The Village of Sunbury is rapidly outgrowing its village status and will become the City of Sunbury after Census 2020 when the town’s population is officially set above 5,000 residents.
The village is already at that magic number according to unofficial estimates noted by the Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission, a.k.a. MORPC (pronounced morp’-see).
Recognizing that the village is not only growing but residential growth will accelerate over the several decades ahead, members of the Village of Sunbury Planning & Zoning Commission have been exploring changes to the current zoning code that will help shape the look and feel of Sunbury as a city.
One element at the top of zoning’s list that discussed during last Monday evening’s (April 27) zoning commission meeting, is how to reduce housing development densities. Currently, Sunbury code allows three homes per gross acre. If a developer has 100 acres that developer could build 300 homes.
Under discussion last week was whether or not to adopt a code change that would limit developers to three homes per net developable acre instead of gross acreage. For example, using the example above of 100 acres of land, zoning code says 20 percent of a Planned Residential Development (PRD) must be maintained as open space, lowering net developable acreage to 80 acres. Factor in another 15 percent of land for street right-of-ways and net acreage is now 65 acres.
Other unbuildable acreage might be wetlands, overhead utilities, floodplains, and slopes greater than 20 percent grade, and net developable acreage could be lowered significantly, almost halving the number of homes allowed on the 100-acre example.
Sunbury village solicitor David Brehm said some nearby municipalities and townships like Westerville and Genoa Township, to lower densities, use a net developable acre model in zoning codes.
“What you’re seeing the last couple of years is homes per acre going down,” Brehm said. “Genoa uses net at 85 percent of gross area and 1.8 units per net developable acre; Westerville is 1.8 homes per net developable acre.”
Brehm said the reason for the discussion is the village has large tracts of land opening up that will attract residential developers.
“We’ve already got a lot of 60 foot wide lots in the village,” Brehm said. “Do you want to continue to build the same as you go out from the village core, or have your densities get lower with bigger lots so they’re less packed developments?”
Brehm said the City of Powell has a much lower per gross acre density, but allows builders incentives to increase housing densities. Incentives are tied to dedicating land for public use, connections with trails, granting right-of-ways, and other useful public amenities.
“I’m concerned about going strictly the way Westerville or Genoa has gone,” Brehm said. “I like the idea of having lower gross acreage densities and then incentives to go up. The whole net density discussion is based on the idea that three acres gross is high density, but I’m not convinced that net acreage is the appropriate way to go. It’s a lot easier for some developer coming to Sunbury to deal with gross acreage. Net buildable acreage is much more time intensive to do.
“I would like to get this done sooner rather than later before a big development comes along,” Brehm added. “I’d also like to make some comparisons with municipalities similar to Sunbury. It’s hard to compare us with places like Westerville with 40,000 people and a different tax structure; and Powell’s median household income is three times ours.”
Sunbury Mayor Tommy Hatfield said the important point of the discussion is finding a zoning code model that lowers housing development densities.
“I would rather have a lower number of houses per gross acre with incentives, and get the diversity we want in our town,” Hatfield said. “I would like us to get density down to something like 2.2 homes per acre.”
Also discussed was cleaning up zoning code language to clearly define that 50 percent of land dedicated to open space in a development must be usable by the public, not unbuildable and unusable acreage like wetlands and overhead power line easements.
Brehm also noted that village zoning code lacks a Planned Multi-Family District section that would allow the village more controls over multi-family developments.
“The advantage for you with a Planned Multi-Family District is when a developer wants to build something like that they have to come to you with the plan,” Brehm said.
Reporter Lenny C. Lepola can be reached at 614-266-6093.