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Editorial: Revised growth, zoning plans can help economy

It’s called the Albuquerque & Bernalillo County Comprehensive Plan and, if it gains City Council and County Commission approval, it will serve as a visionary guide for how the city and county will grow over the next 20 years, taking into consideration the importance of land use, transportation, environmental sustainability, cultural resources, economic development and housing.

It, along with a companion city document that outlines how that plan will be accomplished in Albuquerque, will replace a 2½-foot tall collection of manuals and binders that has exasperated city planners, neighborhood leaders, businesses and developers seeking to make this a better place to live, work and play.

Together, the documents represent an extensive – and much needed – streamlining of the processes that lead to smart, sustainable growth.

In the 16 years since the last major overhaul of the city/county growth plan, those processes have evolved into an unwieldy library of sometimes contradictory rules and regulations that defy navigation and make it unnecessarily difficult to get approval for building projects and zoning changes.

Don Elliott, a consultant with Clarion Associates, said the city’s current planning and regulatory system is the worst he’s encountered among the numerous cities he’s worked with, including Austin, Philadelphia, Indianapolis and Phoenix.

Recognizing that the hodgepodge of regulations and requirements that had evolved was hurting the city’s potential, the City Council in 2014 directed the planning department to update the Comprehensive Plan and revamp the Zoning Ordinance accordingly.

Spearheading that effort for the city were Councilors Isaac Benton, a Democrat, and Trudy Jones, a Republican.

Here’s a sample of what they were up against: The city zoning ordinance has more than 250 zones. Sector plans, which govern new development in specific neighborhoods, had grown to 60 separate plans – and 40 had their own zoning guidelines. There are also numerous “overlay zones” that apply to specific areas. Altogether, the city wound up with more than 1,200 specific zones. The proposed revision has fewer than 20 zones, which will make it far easier to administer and enforce the zoning codes consistently.

Councilor Benton’s city website says the plan would also “help keep Albuquerque competitive by supporting economic development and attracting and keeping young people, employers, and retirees, among others.”

The revisions include input from around 200 public meetings, and the changes can’t come soon enough. Lackluster economic growth makes it imperative the area be attractive to new and expanding businesses. And recent data from the real-estate site Apartment List show that, although the metro’s population grew 24.3 percent between 2000 and 2015, its population of millennials – the young adults between 18 and 35 who will drive the future economy – declined by nearly 2 percent. That’s largely because of the dearth of good-paying jobs here.

Mayor Richard Berry says the revised comprehensive plan and zoning ordinances will bring “predictability” to the process and make it far simpler for local businesses to expand and for new businesses to come here. At the same time, the new ordinances encourage public input and ensure neighborhoods retain the character residents want.

The Comprehensive Plan is scheduled to come before the City Council March 6 and would then go before the County Commission. Both bodies should approve the much-needed revisions, and the City Council should then act swiftly to adopt its new zoning document.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.

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