The City of Billings Planning Department has been working on updating the zoning code, which has been a massive undertaking. This video explains the entire process and why this update is happening as Nicole King, owner and broker of 41 Realty Group interviews Nicole Cromwell, Zoning Coordinator/Code Enforcement Supervisor.
Watch the video or scroll down for the full transcript of the interview.
What Do You Know About Project Re:Code in Billings, MT?
Project Re:Code is the first major overhaul of city and county zoning regulations in 45 years. Nicole King gets the full overview of why Yellowstone County needed this update and how the process works in this informative interview with Nicole Cromwell.
Nicole K: Hey there! I’m Nicole King, broker/owner of 41 Realty Group. I am here at the City Planning Department, correct?
Nicole C: You are.
Nicole K: Okay, good almost got that wrong, with Nicole Cromwell and the reason I wanted to sit down with her today is that the city of Billings has been going through for the last few years the major process of evaluating current zoning and looking at how that can be changed and updated to be more effective for the people that live here and more beneficial to all the ways in which that we’re trying to grow and improve our community. And I wanted to talk with Nicole because she has been heading out that entire endeavor and just really excited to hear what she has to say, so…
Nicole C: Well thank you, Nicole.
Nicole K: Thank you!
Nicole C: Yeah, and thanks for making this opportunity to reach some of your constituents and some of your customers and clients. It is really important. About four years ago the City Council adopted a new growth policy. And the growth policy is intended to take the community forward like 5, 10, 20 years into the future. And it’s very broad and general statements about where we want to be at those points in time, and how we implement that is through different codes the city council adopts. So we have a code about buildings, we have a code about how streets are developed and laid out, and what types of sidewalks need to be put in, and where water and sewer is going to go. And the major portion of it is also zoning. So zoning takes those goals and policies and tries to implement them. So in 2016, when they adopted this new growth policy we looked at our zoning code and said, you know this 1972 zoning code is really not doing it anymore. Not for these growth policies.
Nicole K: The world was very different in 1972.
Nicole C: It was, yeah. People who know what a cassette tape and a pencil is and why those two things go together were alive back then and those don’t exist anymore. They’re not useful anymore, and we have many tools like that in our existing code that don’t get us where we want to be. Where we are now and where we are planning to be in five or 10 or 20 years. So the Planning Board, with the approval of the Council and the County Commissioners, said let’s do this – let’s take on this big project and update our zoning project.
Nicole K: Right.
Nicole C: So the first thing they did is they decided that it had to be done with a lot of citizen and constituent input. It couldn’t be done by just hiring a consultant, having them come in read our existing code, read our growth policy and write us a new code. That doesn’t really work for our community.
So we established a steering committee. It was 18 people from real estate, from neighborhood task force, from people who sat on the zoning commission, city council, county commissioners, all got together and talked about how we were going to line out this project and get it done. And we met starting in august of 2017 and we met monthly for quite probably about six months. And they established what we called our guiding principles for Project Re:Code, which is what we called it.
Nicole K: Okay.
Nicole C: And Project Re:Code is this effort to build a new zoning code for Billings and Yellowstone County as well. So those guiding principles basically gave us our marching orders as staff and consultants were brought on board to help us with the hard work of writing and rewriting and illustrating and graphing all of the new zoning. Along with our – we established four working groups who focused on specific parts of the code.
Nicole K: So what were a couple of examples of the guiding principles and then maybe what were those work groups?
Nicole C: Okay, so the guiding principles of, you know, our number one guiding principle was to make the code clear.
Nicole K: Okay, so someone like me could just open it and understand it.
Nicole C: Right. Not using fancy terminology –
Nicole K: Could you make the whole government like that?
Nicole C: Well, you know, there are some states that adopted what they call ‘plain english’ requirements for laws and statutes. So we kind of adopted that into our zoning. You obviously have to use some technical terms that are specific to real estate. So clarity was important but also consistency was important. So every time we looked at a part of the code to change it, we said okay, what other parts of the city code is this going to have to fit with and is that going to contradict those parts of the code. So we kept our eyes on that as well as we went through. We wanted to make sure that the new code was more predictable than the existing code because some zoning districts that we have now – you could have everything from a shop warehouse to a multi-family apartment building and if it’s vacant ground, you just don’t know until the shovels go in the ground and that person has decided whether it’s a shop building a warehouse or a three-story apartment building. Those are the kinds of districts that make people very afraid. I mean, there’s no other way to determine, it’s scary.
