23 months later, a new approach to zoning

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Covington’s user-friendly form-based code takes effect today
 
COVINGTON, Ky. – Less red tape. Quicker decisions. Clearer guidance. Less expense. Easier research. And a more flexible attitude.
 
Those are the earmarks of a fundamentally new approach to land development – commonly known as “zoning” – that takes effect today in the City of Covington.
 
The impact of the switch from an unwieldy, one-size-fits-all Zoning Ordinance to a form-based Neighborhood Development Code will be monumental for two reasons, City officials say.
 
One, it’ll create a more user-friendly experience for everyone who wants to invest in the City, no matter how big their proposal is.
 
“This will improve the experience for you, whether you’re a large-scale developer proposing a new subdivision or office complex, a small business owner looking to expand to a second location, a rehabber seeking to renovate a dilapidated brick building into first-floor offices and second-floor apartments, or a homeowner wanting to put up a small shed or fence in their back yard,” Zoning Administrator Dalton Belcher said.
 
And two, the new code will not only pay allegiance to the historic character of the City’s over-200-year architecture but also will direct how Covington looks for the rest of its existence.
 
That’s because the new code no longer evaluates proposed development exclusively by how the proposal adheres to a rigid set of rules listing legal “uses” for a particular property. Instead, the uses have been appropriately broadened and the new code focuses on how development fits within the “character” or “form” (and historical look) of its Covington surroundings.
 
“If you plunk me down in the middle of, say, Austinburg or Lewisburg or MainStrasse Village or Latonia, I’m going to know immediately where I am,” said Covington Historic Preservation Officer Christopher Myers. “Each of these is a distinctive area of Covington, and they stand out by how they ‘look,’ ‘feel,’ and ‘operate.’ Our new form-based code picks up on the diversity of that character – in fact, it separates areas into appropriately named Character Districts – and it helps us encourage development that complements them.”
 
At the same time, the code creates flexibility for “modern” uses like Airbnb and Tiny Houses.
 
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About the NDC
The NDC can be found online, HERE. (Links to commonly used sections are highlighted at the bottom of this article).
 
The code is hosted on a third-party platform whose features allow for easier navigation – researchers can search for references quicker and zero in on those sections rather than scroll through a massive document, for example.
 
For the most part, applicants will still start the process in the same way by either filling out the Zoning/Design Permit Application found HERE or by contacting Belcher at dalton.belcher@covingtonky.gov or Myers at cmyers@covingtonky.gov.
 
But from that point forward, the process will be quicker, more efficient, and less expensive. City officials said there are several reasons for that:

  • The new code is more permissive from the start. The old Zoning Ordinance started with the assumption that most uses in any given area were illegal and then set up an array of time-consuming paths toward carving out exceptions, such as variances, conditional use permitting, text amendments, and map amendments. Although the new NDC does take “use” into account (it’s technically a hybrid code and thus wouldn’t allow something like a factory in a residential district), it’s not so hung up specific rules related to uses at a specific address.
  • The new code also is more flexible on requirements related to things like lot standards and parking, lessening the cost of proposals.
  • That permissiveness allows City staff to make many decisions about proposed projects on the administrative level, instead of sending them to various boards. What used to take three months is designed to now take less than two weeks.
  • The governing structure overseeing “zoning” has been simplified. The old ordinance split the decisions related to a project into separate processes, and thus a developer or rehabber might have had to take parts of their proposal to the City’s Urban Design Review Board (which primarily dealt with significant exterior changes in a historic area) and Board of Adjustment (which ruled on exceptions-deviations to permitted uses and design and also heard appeals of decisions of the zoning administrator). Requests outside the scope of those boards then went before the Kenton County Planning Commission (which made recommendations) and then to the Covington Board of Commissioners.
 
Under the new code, the roles of the UDRB and Board of Adjustment were consolidated under a single board, the newly appointed Board of Architectural Review and Development – and the new code will require fewer issues and concerns to go before it. Likewise, while the roles of the planning commission and City Commission still exist, they will be set into motion less often.
 
“Essentially the old Zoning Ordinance created a game of ping-pong, with the developer or rehabber required to bounce back and forth from one board to another, requiring a lot of time and in some cases expensive expertise and creating a lot of frustration,” Covington Economic Development Director Tom West said. “The new procedures are not only more efficient but also will help us attract the development that we want.”
 
How it came about
The City kicked off the transformation in November 2018, when the Board of Commissioners voted to hire Kendig Keast Collaborative, a Texas-based zoning code development firm with offices in Kentucky.
 
With the help of a 16-member steering committee, which put in hundreds of hours of work, the firm worked with City staff to create a Covington-based set of guidelines and held 20 separate events at which it invited the public to give input.
 
“This code was truly written by Covington, for Covington,” Myers said.
 
City staff said they’re prepared to make adjustments, as needed. One of the advantages of the new enCodePlus software developed by Kendig Keast and used by Covington is the ease in which the code can be updated, West said. 
 
“We know this is not perfect,” West said. “There will likely be changes needed, and we welcome suggestions in how the application of the code can be improved. Anytime you completely redesign something this big and try to have such a positive impact, there are going to be a few things slip through the cracks. But what we have now is light years ahead of what we had yesterday.”
 
About the new board
The Board of Architectural Review and Development will meet monthly.
 
Its initial seven members were appointed Sept. 29 by the Board of Commissioners to staggered terms:
  • Rebecca Weber, two-year term.
  • Elzie Barker, - two-year term.
  • Steven "Cody" Chitwood, three-year term.
  • Dr. James Schafer, three-year term.
  • Janet Creekmore, four-year term.
  • Larry Mosteller, four-year term.
  • Ella Frye, four-year term.
 
Bookmarks within the NDC
Places within the Neighborhood Development Code where people might commonly go:
  • How to use it: HERE
  • Summary of procedures: HERE
  • Application completeness: HERE
  • “Uses”: HERE
  • Character Districts: HERE
  • Building standards: HERE
  • Definitions: HERE

 
 
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