City on way to lightened buffer rules

After a number of split votes, the Rio Rancho Governing Body on Wednesday approved a first reading of ordinance amendments lessening certain requirements for buffers between adjacent commercial and residential property.

The new rules passed 5-1, with Councilor Chuck Wilkins casting the dissenting vote, after governing body members considered adjustments to staff recommendations. The changes must pass a second reading to take effect.

Development Services Director Dolores Wood said city staff had long thought the ordinance needed to be updated to correct problems leading to inconsistency in application and enforcement. The issue came to the forefront after U-Haul wanted to locate on a commercial lot at Southern Boulevard and Veranda Road, across Southern from the back of residential lots.

U-Haul representatives didn’t want to put up the then-required 6-foot wall because it would block the view of trucks and trailers from the road.

“When it comes to landscape buffers, what we know for sure is one size does not fit all,” Wood said.

For some time, city ordinance has required businesses to put up a 6-foot wall and a 10-foot landscaped area between their land and any adjacent residential property. The building could also serve as a buffer if the wall facing residential land didn’t have doors or other openings.

Under the changes, businesses would still have to construct a 6-foot wall and landscape buffer if they share a property line with residential land and the residential land has no existing wall. If the two types of property are across a street from each other, the mandated size of the wall drops to 3 feet with the landscape buffer.

If the street is 100 feet wide or more, such as Southern or NM 528, or if there’s already a privacy wall on the residential property, the business only has to provide landscaping.

“I don’t think we need to change the buffers,” Wilkins said. “I think it needs to be a 6-foot wall.”

He wanted to keep the buffer rules as they were to protect homeowners, except to remove any requirements for walls in front of a business.

Mayor Tom Swisstack broke a tie to defeat Wilkins’ motion to that effect.

Wilkins and councilors Lonnie Clayton and Mark Scott voted in favoring of requiring 6-foot walls in all cases, while councilors Tim Crum, Dawnn Robinson and Cheryl Everett voted to institute differing requirements.

Other zoning issues

Businesses in compliance with current rules would not have to make changes.

Companies violating the ordinance already would have three years to install the proper buffer, following new rules. Wood recommended giving such businesses a year to comply, although she said the city had authority to make them remedy violations immediately.

Councilors voted unanimously to change the grace period to three years. Wilkins said a year wasn’t enough time because of the expense and the state of the economy. Swisstack agreed and said if the city hadn’t been enforcing existing ordinances, it owned part of the problem.

Commercial buildings constructed after passage of the amendments would be expected to install and maintain buffers, and the three-year grace period wouldn’t apply to them.

As another ordinance amendment, the governing body voted to allow outdoor sales displays, outdoor storage and truck- and trailer-rental yards in certain commercial districts. Councilors unanimously removed recommended requirements for truck and trailer rental yards in favor of giving the Planning and Zoning Commission authority to require what members saw fit.

“Planning and Zoning should be allowed to do the conditional-use permitting,” Scott said. “That way, it allows for exceptions.”

Other business

In other business, governing body members:

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