Nicole K: /yeah anytime that I go to sell a piece of property like a house or anything that’s already built, if there’s vacant anything nearby, a lot or just open ground of some kind, the very first question I get is “do you know what’s going there?” And then I’ll do all sorts of work to figure it out, but that’s often because like you were saying, the zoning that it might fall under is just open to anything and everything. So it’s hard to know until you get a hold of the right person who’s in the know about what might be built there.
Nicole C: Right, so we also knew we had voids in the code. So that was another guiding principle; we needed to fill in parts of the code that we had never had to deal with before. Accessory dwelling units. Short-term rentals.
Nicole K: Absolutely for sure. All kinds of craft alcohol that’s now allowed by the state of Montana. The only one we even talk about in our code is micro breweries, but that is not a universal term. We have micro distilleries now, we have cideries, we have wineries – all have different types of licenses from the state but we only talk about one of those.
Nicole K: Right, so the licensure has kept up with whatever the current industries are but our zoning has not?
Nicole C: Right.
Nicole K: Okay.
Nicole C: So our working groups were because we have, well we had a combined code with the county. We separated those codes so we had one working group that worked just on county issues and one working group that just worked on urban issues. Because we’re going to have separate codes
Nicole K: Yeah which is really helpful, it’s great.
Nicole C: It is, because the issues in the county, although we share edges, they’re very different issues. So we wanted to make sure that those groups worked just on those issues and then came together when there was a common, common thing that they had to work on. So that led to two more working groups; one for landscaping codes and one for signage codes. And they worked on both the city and the county versions of both of those codes. So it was quite lively, those groups. We met at least once a month, sometimes more depending on what we were working on. We started in January of ‘18 and most of the groups finished up in January of 2020.
Nicole K: Right before COVID, so that’s good.
Nicole C: Right before COVID. Then taking all of that work and then having the consultant and the staff working to refine and polish and get those public review drafts out took most of the spring, until March/April, and then those code sections were published online on our project-recode.com website.
Nicole K: Make sure to put a link down in the notes to this video so you guys can click right on it and go to it.
Nicole C: So all of the presentations that we’ve done to many task force or interest groups are posted on that webpage, on education and outreach. If you want to look at your existing zoning versus your new zoning district there’s a side-by-side comparison map on there. There’s also the code outline page, which has both the city and the county as different links on there, so you don’t get confused. You don’t have to read both of them at the same time. So it’s we were hoping to lose some weight in the code pages.
Nicole K: What, 428 pages in the proposed… something like that?
Nicole C: Right it depends on what font…
Nicole K: Yeah I guess that’s true. How many pages were in the old one, do you know?
Nicole C: 450.
Nicole K: So quite a bit though, I mean, 25 pages of code is a lot to lose though, so that’s excellent.
Nicole C: So actually when it finally gets into the overall city code it’ll probably shrink, because we use large font we have pictures and graphics, and you know.
Nicole K: There are a lot of graphics which is very helpful in the proposed code to really see when it says the description in writing. What I picture might be different than what somebody else pictures so I really do appreciate all of the graphs that you guys put in there. It makes it a lot easier to understand for sure.
Nicole C: Right. So I guess one of the, I guess big changes, is that right now we have about 12 residential zones. When we looked at our growth policy it was written around the idea that there are neighborhoods. They’re not just residential subdivisions. There are pieces and parts that go together in a neighborhood and so we wrote our new code as neighborhood zones, not just residential zones. Now those neighborhood zones allow different types of dwellings. So we have one zone district that’s just single family and then we have two zones that allow one or two family. And then we have three levels of multi-family zoning depending on where you’re intending to use them or where they actually are in the community already. So we found these small apartment homes, houses, kind of scattered throughout all of Billings. There’s the little four unit sometimes just three unit buildings in our neighborhoods already. So we built a code for that.
Nicole K: So the things that already have – so let’s say it looks from the outside like a single family but maybe it has been divided into two or three units – you looked at that and gave it a different zoning than its neighbors who still truly are single family.
Nicole C: Yes.
Nicole K: Perfect, okay.
