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Zoning update online
•Learn more about the proposed Allen County and Fort Wayne zoning ordinance at www.allencounty.us/dps.

Zoning laws 4 years in the making

When done, city’s and county’s will be near identical

– If you plan to open a haberdashery, you need to be quick about it: A year from now, there may be no provision in city or county zoning law for your business.

Same goes for millinery shops.

For almost four years, Fort Wayne and Allen County officials have been working on a complete revision of their zoning laws – not just an update, but a total rewrite.

Aside from the historic nature of such an undertaking – the county’s law is more than a half-century old – it is also a vast amount of work: The county’s law currently fills more than 400 pages, and the city’s is more than 500 pages.

But officials aren’t just updating the laws, they’re also aligning them. When done, both the city and county laws will be nearly identical.

“They’ll be as similar as we can make them,” senior planner Pat Fahey said.

The city and county have already combined their planning and zoning departments into one entity, but until the update is done, that department oversees two separate, different laws. Officials believe that having two identical laws will make it easier for development because the rules will be the same no matter where they locate.

The city updated its zoning law in the 1990s, but that update was piecemeal to address specific issues that had come up. A complete overhaul of any law is a rare thing. But to combine that overhaul with an attempt to make the differences between two government entities nearly seamless is almost unheard of.

“It’s the perfect chance to update and align,” said Kim Bowman, executive director of the Department of Planning Services, the combined planning and zoning department that serves both the city and county.

So the specific zoning provisions for haberdasheries and millinery shops will be gone (for the record, a haberdashery is a men’s outfitter; a millinery shop specializes in women’s hats). So too will be the provision for a “notion store,” which sells sewing supplies such as needles and zippers.

Those businesses will still be allowed, of course, they’ll just be listed under modern names, such as “clothing store.”

“Nobody under the age of 70 uses those terms,” Bowman said. “But you look at the ordinance and you can’t find the word ‘daycare’ in it. There’s nothing about the Internet.”

Zoning officials recognize that, to most of the world, their work is hardly exciting. They know that “land-use plans” and “nonconforming uses” are not topics of most people’s conversations. But they also know that the zoning laws affect people dramatically – zoning becomes vital when your next-door neighbor wants to open a commercial hog operation.

Even something as simple as an addition to your house can make you think about zoning laws in ways you never imagined.

“All of a sudden, zoning becomes an important thing in your life,” Bowman said.

“For most people, their biggest investment they’ll ever make is their house,” Fahey said. “These laws could have a potential financial impact on that, as well.”

Officials are also using the update as a chance to make the law easier to use, so that when people do become interested in zoning, they can find the information they need.

“To pick up the book now is very intimidating,” Bowman said.

Fahey points out the laws were written to be used by those who deal with them every day: zoning officials.

“The ordinance wasn’t intended to be user friendly,” Fahey said. “To really get the information, you’d have to know where to look.”

To that end, Bowman said, the seemingly endless lists of things allowed and prohibited are being replaced by charts and tables. The development standards for residential development in the current law take nearly 10 pages; in the rewrite it is less than two pages.

Officials are also trying to ensure the rules make more sense. For example, some things are spelled out within the law as allowed, but the department was still requiring a hearing. That gave the plan commission a vote on something the law said the property owner had a right to do, setting them up for a lawsuit if they voted against it.

“That also created frustration for the public, because the neighbors would come in and testify against something, and then the plan commission would approve it anyway,” Bowman said. “So they were like, ‘Didn’t they listen to us?’ ”

Under the new law, she said, the public will be able to give its input on things where the plan commission actually has discretion, such as rezoning or when someone is asking for an exception to the rules.

The department will have more public meetings and input sessions on the updates in May or June and then will begin the approval process. The city and county plan commissions will each hold public hearings on the proposal, and then the county commissioners and City Council will have to approve the new zoning laws.

dstockman@jg.net

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