Saturday, September 23, 2023

City Council, Business Owners Tussle Over Ukiah’s Conflicting Zoning Codes

The property at the center of Ukiah’s zoning code debacle [Photograph by Sarah Reith]

The saga of the Redwood Credit Union’s application for a site development permit to build a new branch in the City of Ukiah has been continued to a date uncertain. But city officials had to come to terms with discrepancies in the code. Council members, planning commissioners, members of the public and staff had widely divergent interpretations as the applicant flailed, presenting half a dozen plans with proposals that verged on the absurd.

In June, the Ukiah City Planning Commission denied the credit union’s proposal to build a new branch downtown, on the grounds that it did not meet the specifications of the downtown zoning code and the general plan. One sticking point was a requirement that new buildings be at least two stories tall. And commissioners were not enthusiastic about a single-use project that dedicated most of the property to parking.

At the Ukiah City Council meeting on Wednesday night, the credit union appealed the commission’s decision before the council, which offered further suggestions on the sixth iteration of the building’s design.

The credit union, currently located in the Orchard Avenue shopping center, bought a property on the corner of Perkins and Main last year. Perkins Street is a focal point of a new plan to revitalize the city’s main corridors, in anticipation of the new courthouse and optimism about property values.

The parcel has two buildings that will need to be demolished before any construction on a new building can begin. The buildings are covered with pressed metal siding that has historical significance for the city’s agricultural heritage and is contaminated with lead. Redwood Credit Union applied for a major site development permit in December of last year, along with the first version of its design for the building. 

The Planning Commission then held a hearing that stretched over the course of two meetings in May and June. Redwood Credit Union submitted the fifth version of the design the day before the second Planning Commission meeting, which left one of the commissioners without enough time to review the changes. 

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On Wednesday, the City Council pondered the sixth version of the plan, leading Council member Douglas Crane to observe that, “The matter before us is for a different building.” Though he worried about “short-circuiting the system,” the council did not return the matter to the Planning Commission.

Michelle Irace, the city’s lead planner on the project, revealed the most significant change from the previous five design plans. “Downtown zoning code also identifies a minimum stories, or height, for buildings, noted as two to three stories for this zoning designation,” she declared. “The project historically proposed a one-story project of approximately 12 feet. With this latest iteration, the applicant is proposing a 25-foot building with a faux second story.”

City Attorney David Rapport shared some information. “The downtown zoning code, which is what creates that two-story requirement, that’s not in the general plan,” he said. “There’s no requirement in the general plan that it be a two-story building. And there’s no requirement in the general plan that it be multi-use. It encourages multi-use, but it doesn’t require each project that gets proposed to be multi-use.”

Mayor Mari Rodin reflected that, “As much as we want to see a mixed-use project there, I don’t think that we can do that. It wouldn’t be legal. I think we could be sued if we denied it and insisted that they had to be mixed use.”

The city council chambers were packed, as they have been for each of the previous meetings on the subject of the credit union. Each of the planning commissioners spoke during public comment to explain their votes, including Alex de Grassi, who argued that the codes are not as vague as city planners and attorneys made them out to be.  “The review authority may approve a site development permit application only after first finding the proposed project is consistent with the City of Ukiah general plan, the Ukiah City code, and this code, referencing the downtown zoning code,” he said. “And that was why the Planning Commission finds that the proposed project is not consistent with either the general plan or the city code or the downtown zoning code.” He added that in his opinion, “One of the big hidden issues in all of this is parking,” which he said “eats up a lot of property,” in a part of town with more places to park than there are places to go.

Redwood Credit Union responded to concerns about too much parking by removing some of the spaces from an earlier design proposal and replacing them with parklets, or miniature parks. Council member Susan Sher didn’t think it would be healthy to hang out in the parking lot, due to the possibility of people idling their cars while they waited for their passengers to conduct business inside the bank.  “Even in the absence of idling, a parklet in a parking lot is not a great idea,” she opined. “And it also could invite camping.”

Essence Roberson, a small business owner, sympathized with the credit union, saying her experience starting a business in the city was similarly arduous. “I just have to say, the arbitrary reasons for why we don’t want this project approved are kind of ridiculous,” she said during public comment. “Because of a faux top? Because it doesn’t fit the aesthetic of what we want it to look like? Look at the alternative. I can tell you right now, that as a newcomer to Ukiah, I face regret every single day about starting my business here. And that makes me very sad to say. I can’t with good conscience or faith encourage anybody else who’s a small business owner who has an incredible idea to do it here. For this exact reason.”