Nicole C: Right and we built that code, that district, so that it could be used the same way in the future. And it wouldn’t be you know it wouldn’t be like our current codes which you know if you have a multi-family zone, you could have next door to you, you could have a four plex, an eight plex, twelve plex, ten plex. It’s really – it’s so unpredictable. And it’s scary to have a multi-family near you because it’s so wide open. So we made it more predictable and we kind of made these smaller increments of multi family. From the small four unit buildings, that’s all, or you could go a little larger up to eight. And then beyond that there’s the five plus so it’s more predictable. If you’re next to this mixed residential three zone you know it’s at least going to be a five unit building and sometimes much larger.
Nicole K: So you’ll tell right from looking the name of it instead of – so right now when I look at multi-family vacant lots for investors, they then have to call you guys and say, “what can I build on this” and then you have to look up the size of the lot and do all sorts of measuring and then go, “you can build a fourplex on that.” So now it’ll just be that’s the zone and that’s what you can build.
Nicole C: Right.
Nicole K: Great, love it.
Nicole C: One to four, to eight, and five or more.
Nicole K: Well that makes my job much easier.
Nicole C: When I was talking to our director this week about this new tool that we’re planning to put in the code called “The Planned Neighborhood Development Tool”. This is meant to make the edges of the city and the county more seamless. In other words if you want to come into the city and annex property and build a new neighborhood, here’s some like a kit of parts you have to use in order to do that. Because we’ve built these new neighborhood zones, we’re using those as part of the kit. Each one of those zone districts was based on an epic or an era of when billings was built. So we have what we call first neighborhoods or N1, so those in the standards and site requirements for that N1 district are intended to make anything new that’s built in those existing areas, fit in better.
But it also has some very good things to recommend for us now. So it can help you build cottage courts, you know, where people can live around a central courtyard that they share that open space together. It’s a very popular form for elders, you know, or that they don’t want to own their own lot, their own big backyard to take care of, but they still want to have some kind of semi-private open space for when the grandkids come and visit or whatever. So that’s one of those things that you can do in that N1 district is you can build some homes around a courtyard.
So that’s an era thing, and so when we did the next era, which is mid-century or N2, we said, “there are some nice things about this too” Yes it was popular and we did it almost exclusively after World War II but before 1970, there’s still some really good things about that so let’s keep those good things and allow people to use them in new neighborhoods.
Nicole K: So examples of those good things would be…?
Nicole C: Well they generally were built as single level living. They were ranch style, they weren’t as tall. Sometimes they were split levels. Sometimes they had like a half of a second story on them. So examples of this would be like Gorham Park area or Forest Park a little bit. But some of those other places like between 24th and 15th street West – all that kind of was built during the same era. Sometimes they have a two-car garage attached on the side, so the buildings are longer, they face the street directly. So there’s some nice things about that style of building and neighborhood formation. So we said, let’s let’s honor our existing neighborhoods – put that zoning there. And then let’s make sure that we can carry that forward because that is all of those eras. And then the N3 which is the more suburban style that we’ve had over the last 40 years or so. Let’s allow all of those available for new neighborhoods as they come into Billings.
Nicole K: So N3 they could harken all the way back to the 1920s and 30s craftsman style, or they can honor a mid-century modern style, or they can go the traditional, things that we’ve been seeing they can do anything really in the newer neighborhoods
Nicole C: Right. That was the intent, so that we allow that flexibility but also some predictability for neighborhoods as it comes in. Because right now a developer can go to the county say, county give me all my zoning and then just annex to the city and say, oh city you’re not involved, sorry.
Nicole L: Very interesting, okay.
Nicole C: So that’s one of the reasons for that tool as well – so that the city can be involved in that land use planning decisions, soup to nuts. So that’s another good reason for that. The other part of that PND is that we found some neighborhoods, because of subdivision laws, don’t build any public space for people to use in their own new neighborhood. So what we built in here was that they have to do at least a small area, that they develop. It could just be all grass, but it’s a place for kids to have a little pick up game, kickball, or people just to stand around and chat. Just to be outside together in a public space. Socialization kind of helps people know their neighbors more.
Nicole K: Yes, that’s true.
Nicole C: Right, so we built that into the Planned Neighborhood Development tool as well. Just a little bit, not a lot, but enough so that every neighborhood has at least some of that.
Nicole K: A little bit of green space goes a long ways for both beauty and relationships and overall flow of the neighborhood. So yeah it’s been nice to see that in a lot of the newer neighborhoods that are going up as those designated free space areas, it’s really nice.
