Board to give advice on town building heights

Published 11:26 am Tuesday, February 27, 2007

By Staff
Officials express concerns about protecting city’s skyline, providing for development
By MIKE VOSS, Contributing Editor
Washington’s Planning Board has been handed another task by the City Council — to make recommendations about the heights of new buildings constructed in the city.
In a discussion that was more philosophical than practical, council members and board members talked about the need to regulate building heights, especially in the city’s downtown and waterfront areas. They took no action after their discussion.
Several council members indicated their preference for one regulatory option that surfaced during a joint meeting of the two bodies held Monday. That option calls for placing a maximum height on a building constructed on property that is adjacent to any river or stream in the city’s jurisdiction. Some board members also liked that option.
That alternative could be implemented by the council approving a new overlay district that would apply to any and all zoning districts in the city where property abuts a river or stream. Rules associated with an overlay would supersede regulations associated with a specific zoning district.
The city’s existing height controls have been in place since the 1950s, according to Bobby Roberson, the city’s director of planning and development.
During discussion of several options, Councilman Archie Jennings said it “sounds to me like the overlay may be the answer.”
Other options discussed included extending an existing Historic District overlay to cover property on the south side of the Pamlico River and placing a moratorium on new construction that has a proposed building height greater than 65 feet.
The joint meeting came about after council members began considering whether adjusting the city’s height restriction on new buildings along its waterfront may be required to protect its waterfront skyline. An existing ordinance requires that a new building in the downtown area be no more than 95 feet high. Some people want to change the ordinance so that maximum height for a building on the waterfront is considerably less than 95 feet.
Several development projects — ongoing or proposed — along the city’s waterfront have resulted in some people voicing concerns that new buildings, if they are several stories high, would interfere or destroy existing views of the river from places more inland than the developments. Others are worried that rooftop additions to existing buildings could also interrupt views or adversely change the city’s skyline.
In the autumn of 2006, the City Council imposed a moratorium on rooftop development in the areas included in the city’s business-historic (B1H) zone. That moratorium expired Jan. 8. When they implemented the moratorium in October 2006, the council and mayor said placing a moratorium on rooftop development in the areas included in the city’s business-historic zone would give the council and mayor time to study how such development could affect the city’s effort to protect the city’s history and historical buildings from inappropriate development and support appropriate economic-development opportunities at the same time.
Although the B1H zone rules restrict a building’s height to no more than 95 feet, an overlay zone for the central business district in the B1H zone takes precedent over the B1H zone regulations, according to Roberson.
Jim Nance, a member of the Planning Board, said the city should encourage appropriate development. He also suggested that unused spaces such as upper floors of existing multi-story buildings be considered for use by developers before they consider constructing new buildings. Once existing space is utilized, then it makes more sense for a developer to approach the city about building a new structure, Nance said.
At least one outside force will play a role in how property is developed, he said.
Jennings said he wants the city to find a way to protect existing buildings from effects of any new construction that may occur in the city.
Councilman Mickey Gahagan said the key to establishing building-height controls is finding the proper balance between aesthetics — preserving the skyline — and protecting the environment. He was referring to the fact that buildings that go up usually require less land than buildings that spread out.
Roberson agrees.
Buildings that “sprawl” instead of going vertical have more impervious surface, resulting in more stormwater runoff. That runoff enters the river and its tributaries, often carrying pollutants with it, Roberson said. A tall building provides less impervious surface, thereby reducing the amount on runoff that gets into waterways, he added.
Although tall buildings likely afford waterways more protection, they also likely would significantly alter a city’s skyline, he noted.
The Planning Board will study the issue and make recommendations to the council. No time table for the board to provide those suggestions was mentioned. The board also is developing recommendations for how the former Evans Seafood property should be used.
For additional coverage of the council’s meeting, see future editions of the Daily News.