STARKVILLE — Aldermen voted 6-1 Tuesday to approve the city’s updated unified development code that had been in the works for almost three years.
The city planning department presented five drafts of the code in the past few months and made changes based on public feedback. A few citizens said at Tuesday’s public hearing before the vote that they still believed the code needed improvements but commended the planning department for the work its members put into it.
Ward 2 Alderman Sandra Sistrunk was the sole dissenter on the board. She said some aspects of the code were too flexible for her taste, but she knew her vote wouldn’t impact the outcome.
“Tonight is one of those rare cases where I get to be idealistic and not have to worry about being pragmatic,” Sistrunk said.
The code rewrite began in 2017 with the goal of modernizing development in Starkville, and it includes goals the city adopted in its comprehensive plan in 2016. Much of the 436-page code did not change, but many of the zoning districts that dictate land use throughout the city will change either in name or in purpose.
The most controversial aspect of the public discussion of the code was a proposed set of restrictions on short-term rentals, such as Airbnbs, in single-family residential areas. Those in favor of the proposal said it would help preserve the safety and integrity of residential neighborhoods, and those against said short-term rentals are economically beneficial to the city and property owners should be able to use their land however they choose.
The proposal was revised 17 times and ultimately tabled at the Dec. 3 meeting when several aldermen and members of the public said it was unfair not to consider regulations on long-term rentals as well. The board voted 5-2 to postpone the vote on the proposal that had been scheduled for Tuesday’s meeting and would have added the ordinance to the new city code. The revival of the issue is up to the board’s discretion and could happen at any time or not at all, Mayor Lynn Spruill said earlier this month.
Concerns from the public
Thomas Stewart, owner of the architecture firm Architectonics, said the code rezones his property from commercial to residential.
“There’s usually a discussion about the change in nature of the neighborhood or surrounding property, but there’s not been any change to this area,” Stewart said.
The city did not adequately notify him and neighboring property owners that the land was being rezoned, Stewart said.
Leah Ellis expressed the same concern, and she and Loren Bell both said the city needed to make sure the public was more familiar with the code before voting on it.
“I urge you to slow down just a little bit and pump the brakes and let people know exactly what’s in this 400-something-page document that’s been out a week,” Bell said.
The city has met the minimum requirements for notifying the public about the code, but not everyone pays close attention or has access to a computer, and some aspects of the code haven’t been discussed publicly, like the allowed uses of the land near the medical facilities on Hospital Road, Ellis said.
“I think you’re going to have more unhappy people if you pass it tonight,” she said.
One regular point of public feedback on the code came from the rezoning of the northwest portion of the city as optional districts. Much of the land was previously zoned as general business or high-density, multi-family residential. Developers who want to build in optional districts must present to the city a “conceptual master plan” for how the land will be used, according to section 3 of the code.
The land can be designated commercial, industrial, conservation or traditional neighborhood, and developers will not have to go through the costly rezoning process, a change that was made within the past two months.
The area was annexed into the city in 1998, and it has not developed as quickly as some potential developers had hoped, mainly because of a lack of infrastructure like water and power, Bell told The Dispatch.
“I think that’s a poor choice for our city to annex property and then not develop it,” he said.
‘Far more right than not right’
Other changes to the code include the implementation of an architecture review board, tree protection guidelines and prohibition of vehicle signs unless “the vehicle is actively engaged in making deliveries, pick-ups, or otherwise actively in use and in which its primary purpose is some use other than advertising,” according to page 251 of the code.
Ward 3 Alderman David Little said the code is “good planning” and will help the city avoid over-developing certain areas.
“I’ve seen what’s happened on the south side of town, on South Montgomery, where everyone comes out with gloves out (and there is) no connectivity,” Little said.
Sistrunk agreed with Little’s assessment that day-to-day problems in the city come from “allowing things to develop willy-nilly” and that the new code addresses the issue.
“If it were left to me, we’d do a little bit more, but I think y’all have done tremendous work,” Sistrunk told the city planning staff. “I’m very appreciative of all that you’ve done, and I think it’s far more right than not right.”