We hear a lot about Bellaire’s Comprehensive Plan, the one some Bellaire residents insist must govern our future zoning. That it’s some sort of civic law or such. Well, for starters, what is a Comprehensive Plan?
Per the Texas Local Government Code, Title 7, Chapter 213:
“Sec. 213.002. COMPREHENSIVE PLAN.
(a) The governing body of a municipality may adopt a comprehensive plan for the long-range development of the municipality. A municipality may define the content and design of a comprehensive plan.
(b) A comprehensive plan may: (1) include but is not limited to provisions on land use, transportation, and public facilities; (2) consist of a single plan or a coordinated set of plans organized by subject and geographic area; and (3) be used to coordinate and guide the establishment of development regulations.
(c) A municipality may define, in its charter or by ordinance, the relationship between a comprehensive plan and development regulations and may provide standards for determining the consistency required between a plan and development regulations.
(d) Land use assumptions adopted in a manner that complies with Subchapter C, Chapter 395, may be incorporated in a comprehensive plan.”
That definition sounds kind of flexible, doesn’t it? The word ‘may’ is used a lot. Okay, next, which Plan should we adhere to? The 11-page one from 1977? The updated 62-page one from 1997? How about the 122-page one from 2015 (possibly updated from 2009), then updated again in 2017? I’m still on the hunt for others. The fact is that a Comprehensive Plan is a Plan, not a Law. And apparently changes to reflect the desires of a current City administration.
As late as 1997 it was obvious that high value was put on protecting residential areas, that single-family residences and townhomes were desired, and that no additional multi-family was anticipated or suggested. One example from page A-3: “Zoning should be used to protect single-family residential against potentially incompatible developments.” And the table on pg 14 for Existing and Proposed Land Uses. No change for Multi-family is proposed.
Even in 2017 the opening paragraph of Chapter 1, pg 1.1 of the plan states: “The Bellaire Comprehensive Plan is designed as a framework for guiding future development, redevelopment, and community enhancement in the City over the next 20 years and beyond.” On pg 1.5 under Planning Authority: “Unlike some other states, municipalities in Texas are not mandated by state government to prepare and maintain local comprehensive plans.”
Nothing about severe penalties if we don’t do everything listed in this 122 page document.
The 1977 Comp Plan mentions buffering techniques around the Central Business District adjacent to the residential districts (pg. 1). The 1997 Plan sets goals (pg. 10). Goal#1 includes preserving and enhancing the development of strong, single-family residential neighbors. Goal #2 includes mitigating adverse impacts of non-residential development.
But by the time we get to the 2017 Plan the preservation of residential districts seems to bow to the development of commercial areas. For the first time we see multi-unit housing including condos and apartments (pg 2.8). That plan was updated in 2015 and 2017 by our new city planners, Kendig-Keast, and it’s a whole new world. Obviously these Comprehensive Plans are not binding, as evidenced by the complete change in direction from the previous Plans.
If anything, recent changes in our zoning ordinances have contradicted earlier Comprehensive Plans, and threaten the integrity of several residential areas. Meanwhile, the Planning and Zoning commissions have been industrious in their zeal to change the character of our downtown area, especially in the UV-D.
The UV-D ordinance for the central downtown area allows 90% lot coverage, zero front setback from the property line for most of a building, and requires a minimum height of 30 feet for new structures.
Planned developments could reach 79′ (plus 20′ for gables, chimneys, cooling towers, etc., up to 99′). Requests for additional height beyond the allowances shall require approval of a specific use permit. Mixed-use Multi-Family is included in the ordinance. That translates into apartments or condos.
The new North Bellaire Special Development District (NBSDD) allows 80% lot coverage and 85′ tall buildings. One thing not included in this district is multi-family, thought the developer included it in earlier applications. Our mayor had opposed single-family in 2017 due to the contamination on the property. This district borders a residential district to the north and is separated from another by Fournace. By comparison, the Loop 610 District allows 60% lot coverage.
At this point I’d suggest that we residents vote to revise that 2017 Comprehensive Plan to better reflect the original purpose and to protect our residents and our city of homes. With our recent history of flooding and the fact that subsidence is still an issue, we might throw in some serious requirements for flood mitigation, too.
But regardless of what the Comp Plan lays out, the zoning ordinances that are passed and in place are approved by just a few Bellaire residents, mainly those on Planning and Zoning (appointed by the Mayor and members of City Council), and finally the City Council, where a vote of 4 to 3 is all that is required to approve a new ordinance – just 4 people.
Meanwhile I’ll continue to research this Bellaire Comprehensive Plan phenomenon and add updated information. Lynn McBee, our local historian, donated a treasure trove of information to the Woodson Research Center at Rice University and I hope to access and scan additional Plans.
Curious about the new NBSDD and the contamination issues? Here are some links:
Proposed draft for the NBSDD
Chevron Special Warranty Deed
SQ Environmental Review 11-21-2018
Groundwater Contamination and Wells
ESE Letter 7-26-2019
City of Bellaire Comprehensive Plan
North Bellaire Special Development District – The Great Wide Open!