After the Town Board heard initial plans from the new consultant it hired in 2015 to help complete a unified development ordinance for Zebulon, Commissioner Curtis Strickland slid in one final plea.
“We just want to make sure they don’t leave us hanging,” Strickland said of the new firm, Durham-based CodeWright Planners, alluding to the town’s experiences with members of the disbanded Lawrence Group team that started Zebulon’s UDO in 2013.
The lead consultant of the Lawrence team initially pledged to complete the project after taking a job with a different firm, but the town cut ties after not getting the desired results.
Chad Meadows, CodeWright’s founder, told commissioners at their Nov. 15 meeting that when he returns in December with a project scope, any contract the town approves for his services should include a provision that he doesn’t get paid until the town is satisfied with the product.
“It was a bad situation and Chad is familiar with that,” said Mayor Bob Matheny. “Hopefully, he will not be of that element.”
If commissioners approve a contract, worth about $50,000, next month, the new land use playbook could be complete within 13 months.
Meadows gave a broad overview of his group’s assessment of the work the former consulting group delivered before the separation. During the assessment, CodeWright gleaned input from a local stakeholder committee that met six times since the summer and was composed of Commissioner Beverly Clark, planning board members Kenny Waldroup and Darrell Jones, and Everette Webb, Glenn Lewis, Ken Griswold, Mike Weeks and Linda Johnson.
A UDO is intended to bring all of a town’s development-related ordinances together under a single document. That helps alleviate the chance for conflicting rules and regulations among different documents and it helps a town match its rules to its development priorities.
The report by Meadows indicated there are many questions left unanswered in the 14-chapter, salvaged document, for which the town paid 70 percent ($93,461) of the $125,400 it was to pay the former consultants to complete the UDO.
“Unfortunately, it was incomplete,” Meadows said. “There was no zoning chapter, there was no definitions chapter, there were no appendices, there were several places missing key information. And, frankly, the most troubling part of the document or the material that was received, was that it’s largely boilerplate. It was prepared by a consulting firm and used in other communities – simply assembled and put into a shell for Zebulon.”
Meadows provided more details on the events that led up to the town splitting ways with the initial consultants. He said when town staff raised concerns about the nature of the draft document, they didn’t get a satisfying response.
“While hearsay, I was told that the staff was told, ‘Hey, you’ll get used to it.’ That is not the kind of message you want to hear from a consultant,” Meadows told the Town Board. “Consultants like me are here to help you guys realize your goals, not impose our will upon you. The staff tried for several months to compel the consultant to provide the missing chapters, to complete the missing sections and to tailor the material to Zebulon’s context. But unfortunately, there was no desire to do that and ultimately the contract needed to be terminated.”
More talk needed
As CodeWright assessed Zebulon’s UDO effort, it also identified issues that will require further discussion – like what to do with downtown zoning rules, current special use districts and overlay districts, and what shortcomings exist in the development standards that have been prepared.
“We talked about this with staff and we all agreed it would be a good idea to share all this information with the stakeholder committee,” Meadows said. “We really, basically, did two things, which was overview the draft chapters and identify issues for further consideration.”
The issues fall into three categories: material that was in initial draft that is incomplete, changes in direction from the initial draft and recommendations, and new or supplemental provisions that will address the latest changes in state law.
Meadows said one of his greatest concerns was zoning for downtown, where the prior consultants recommended implementing a form-based code approach. He said form-based codes are effective in greenfield areas, but less effective in established areas like downtown Zebulon.
“Form-based codes focus on the public realm – the facades of buildings and the streetscape,” Meadows said. “They don’t care at all about what happens on the backs of sites. That is slightly different than traditional development regulations, which focus more on use and focus more on the area inside a lot line.”
Meadows suggested using a more traditional coding system in which the town can still enjoy the aesthetic-heavy benefits of the form-based code.
But, ultimately, he stressed that the town leaders need to understand the pros and cons of using a form-based code for the town’s core, and said he was concerned that they might not be aware of everything that comes into play using that approach.
“You’re exactly right,” Matheny said.
An effective tool
Meadows said the UDO will be the primary means for implementing the Zebulon Comprehensive Plan, adopted in 2008 to establish goals and policies to achieve desired growth.
He said the comprehensive plan will not be an effective tool for the town if the UDO is not pieced together properly.
One of the most important goals in the project, Meadows said, is to maintain Zebulon’s small-town character.
He pointed to an example of a mixed-use building with a McDonald’s on the ground level and apartment space above, telling board members he’s not sure that’s exactly the kind of mixed use Zebulon wants.
“The point is, if you use your UDO to kind of identify and document your vision, then you’re going to be in the driver’s seat,” Meadows said. “If you fail to identify and clarify your vision for the development community, you’re just as likely to get what you see here on the picture.”
He said another goal of the UDO is revise the town’s zoning district lineup.
“One thing that successful communities use their zoning map for is identifying the path of least resistance for desired development,” he said. “The UDO is a tool for you to manage, instead of being managed ... it’s a real vehicle for you to make the kind of development that you want easy, and the kind of development that you don’t want more difficult.”
Cleaning up the procedures required of developers will make Zebulon more attractive as it competes with other towns for desirable growth, Meadows said.
“Ensuring a predictable and efficient review process is one of the smartest things that you can do,” he said. “If you use your UDO as a tool to streamline the development review process, make it efficient, because we all know time is money when it comes to development; if you can use your regulations to show the development community, ‘Here’s our playbook, if you follow the rules, you’ll move through quickly, you’ll move through easily, no surprises,’ then you’ll be ahead of the game, ahead of your competitors.”