Updated: Oct 25
This post has been edited from the original, removing the content that was unfairly critical of city government. We would like to note that the proposed Ordinance change discussed below was presented for consideration at two City Council meetings before it was pointed out that, legally, the Ordinance was required to be presented to the Planning Commission for review and consideration.
There is always one thing you can count on bureaucrats to do, that is to codify solutions to problems that don't exist. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms is really good at this, but that's not what this story is about. Let's look much closer to home, as in the City of Sheridan.
The latest "solution" to show up at City Council is Ordinance 2272, Amending Code Appendix A(3)(4) Annexation Default Zoning. This proposal changes the default zoning on all land annexed by the City from the County to be automatically classified as R2 rather than R1. The logic, or at least the story being spun to justify this change, is that R2 will help "encourage more affordable" housing. "Affordable" or "attainable" housing is currently Sheridan's way of signaling "it's for the children."
Let's take a look at what this means. Currently, city code requires that all annexed county property be brought in as zoned R1. In this case, R means Residential and 1 means one single-family dwelling per lot. R1 also specifies a minimum lot size and property set-backs on all sides. The majority of housing in Sheridan is zoned R1. On the other hand, R2 reduces the set-backs, has no minimum lot size, and allows for multi-family units on the property.
Annexation and zoning is not all that cut and dried. Every area that has been annexed has undergone the scrutiny of the City Planning Commission and the City Council. Typically, the City Planning Commission reviews that annexation and the zoning requested. What's that? Yes, annexed parcels are generally presented with suggested zoning or zoning requested by the owner based upon what they would like to do with their land. In almost all cases, the City Planning Commission approves the requested zoning, with the rare exceptions being where the request doesn't make sense given the zoning of the surrounding property. The Annexation Default Zoning, currently R1, never even comes into play.
All annexation has to be reviewed for proper zoning just as a matter of common sense. If a large swath of county property containing empty land that could have houses, a concrete plant, and a warehouse/light manufacturing building was annexed, why would it all be designated Residential? Obviously it would end up with multiple zoning classifications to fit what currently exists, what is planned for the future, and what is adjacent.
If a developer buys a parcel of land that they wish to build houses, townhomes, or apartments on, they are required to file a subdivision of the land. When doing so, they specify what zoning they'd like that parcel to be so that they can subdivide it for development. Generally, unless the location doesn't make any sense given the surrounding properties, the request for zoning change is approved. A developer can also avoid all of the zoning requirements by creating a Planned Unit Development (PUD), the PUD dictating the requirements for lot size, set-backs, etc. Several recent, higher-density developments have been submitted as PUDs.
Let's look at a few what-ifs should this annexation default zoning change be approved. One area of town that is likely to be annexed in the near future is 5th Street running west from the High School/Fairgrounds west to the beginning of Soldier Creek Road. On the north side of that stretch, across from Blacktooth Park, there are a series of single-family homes on multi-acre lots. If the annexation zoning defaults to R2, any owner of those lots could drop a four-plex rental unit in the area behind their house without even having to go to the City for approval. What would their neighbors think of that? What does that do for home values? Another potential annexation is the stretch of Big Horn Avenue around the Girl's School toward Woodland Park Road. The parts of that stretch that are in the City are zoned R1. A change in annexation zoning would mean that all the County land currently surrounded by City land would be R2, again allowing small lots with high-density and multi-family dwellings. Where is the quality of life that proper zoning is supposed to promote in a community?
Here is a dirty little secret that the has been kept hidden about the annexation zoning change: The R1 category of zoning would no longer be available for any property. The best, or most restrictive any residential zoning could be is R2.
This proposal seems to care more about appeasing developers and real estate agents than the quality of life for its citizens. Or perhaps it is just the typical political method of signaling that the city is "doing all they can" to make housing more affordable. As noted in the above examples, zoning request changes and zoning for annexed property have never been an issue. Why remove single-family R1 zoning and replace it with uncontrolled high-density housing? Why? Isn't it better to treat this on a case-by-case basis?
On Monday, October 23, the City Planning Commission rejected the proposal to change the zoning for annexed property by a vote of 5 to 1. Members of the commission stated more than once that they felt this was a "solution in search of a problem." Unfortunately, the Planning Commission does not have any legal authority, so the final say will be with the Sheridan City Council. If you care about Sheridan and our quality of life, or if you just believe "if it ain't broke, don't fix it," show up at the City Council Meeting on November 6 beginning at 6pm in the Council Chamber at City Hall.