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St. Charles Comprehensive Plan Review Continues

Plan Commission considers desire for greater precision and the need for flexibility in plan that is to serve as the city’s development guide over the next 20 years.

The St. Charles Plan Commission this week continued its review of the 2013 draft Comprehensive Plan, with commissioners appearing to be leaning toward a slow, deliberate look at the document that already has garnered intense scrutiny.

How long that will take is uncertain. The commission’s next meeting is at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 26, 2013, in the Council Chambers. But it s reviewing a document that took the Comprehensive Plan Task Force 16 months to compile as it worked with the St. Charles Planning Department and the city’s consultant, Houseal Lavigne Associates, to draw up the draft plan.

Several factors appear to be coming into play as the commission wades through the 113-page document.

One is a desire to maintain flexibility in the document, which will set policy and act as a guide for development throughout St. Charles for the next 20 years. But there is tension between the desire to be more specific about the types of developments that would be or would not be encouraged in some areas, and the need for flexibility.

Commissioners noted during their discussion Tuesday that conditions in St. Charles, as well as the marketplace for developers overall, will evolve during the plan’s 20-year cycle. Setting guidelines that are too specific on how some areas should be developed might discourage future consideration of certain kinds of projects that have yet to be envisioned but which may be good fits for such areas.

Overshadowing their deliberations, however, is the controversy surrounding recent developments that created a “grueling” process for both residents and developers. One is Lexington Club, whose approval earlier this year bitterly disappointed its critics and left residents who opposed it wondering if their voices were even considered. Equally controversial was a proposal, since withdrawn, to add high-density housing to the Corporate Reserve business park development.

The latter fight highlighted opposition residents have voiced, both during public hearings and in a survey of city residents, to the addition of high-density, multifamily apartment housing in St. Charles.

The process on Lexington lasted years, proving frustrating to developers and residents alike, by many accounts.

Commission members are wondering if there is a way to make that process less arduous in the future, and if the 2013 Comprehensive Plan might have a role in easing potential conflict down the road.

Another issues commissioners are grappling with relates to some of the terminology the task force adopted as its standard while putting together the report. Discussions among the commissioners have pointed to potential confusion, for example, on the choice of terms applied to difference types of housing.

Scattered throughout the draft plan are references to multifamily housing vs. single-family housing. Task Force Chairman Mark Armstrong told commissioners the task force used the term multifamily housing with the idea of tall apartment buildings.

Yet one type of single-family housing — called single-family attached — represents townhomes and/or condominiums, which also fall under the broader definition of multifamily housing, although it is not associated with the high density typical of apartment buildings.

Complicating that discussion further is the idea of specialized multifamily homes, such as housing for senior citizens or the disabled, which resident and 5th Ward aldermanic candidate Kim Malay said there is a need for in St. Charles and which residents support.

Armstrong, who referred to such developments as adaptive housing, said the task force attempted to use standard terminology — for consistency — throughout the document. But perhaps greater clarity is needed, he said, particularly when it comes to distinguishing between the types of multifamily housing.

Another issue overshadowing the commission’s deliberations was touched on by Commissioner Brian Doyle, who wondered if the new comprehensive plan will help to forestall some of those types of controversies, like Lexington Club, the city has faced in the past four or five years which created “grueling” processes for both developers and residents.

Doyle voiced his desire to review the plan slowly and deliberately, saying he wants to ensure the document the commission eventually hands over to the St. Charles City Council is as complete as possible, without need to go in later to “clean it up” as weaknesses are identified.

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Steve Swanson February 11, 2013 at 06:56 PM
The answer to the question about whether or not a non-specific plan will make the process easier in the future is NO. The reason that the Lexington project took "five years" is because the developer submitted several concept plans that it withdrew before submitting one that went through the process. The third and final plan was submitted in 2011, so it certainly did not take five years. Part of the battle over Lexington was specifically because the Plan Amendment was not specific enough about what the density of the project should be. When the residents participated in the development of the Comprehensive Plan Amendment, they said the density should mirror that of the surrounding neighborhood, the Plan Commission in place at the time the Amendment was submitted in 2007 agreed. To match the neighborhood, there should have been no more than 80 units and not the 130 approved by the City. Unfortunately, the way it was written allowed the developer to propose anywhere from less than 80 units to as much as 175, which they did in their first concept plan. That is too broad a range and the reason why there was so much bickering over the project. The plan needs to have more specificity if problems like that are to be avoided in the future. It is nice to give oneself flexibility but developers will take every bit of latitude that the plan allows them to take.
Ted Schnell (Editor) February 11, 2013 at 07:31 PM
Hey Steve, I guess my question for you then, based on the discussion to date, is that if the comprehensive plan is meant only as a guide, then shouldn't the land-use plan have been the document with the specifics for sites like Lexington Club? As I've understood comprehensive plans in the past, from other communities, they're intended as a kind of overall, general vision, while the land-use plan set the specific limits for the actual properties. If that is the case, then is it the comprehensive plan or the land-use plan with which you actually are finding fault.
Charles Davis February 19, 2013 at 07:20 PM
Ted, I guess Steve never checked back for comments. From what I read in his comment, I think he would tell you that the Comprehensive Plan is what he finds at fault. The Lexington project was approved because it was in conformance (supposedly) to the 2007 Comprehensive Plan Amendment. There was never in the process any mention of it conforming to the land-use plan, which it probably did not because the zoning of the site was light industrial all the way through the process. Because of that I am guessing that the land-use plan would not be calling for residential units to be built there.
Steve Swanson February 21, 2013 at 10:24 PM
Charles, you stole my thunder. You probably explained it better than I would have. Ted, I believe in a specific Comprehensive Plan. If a developer comes along with an idea different than what the plan envisioned for a parcel, the plan can be amended if the City finds the developer's proposal to be worthy. Theoretically, that is what was done with the former Applied Composites property, although the City completely botched the process and its credibility in the process. Look at the Corporate Reserves parcel, the plan called for commercial and office. The developer asked for permission to build apartments and the Comprehensive Plan Task Force was willing to allow apartments, as long as the density matched the surrounding neighborhoods...which would have meant slightly more than 100 units...a far cry from what the developer wanted to put there. In the end, the planning and development committee voted to not allow the number of units the developer asked for and the developer withdrew his proposal.

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