Doug Hilberman, the architect who is working with the credit union, said he thinks a strict interpretation of the downtown zoning code could have far-reaching ramifications. “You’re asking someone to invest 25-30 million dollars in that property,” he told the council. “Pretty soon, your businesses will not be able to develop properties. You’re going to have to have a developer, a large-scale developer funding these. And when you think about playing that across all of the downtown zoning code, that may limit some of your future.”

Rodin proposed making a list of suggestions for the next design idea until a long-term plan is forged. “Our code doesn’t really align with the plan,” she said, noting that the city is planning to redo its downtown zoning code. “But in the meantime, I think we should do the best we can with the code we have, and try to find a balance between what our code requires and what the developers are able to do.”

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Crane concurred, saying, “We have question marks inside our own system that we have to come to grips with.”

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  1. Dont get me started the city says windless flags on the poles are not allowed either. Yet big business like speedway ,Chevron and top business owners can have them

  2. The city planners and council better clear up the code and general plan because the court house coming up in the next year or two.

  3. The conflicting codes, the idea of parklets in a parking lot, where there is traffic, is dangerous. As one citizen who spoke asked, why hasn’t a traffic study been done for this site? The first site they chose for the business was perfect. That is the site they should be able to use. Unfortunately, they cannot use that building for a bank. So, the homeless can continue to dwell, trash, and use it as a toilet. That’s a great site to see as you come into town.Please come together soon on this, it’s been long enough!

  4. These are the same morons who allowed the drive thru at Starbucks on Perkins. Multiple accidents and congestion . And better yet on one of the busiest streets in Ukiah. But let’s allow an eyesore to stand because we don’t have our shit together. The bank will build a beautiful building and be investing in our community. These people are just as stupid as the Board of Stupid at the County.

    • The Savings Bank should be hugely ashamed of having the language in their deed about banning the sale of property to another bank. How entirely selfish and uncommunity minded for a hometown institution. I say put public pressure on the Savings Bank to amend the deed and allow the Perkins St bank site to be used by RCU. Would solve so many issues and make a better community for us all!!!!

      • Agree. That is the best location for RCU. The spot they now want would be better suited for retail and, perhaps, second story living.

      • The City of Ukiah has re-zoned the old bank site. It no longer can have a drive- thru. But Savings Bank in the Downtown Corridor has a drive-thru. This is why change is needed at Planning Commission and City Council. Isn’t it funny that as long as Savings Bank was there, a drive-thru was allowed. When Savings Bank built a downtown location, miraculously a drive thru was allowed in the Downtown Corridor. My advice to RCU, sue the City of Ukiah. They have no clear plan and what is there contradicts what they are asking of you.

  5. Building costs are skyrocketing and a one story seems like a cost effective budget minded company. City & County Boards do not use moneys wisely these days. There is no accountability. Talk of round abouts while major roads are in horrible conditions & in desperate need of repair. It’s so bad to drive from freeway into heart of town, embarrassing that tourist see the neglect of most roads. Young people working & taking kids to school, need to drive and get to work. Retired people want to walk everywhere? Yet most older folks are not an able to walk far. Why is a few determining the infrastructure from their perspective only while the entire younger working, going to school population & disabled, are ignored? Our governments neglecting the most basic of maintenance of all roads. When traveling its apparent that other county’s and towns take care of their roads very well. And they also allow new buildings and growth.

    • I feel your frustration with this community. It may take a new generation of leadership bodies to change the status quo here.

  6. Why not build? Because the people running this city are fucking idiots period! Let’s leave businesses empty so the homeless have more places to set up camp. Look around people Ukiah has gone to shit..

  7. This says everything and it’s poor, “I face regret every single day about starting my business here. And that makes me very sad to say. I can’t with good conscience or faith encourage anybody else who’s a small business owner who has an incredible idea to do it here.”

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Sarah Reith
Sarah Reith
Sarah Reith is a radio and print reporter working in Mendocino and Humboldt counties, focusing on local politics and environmental news.

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