BY MAIRE O’NEILL
The Los Alamos County Planning & Zoning Commission on Wednesday evening voted 5-2 with one abstention to recommend approval to County Council for text amendments to the County Code Chapter 16 to add a new downtown retail overlay zone. The proposed new overlay district, called the Downtown Pedestrian Overlay Zoneoverlay zone is anticipated to apply to the County’s two defined downtown areas as delineated in the 2016 Los Alamos County Comprehensive Plan.
The text amendment application says the text amendment is intended to “create a new downtown overlay that promotes a walkable, vibran downtown district that is attractive to new retail and restaurant opportunities which the community is seeking”.
The application for the amendment came before the Planning & Zoning Commission because Council voted 5-2 to have the County Manager forward the proposal to the commission for review. County staff’s interpretation of the proposed amendment is that is would essentially disallow any future use of the ground floor area of a building within the downtown area for any other use aside from retail, including restaurant, use. The staff report indicates that the proposed text amendment would restrict a variety of residential, professional office, and accessory uses so that these uses would only be allowed on upper-level floors of buildings.
“Therefore, all future proposed development in the form of new buildings or proposed use of existing vacant buildings would be required to have ground floor space reserved for solely retail use.,” the report states. “It is further staff’s interpretation of proposed text amendment language that existing non-retail use in buildings within the downtown areas would continue to be allowed as non-conforming uses however substantial.”
Acting County Manager Steven Lynne represented the County Council at the hearing as the applicant for the overlay. The Planning & Zoning Commission had the County staff as support. Other parties to the case were identified as Lauren McDaniel, Director of the Los Alamos MainStreet program, Patrick Sullivan, Executive Director of the Los Alamos Commerce and Development Corporation and businessman John Courtright.
Lynne maintained that the proposed amendment fit the four criteria outlined for approval of the amendment:
- The request substantially conforms to the comprehensive plan and shall not be materially detrimental to the health, safety and general welfare of the County. The Comprehensive Plan for the County lists goals of increasing the economic vitality of downtown areas as well as improving the quality and quantity of retail downtown.
- A request for amendment to the Comprehensive Plan shall, if necessary, be submitted concurrently with the request for amendment to the text of this Chapter 16. Lynne said there is no need for an amendment to the chapter at this point.
- The proposed change will not result in land use inconsistent with the purpose of the district or incompatible with a use allowed in the district. Lynne pointed out that there is no proposed land use that is inconsistent or incompatible.
- The proposed change will clarify existing language, remove redundant or inconsistent language or will simplify the understanding and implementation of the Code.
The County staff report notes that without having supplemental analysis, it is not known whether or not the overlay would be would be detrimental to the economic welfare of the County. It also notes that the proposed retail overlay could have an unintended adverse impact of essentially “downzoning” existing properties within the downtown areas and/or reducing the market potential for vacant locations and/or potential redevelopment locations within the downtown areas as the proposed retail overlay would restrict potential uses allowed for a building.
“Downzoning is defined as a change in zoning where permitted uses are reduced. As a downzoning action would essentially restrict property owners of existing entitled uses; this could lead to legal challenges by property owners,” the staff report states.
Commission Chair Terry Priestley prior to voting against the amendment said he believed all four criteria had not been met. He felt if the motion to recommend the approval of the overlay to Council passed, it would set up a situation where this overall concern can be addressed in a more thorough and appropriate way through the ongoing process for updating Chapter 16. He said he thinks coming from the side subverts the process and that he doesn’t agree with that approach.
Commissioner Michelle Griffin said without an actual site plan or something to review, there is nothing more Lynne could have said and that she feels his answers were sufficient.
“I also think that because it’s just a tool to be used later we need to support this and we would in turn through this process become more clear as to how this tool would be beneficial to our community,” she said.
Commissioner Neal Martin felt the Council had met all four criteria.
Commissioner Stephanie Nakleh said she completely understands where the landlords are coming from and would feel the same way if she was in their position.
“They’re jumping the gun a little on assumptions and I see this as a tool. I see no downsides in adding a tool to the toolbox. We’re in a real critical situation with our downtown and I think adding tools us good at this point,” she said. “I’m afraid if we said we recommended against the overlay, I don’t think it would stay alive. It would knock that tool out of the toolbox for a long time. I think that’s not good.”
Priestley indicated he would like to have had sample scenarios from Lynne which would demonstrate whether the “tool” would have positive or negative effects.
“He could have used case studies from other places. He could have said if we do it this way, this might be what it looks like, but by not having any of that, it just shows me that we’re not ready for it and the overall process that we’re doing right now for the downtown master plans is an excellent venue to do that and if a study was done and it showed it was viable, I don’t think the tool would be rejected forever. I just don’t think we’re ready for it. I don’t think enough analysis has been done on it,” Priestley said.
Martin said while he somewhat sympathized with the desire for more analysis but in all his the years on the commission, has never seen anything with a market based analysis, anything that has the kind of information now being requested.
“It seems to me that even though we’re in a preliminary stage here, people are asking for information, a higher burden of proof than we’ve asked for in many other scenarios. I’m not sure we’re equitably applying the evaluation of the criterion in this case by demanding this extra level of scrutiny aand stringency to these criteria,” Martin said. “I could see why we might want to establish this as a norm moving forward but I haven’t seen it and I don’t see at this preliminary point why we’re demanding that.”
Griffin noted that Sullivan had earlier stated that the Metropolitan Redevelopment Area for the downtown in White Rock was a process that took 18 months to get somewhere with just the zoning.
“If we let this fall away, how much longer is this going to get pushed out if it’s not included in Chapter 16. Our downtown currently is not what anyone desires in our town. And I don’t know that employers could attract people to come with the downtown as it is. I feel that with the status of the downtown and the testimony that it took 18 months to get zoning in White Rock, we can’t wait that long,” she said.
Commissioner Jean Dewart said she would like to suggest that the commission could make a recommendation to take the proposed amendment to Dekker/Parrish/Sabatini, the Council’s consultants for the Chapter 16 update as an alternative to it being dropped.
“I agree nobody wants to wait forever and this effort to update our Chapter 16 Code is ripe for this work.” she said.
Commissioners Stephanie Nakleh, Neal Martin, Beverly Clinton, Rodney Roberson and Michelle Griffin voted in favor, Commissioners Terry Priestley and Jean Dewart voted against, and Commissioner April Wade abstained.