Probably the most fraught issues I have to deal with in my office are anything having to do with development and zoning. Neighbors get very concerned, and rightly so, when they hear about a new subdivision or commercial center in their area. I try to work with developers and neighbors, but as you’ll see, I can’t always be an advocate.
The department that deals with those issues is the Planning and Development Services Department or PDSD. Even though it is a relatively small department (56 employees), the work they do is a core function of our city. What they do, according to their mission statement, is to “protect the health, safety and welfare of residents and visitors and enhance the quality of life in Tucson”
One key way they protect health and safety in our community is through their Building Safety office. These are the people who perform inspections of construction of new buildings as well as inspections after fires or other damage to buildings. There is also a group responsible for reviewing plans when a new building is built. The department has put an emphasis on making sure that these inspectors are cross trained in several areas to streamline the process.
Code enforcement was once part of their job too, but that has been moved to Environmental Services.
Much of the rest of PDSD’s work is on planning issues. This covers a whole range of topics from historical preservation to examining possible code changes. The part of the planning function my office gets the most calls about is rezoning.
As most of you know, a given piece of land is assigned a “zone.” If you were to pick out a random part of Tucson, it would most likely be a residential zone (R1, R2, RX1 et cetera), commercial zone (C1, C2…), industrial zone (I1, I2) or office zone (O1, O2…). There are a few others, but those categories cover most of Tucson. For example, the property your house is on is likely zoned R1 or R2. Only other residences can be built in that area, unless someone tries to rezone it. Usually, new property owners will try to rezone either to change the use of the area (there were homes there, but now someone wants to build offices) or the density (it is zoned to allow a few houses, but a developer would like to build a lot of them).
Even though most development doesn’t need a rezoning, when they do, there is a public process. Neighbors in the immediate area are informed, along with nearby neighborhood associations. Developers are required to have meetings with neighbors throughout the process, plus there are public hearings.
PDSD is responsible for reviewing plans and staffing for mandated public hearings. Depending on what is being asked for, development plans may get reviewed at public hearings by either the zoning examiner or the planning commission.
The zoning examiner acts a lot like a judge. He presides over a hearing where developers, neighbors and other interested community members testify as to their concerns about a particular zoning.
The planning commission, which consists of citizens, reviews changes to neighborhood plans, which are overall rules about what can be built in certain areas. There might be a desire to change a zoning that isn’t allowed by a neighborhood plan, for example, and some neighborhood plans mandate height or density restrictions.
The thing to remember about both of these processes is that they are quasi-judicial. They make findings and send the recommendations to me and my colleagues on the council for a final decision. As such, I don’t tell them what to do, and I’m really careful to meet with both sides when one of these issues comes up.
There has been an emphasis over the last few years on PDSD being more “customer friendly.” Developers used to complain that it was difficult to navigate the process. I don’t hear those complaints any more. Of course, as a city department, PDSD is not only responsible to developers, but our entire community. They’ve rolled out some online tools to make it easier for citizens to track development in their area. Links to all of these can be found at the PDSD website at tucsonaz.gov/pdsd.
One is MapTucson. This has been available for a while, but they have made it more accessible. As the name says, it’s an online map of Tucson and you can zoom in to look at different parcels and find out about zoning, inspections and proposed rezonings. Along with MapTucson, you can click on the Development Activity Map that shows all of the proposed rezonings and other changes across the city.
A new feature is NoticeTucson. This allows you to define a given area and allows you to get e-mailed notices for any new activity where there is an opportunity for public comment, whether that be a rezoning or a special exemption for a cell tower. Unfortunately, because liquor licenses are filed with the state, they are not included.
There are some other functions on there to keep you informed. I’d recommend checking them out.
Over the last week, the City has hired two new department heads.
One is over at Tucson Fire. I’d like to welcome the 28th Chief of Tucson Fire, Charles Ryan. Chief Ryan has worked in the Fire Service since 1994 and is joining TFD having most recently served as an Assistant Fire Chief with the Fairfax County (Va.) Fire and Rescue Department. He starts September 30th.
The other is over at another department, Housing and Community Development. I’d like to welcome Liz Morales on board as our new director. Liz has been the interim director of the department (splitting time with running the Housing Department in Mesa) since June. I will be writing a bit more about the important work that Liz and her department do for residents of our city.