Proposed landscaping rules sent back to drawing board

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

CHAPEL HILL -- Town planners reviewed three new books on landscaping at their meeting last week when the rules might have been compared to the porridge Goldilocks tasted at the three bears' house.

One was too long and complicated. One was too short and not very specific, and the third seemed to be just right, except the planners weren't sure, so they asked a state adviser to iron out wrinkles so they'd be comfortable with the new rules.

"When I went through the books, I saw programs from Estill Springs and Pleasant View," State Planner Kristin M. Costanzo told Chapel Hill's Planning Commission on Dec. 1.

Costanzo's predecessors had copied and pasted parts of other town's rules on what developers must do when building a housing subdivision, planting trees, shrubs and otherwise landscaping the property.

During previous meetings of the commission, town leaders had criticized at least one proposal. It required developers to hire a landscape architect to give some assurances that stormwater would drain without flooding nearby properties. Some commissions said that gravity flow isn't complicated and a town official could enforce a landscaping ordinance.

"I've been here for five years," Town Administrator Mike Hatten said during the meeting, "and I think we've been working on this for about four and a half."

Costanzo noted delays included recurring changes in the planners assigned to Chapel Hill by her employer, the Local Planning Office in the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development. Some accepted new jobs with architects and engineers. Others went to work for a municipality, instead of advising several through the state planning office.

Since Costanzo has served Chapel Hill for more than a few months now, the proposed landscaping ordinance has been brought back to planning commissioners in anticipation of recommending one set of rules for adoption by the town's Board of Mayor and Aldermen.

"There was one," Hatten said of the various proposals, "that was so detailed that it seemed hard to work with."

Planning commissioners discussed where the new rules would be placed in the town code book. It could be part of the zoning ordinance on land use. There might even be a separate book on landscaping requirements for housing developments.

"You have to have rules and regulations because we'll have developers who will do things to just get it done," Alderwoman Marion Joyce said.

She's the town board's representative on the planning commission.

One of the three proposals is "very basic," Hatten said. It doesn't explain enforcement practices. Another "spells out" how landscaping is to be reviewed.

Planning Commissioner John Chunn, a Lewisburg-based builder, endorsed having a section in the landscaping ordinance that assigns responsibility to planning commissioners over various aspects of landscaping.

Hatten indicated that could include decisions on "buffer" zones, typically berms and/or rows of trees and shrubs to block, for example, what people could see as they drove by backyards of homes.

"Couldn't we just leave it (buffering) as up to the planning commission?" Hatten asked, and Costanzo replied that's possible.

"Sometimes," Hatten continued, "it's about location" of homes and what's across the property line. A distinction should be made between backyards facing an open field versus another backyard.

Commission discussion indicated landscaping ordinances elsewhere are too specific, including specifications on the species of trees to be planted. Yet, there were also acknowledgments that other property owners should be protected against changes in drainage patterns caused by new homes.

Hatten asked Costanzo if she could return to the three proposals and draft something that would fit the parameters of the town's preferences and Costanzo accepted the assignment with a suggestion from Mayor Carl Cooper.

His preference addressed the issue of length of the prospective document.

It should be "like a lady's skirt," Cooper said: "short enough to be interesting and long enough to cover the subject."