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Planning Commissioners consider changes to utility, sign ordinances
planning comm
The Planning Commission considered changing the requirements for infill developments, like Turlock Assisted Care going in on the corner of E. Main and Colorado, to underground all utilities. - photo by Journal file photo

The Planning Commission is often tasked with finding the right balance between creating a business-friendly City and what's in the best interest of the community as a whole. On Thursday, the commissioners considered changes to two City Zoning Ordinances that could impact incoming developments and existing businesses and the overall aesthetics of the city— utility undergrounding and sign standards.

When Turlock Assisted Care Center requested a permit to build a two-story 67,430 square foot building on E. Main Street in the former site of the Sutter Gould Foundation, the developers requested a waiver in the Zoning requirement to underground all the facility's utilities.

Currently, the Zoning Ordinance requires all new developments, except in agricultural districts, to underground all utilities. Turlock Assisted Care's argument was that undergrounding utilities is expensive and the surrounding developments all have above-ground utilities.

TAC also knew that the City's Zoning Ordinance was set to be updated and didn't want to spend the money on undergrounding utilities months before the regulation could possibly be changed.

In the case of the TAC, the Planning Commission allowed the developer to defer undergrounding its utilities, with conditions. The developer had to install the foundation work for the utilities to eventually be placed underground, a time limit was set on undergrounding and a lien was placed on the property for the cost of the work.

Deferment isn't the answer, however, as Commissioner Nick Hackler called it "passing the buck."

Turlock Assisted Care wasn't the first and won't be the last developer to seek relief from the undergrounding requirement, according Deputy Director of Development Services Debra Whitmore.

"Undergrounding utilities is one of those areas we get requests from the development community to not have to do this," said Whitmore.

Although the ordinance states that all developments must underground, it also gives the Development Services Director the ability to waive the requirement "if it can be demonstrated to the Director that site conditions make underground placement impractical."

"The problem is we don't have a good definition of impractical," said Whitmore.

The purpose of undergrounding utilities is two-fold: reduce visual blight and eliminate interference with growth of street trees.

The Commissioners agreed that all new planned developments would require undergrounding utilities, it was the infill projects that were the focus of possible exceptions.

"If it's too costly it reduces the incentive for infill, which we really want to encourage," said Commissioner Jeff Hillberg. "In a perfect world they would all be underground."

The City has previously waived the requirement if the cost of undergrounding utilities was 50 percent or more of the entire project. Both the Commissioners and City staff agreed that cost should not be the sole factor in a development receiving a waiver.

"We should tie it to realistic expectation of development further down the line," said Development Services Director and City Engineer Mike Pitcock.

The discussion about possible changes to the undergrounding requirement or more defined guidelines for the City to grant a waiver will continue as the Commission directed City staff to gather information on what other cities require in regards to utilities and new developments.

The Commissioners were also presented on Thursday with the first draft of potential sign standards. Right now, developments around town have differing sign programs. According to Whitmore, a city-wide sign program would standardize the size and scale of signs, avoid overcrowding and ensure that signs don't dominate the architecture.

The proposed standards for sign letter height start at 2 feet for a business under 2,500 square feet in size and go up to a business with 100,000 or more square feet allowed a sign with 6-foot high lettering.

The standards would also define the area in which a sign could be placed on the facade of a building. The signage area could not be taller than 85 percent or wider than 70 percent of the portion of the facade on which the sign would be mounted.

The Planning Commissioners voiced approval of the proposed sign standards, however, it is just a first draft and still needs requirements for secondary signs.

The Commission has been working for years on updating the Sign Ordinance and hopes to see more enforcement of current restrictions, such as human billboards, temporary signs and off-premises signs.

Enforcement of the Sign Ordinance was addressed at a joint Planning Commission and City Council meeting in August and will be discussed again at a follow-up joint meeting set for Jan. 26, 2016.