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Thursday, Jan. 11, 2018 12:07 am

The best-laid plans

Developers, planners consider land use

 Developers have made peace over a comprehensive land-use plan for Springfield, but a larger battle may lie ahead.

Concerned that the draft plan would curb development, particularly on the city’s west side, developers convinced the city to postpone a vote on the plan that had been expected in December. The move to stall a vote prompted worries among the plan’s authors and neighborhood activists opposed to sprawl.

“I’m being really honest here: When the developers first had their initial memo that went to all of you and raised some concern and proposed changes, from a pure planning perspective, from the regional planning office, we were concerned,” Molly Berns, acting director of the Springfield-Sangamon County Regional Planning Commission told the city council Tuesday during a committee of the whole meeting.

Among other things, developers wanted agricultural land on the city’s outskirts, dubbed “conservation” in the draft plan, labeled “agriculture undetermined” in the final product. “That basically says that those (lands) have no proscribed land uses or policies, so we’re just going to leave them hanging there,” Berns said. Instead, developers and planners agreed that such land could be developed so long as development was consistent with the plan’s goals.

Concerns largely were resolved during a Monday meeting between developers, city officials and planners. The results were lauded by both Ward 1 Ald. Chuck Redpath and Ward 7 Ald. Joe McMenamin, who previously have clashed over development issues, with McMenamin calling for stricter controls on development than his colleague.

“Well done, Molly,” McMenamin said. Redpath called it a “reasonable compromise.”

Part of the issue, Berns said, was a misunderstanding about the nature of the plan. The plan, by itself, does not regulate development. Rather, the plan is more a philosophical statement of how the city should develop. Zoning and development regulations that dictate how and where development will happen are supposed to be created based on the plan. At the suggestion of developers, planners agreed to insert language stating that the plan is advisory. “When the plan is adopted, that’s when the real work begins,” Berns told the council.

Aldermen and Mayor Jim Langfelder said they favor development.

“If you took this (plan), word for word, set in stone, in my mind it would have prevented development on the outskirts of town,” Ward 10 Ald. Ralph Hanauer said. “We had how many housing starts last year? We need to get that up.”

Ward 9 Ald. Jim Donelan said he wants to see more large subdivisions.

“When I first read the plan, one of my concerns was, it would somehow limit a new subdivision from being done on the west side of Springfield,” Donelan said. “I’m very concerned that there isn’t a significant, major, new subdivision even being proposed that I’m aware of. They’re occurring elsewhere in the county.”

“May I respond?” Berns replied. “It doesn’t prohibit that. But your comprehensive plan outlines what the city would prefer our land use to be. … Can the city infrastructure support it? Is it going to be a detriment to the area?”

The draft plan states that development shouldn’t occur absent adequate roads and other public infrastructure. Developers had proposed changing language to allow development if a plan for providing infrastructure is present. They settled on this: “Property currently undeveloped, particularly property in outlying or planning boundary areas, should only be developed if the necessary infrastructure will be in place.” In an interview, Berns said that means infrastructure would be present when development happens as opposed to some time in the future.

What constitutes sufficient infrastructure promises to be a debate for another day. The plan recommends that the city consider adopting a scoring system to determine whether roads and other infrastructure are sufficient to allow development. The lack of adequate roads became an issue last fall when the council approved plans for a 50-duplex subdivision on the west side that will be served by Lenhart Road, a narrow, unlit street with no shoulders or sidewalks. The superintendent of the New Berlin school district last year told the council that the road surface undulates to the point that schoolchildren who fall asleep on school buses have been tossed out of their seats.

Under current development regulations, however, roads are considered adequate for development if fire trucks can get through, and so the council green-lighted the subdivision. The city, Berns said, can change that standard when it creates development regulations based on the plan. Langfelder has said the city needs to improve the way road projects are carried out to support new development. He reiterated that during Tuesday’s meeting.

“We’re pro-development,” Langfelder said. “The housing aspect’s a key component. What you have to take into consideration are the other aspects of it, with regards to infrastructure, and that’s where we struggled with Lenhart Road.”

Berns told aldermen that conversations with developers are continuing, but planners are “very close” to producing a final product for council consideration.

Contact Bruce Rushton at brushton@illinoistimes.com.

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