City mulls major changes to comp plan

Big changes are planned in this year’s roster of Port Orchard comprehensive plan amendments.

The most significant proposed change will affect the development potential of more than one-third of the city’s residential areas.

City staff, at the request of the city council members, are proposing to add a third residential density designation to the comp plan, which now only has two — low density and high density. The new medium density designation would fall between the other two, limiting housing units to a maximum of eight to 12 per usable acre.

At present, the majority of the city’s residential areas have been designated high density, which means up to 20 dwelling units per acre could legally be built there.

“The reason that was done was, in essence, to give you an interim step,” said planning commission chair Gil Michael.

Michael stopped by the city’s open house Wednesday night — an event planned to give residents the chance to see the proposed changes and offer comments on them. Apart from Michael, who stayed much of the evening discussing planning policy with city staff, few showed up at the event.

City planner Rob Wenman said he was disappointed by the turnout, but figured most people didn’t understand the proposed changes and didn’t think they would affect them. Michaels vehemently disagreed with that assessment.

“I’m surprised there aren’t more people here,” he said. “We have taken future development rights away from people.”

Michael was referencing the way the new medium-density designation was proposed to be incorporated into the comp plan map. Under the proposed change, two large areas — and several smaller areas — in residential Port Orchard would be reduced from a high-density designation to a medium-density designation. This would effectively cut in half the number of housing units able to be built on an affected site.

One of the areas, which includes most of the hill overlooking downtown Port Orchard from Kitsap Street to Tremont Street, is already zoned for medium density development. If the changes go through, that area could not be developed at a higher density than it is currently zoned for — eight to 12 units per acre.

The other large area, the triangle of land south of Tremont Street bordered by Sidney Avenue to the west and the city limits to the west, is currently zoned low density residential — 4.5 units per acre — although the comp plan previously permitted much denser development. The new medium-density proposed designation means that area would keep more of its suburban character — condominiums might be possible but apartments would likely not be allowed.

However, the change also means anyone who bought property in that area hoping to up-zone and build dense dwelling complexes would be out of luck — at least until the next round of comp plan changes. At that point, the developer could petition for a plat-specific amendment, although Wenman said those aren’t encouraged and are held to strict standards.

“Right now there is nothing the city can do to prevent (developers) from building any kind of an R-20 unit (in these areas),” Michael said.

That means, under the current comp plan, a single-family house and a multi-level apartment complex could legally sit side-by-side.

Both Wenman and Associate Planner Glynnis Casey said the changes are, in part, aimed at easing the transition from low-density to high-density housing. Wenman said the city will eventually be mostly high-density housing — one of the key goals of the Growth Management Act is to encourage dense growth in cities and keep everything else as rural as possible.

However, there are also concerns about the compatibility of new high-density development with older, low-density neighborhoods.

“I think (the changes) are reinforcing the type of development patterns that are already there,” Wenman said.

The other major proposed change is mostly a housekeeping issue.

Under the current comp plan, there is no greenbelt designation, although greenbelts — such as the one surrounding Blackjack Creek — show up on the city’s zoning maps and have existed as a concept since the 1970s. The planning commission noticed this and requested the city staff make the comp plan come in line with the zoning map, so far as that was concerned.

Greenbelt development is restricted to one-half unit per usable acre, usually because greenbelts surround streams and other critical areas. The comp plan map showed most of the current greenbelts to be developable at 4.5 units per acre, which Casey said could potentially cause problems with land transactions. Potentially, a developer could buy a parcel designated low-density residential on the comp plan, only to find out the land was virtually unbuildable because it lay in a greenbelt.

“(The changes) are trying to create predictability so there’s no confusion about what you can do with your property,” Casey said. “This is a way so everybody understands.”

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