important to start with state statute and move from there. “Look at what we have to have in the document and know that there’s going to be a lot of adjustment,” he said. “But we need to look toward the future.”
Councilmember John Bancroft said the town is always having trouble getting people involved. “We always ask for help and no one applies,” he said. “We want to do this right.”
Both Grebenc and the town stressed the importance of public input and involvement, in what they assured is going to be a long process. Copies of the current and draft zoning ordinance are available at the town office and on the town website at ennismontana.org. Comments on the draft ordinance can be submitted by email to firstname.lastname@example.org or by regular mail.
Council's next zoning ordinance work session is scheduled for April 17 at 6 p.m. to discuss commercial zoning.