Institutional zoning for city needs study

ONE OF THE PROBLEMS that can arise for city planners is making special cases fit into general rules and regulations.

The Plymouth Plan Commission began a discussion at their last meeting of just such a conundrum and it will be interesting to see where the discussion leads.

City Building Inspector Pete Scheuerman raised the issue and the commission directed him to study it and report back to them with possible recommendations.

At issue is whether the city needs a separate zoning classification for churches, schools and other public buildings.

Currently, Scheuerman explained, most of the city’s schools are located in residential zoning areas. Churches are allowed in any zoning area anywhere in the city, from residential to industrial.

That probably dates back to the days when schools and churches were smaller facilities that were more neighborhood oriented, with limited hours of operation, and more people walked to school or church than drove there.

But things have changed and today many schools and churches are multi-purpose facilities with special needs and concerns.

One example Scheuerman cited was the number of auxiliary and accessory buildings at Plymouth High School, which is located in a residentially-zoned area.

The city’s zoning code places strict limits on the number and size of such additional structures on a residential parcel – and rightly so. A typical residential lot doesn’t really have room for more than a home, a garage and perhaps one additional shed or other building. To allow more would create clutter, blight and eyesores that would be unacceptable.

Yet the high school, over the years, has constructed several accessory storage buildings, concession stands for athletic fields and, most obviously, the sizable Food and Agricultural Science Center building.

If the city strictly applied its zoning rules and regulations to the high school property, none of those necessary and beneficial structures would have been allowed – even though the high school parcel is more than large enough to comfortably and esthetically support them.

Allowing churches in any zoning classification opens the potential for unwanted intrusions or circumventions of the intent of the zoning ordinance.

To address such concerns, many municipalities have added a zoning classification for institutional buildings, such as churches, schools, medical facilities, government buildings and more.

That’s the issue Scheuerman will be studying and city officials may eventually have to decide. But it may not be an easy call.

Retroactively applying such a zoning classification to existing buildings may lead to de facto spot zoning or worse.

At the same time, creating a specific, exclusive institutional zoning area within the city may not be practical. It could create the illusion, at least, of attempting to ‘ghettoize’ such facilities and could lead to challenges on the grounds of limiting religious expression.

Still, other communities have successfully established such a zoning classification and made it work, so it could be possible in Plymouth, if it is carefully and thoughtfully constructed.

Whether it is a separate zoning classification, or some kind of clarification in the current zoning code to establish separate guidelines for public institutions within other zoning classifications, it is an issue that needs to be addressed.

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