City considering changes to zoning laws

Amendment would prevent homeless people from living in cars on private property

The city Planning Commission this week recommended that City Council adopt a pair of recently introduced zoning amendments — one designed to prevent homeless people from living in cars on private property and one designed to make it easier to adapt former public school and government buildings for commercial re-use in residential areas.

The amendment designed to prevent homeless people from living in cars on private property reworks the definit­ion of “dwelling,” such that any dwelling must have cooking, bathroom and sanitary facilities.

The impetus for the change came from a situation recently that police had the authority to eliminate, because the vehicle being used as a dwelling was parked on a city street, and it’s illegal to live on public property, according to Lee Slusser, the city’s community development director.

If council adopts the amendment, it also would become illegal to live in a vehicle parked on private ground.

The amendment designed to make it easier to redevelop former public school and government buildings for commercial use in residential zones adds those kind of buildings to zoning provisions that already ease the regulatory burden for redevelopment of former commercial and industrial buildings in residential areas.

The existing zoning ordinance does that by allowing those commercial and industrial re-uses as “special exceptions,” if the city’s Zoning Hearing Board finds the proposed projects meet a set of requirements designed to minimize problems for neighbors.

The reason for allowing that special exception included the belief that a former corner store, for example, ought to be able to return to that use, if someone is willing to make it happen, Slusser said.

The impetus for the proposed addition of former public schools and government buildings is the Nehemiah Project’s recent acquisition of the former Wright Elementary School, he said.

The zoning law allows former commercial and industrial buildings to be re-used for purposes similar to their original ones if the owners can show they can’t reasonably afford to redevelop for residential use, that there will be enough parking, no traffic changes damaging to the residential character of the neighborhood, reasonable hours of operation, no expansion of the building beyond 20 percent and compliance with any reasonable orders of the board, according to the ordinance.

Parking is probably the biggest issue, Slusser said.

Redeveloping a former school or government building for commercial use can be not only more affordable for developers, it also can create less of a parking and traffic problem than redevelopment for the residential use — while also preserving the building’s architecture, according to Slusser.

Many old elementary schools were built in an era when most kids walked to school — and when the schools were close to where the students lived, so that there was little need for parking, Slusser said.

The former Keith Junior High School in Fairview was parking-starved, and the developers who turned it into a residential structure had to be “creative,” senior planner Nic Ardizzone said.

The amendment can help preserve Altoona’s “mixed-use heritage” — of which he’s fond — without destroying neighborhoods, Slusser said.

The state’s Municipalities Planning Code requires municipal planning commissions to review zoning changes proposed by the municipality’s elected governing body.

Council will hold a hearing on the proposed changes at 6:45 p.m. Wednesday in Council Chambers at 16th Street and Washington Avenue, just before its regular meeting.

Planning Commission member Dave Albright, an architect, suggested that churches ought to be added to the redevelopment provision.

Slusser said that was a good idea, although it would need to wait for some future revision, as the current one would need to start all over with advertisements and council introduction if it were added.

Mirror Staff Writer William Kibler is at 949-7038.