So going forward now, if people want to learn about Project Recode, so project-recode.com is the website they would go on. They can kind of explore all of that. But if they have, we’re kind of – we’re pretty far into the process as far as public comment and input and changes and things. Where are you guys at in that process right now?
Nicole C: Well I guess at the time this airs, we’ll hopefully be between when it was approved and when they have to vote a second time on it. That’s always required for any zone change like this. Right now we’re just going into the public hearing process scheduled to start on November 9th, hopefully conclude on them November 23rd and then have that second reading in December.
Nicole K: Those are the City Council Meetings where they can tune in to online and check out – or are they doing in person, in person attendance?
Nicole C: The county commissioner’s hearing is on Tuesday, November 10th in the morning and they are you can attend in person at the county commissioner’s hearing room, third floor of the stillwater building. They also doing online, so they’re doing virtual, online, in person all together in the same room.
Nicole K: Interesting. And is there anywhere, a way, without attending the actual meetings, can people submit comments at all or not or anything and how do they do that?
Nicole C: Right, so on the city website you can go to the Mayor and City Council page and there’s a link there you can click it and you can send an email to all of them at once.
Nicole K: Oh thanks, okay. And you can probably attach documents, search stuff, pictures, just a standard email?
Nicole C: Yeah just a standard email that goes to all of them.
Nicole K: Okay that’s handy yeah is there anything about Project Re:Code that you didn’t get to say yet that you would like to?
Nicole C: Well I guess I would say that the city has done this before. Not in my lifetime.
Nicole K: Anybody who was alive in 1972 or before they did a lifetime ago, right but not since then. That’s quite a while ago.
Nicole C: Yeah, so historically speaking the city of Billings has had zoning since July of 1930.
Nicole K: Wow, okay.
Nicole C: And at that point we had five zoning districts and it was just this down town
Nicole: Which was perfect for what they were doing.
Nicole C: Yeah and then from 1930 until about 1954, that zoning was pretty much the same. And then in 1954 they kind of redid the whole thing.
Nicole K: Okay, just like you guys are doing right now.
Nicole C: That’s right and then we redid the whole thing in 1972 and now we’re redoing the whole thing in 2020. I don’t want to wait 40 years to do this is again.
Nicole K: So it’s nothing new, nothing unusual, it’s something we should probably – so it sounds like in the 50s and so 30s, 50s, 70s and then we missed our 20-year mark and doubled it and now we’re doing it again. So probably should happen fairly often.
Nicole C: Yeah, every time you do your growth policy update, which under state law is every five to eight years basically.
Nicole K: Wow, so that’s fairly frequent. We should be looking at the current zoning and making sure it appropriates.
Nicole C: Then once it’s adopted, we’re going to probably have about a year of kind of shakedown, fitting in, working the code. And where we’re finding issues or little things that need to be fixed or tweaked or, you know, just like, wow we missed the mark there kind of thing; we’re going to come back to the city council in four months, seven months and 11 months with all of those like minor things that need to be fixed.
Nicole K: Yeah, okay. One of the conversations I had with you a few months ago was sort of this idea that there are just so many variances that get applied for currently under our current code. I think you had said one of the rumors that’s going around is that the variance process is going away, that what’s in the code is all you’re gonna do now. That’s not true?
Nicole C: Correct.
Nicole K: Okay, so how many variances you guys were working through triggered some of the need for change, because you were seeing the same things over and over and over again requested in those variances, correct?
Nicole C: Oh yeah.
Nicole K: So a lot of what you’re seeing, or were seeing in those previous variance requests are now built into the code.
Nicole C: Right exactly. So for example, the lot coverage allowed on each lot is very low.
Nicole K: Currently very low.
Nicole C: Currently very low, what’s allowed. It’s more of a rural type of lot coverage allowance than an urban lot coverage. So we’ve kind of bumped those numbers up. So those types of variances are not going to be coming to us like four times a month. Which is you know, if you have to do one it will probably be the only thing that you ever do in zoning is a zoning variance. Hopefully we’ve kind of relieved some of that pressure by saying, no this is normal, this is okay.
Nicole K: This is now allowed, you don’t have to come to us for a variance to do that thing.
Nicole C: Right we have what we call the five-minute variance.
Nicole K: Okay, I would love for anything in the government to take five minutes. Tell me how you’ve done this.
Nicole C: Well the five-minute variance is based on the fact that we go through a month-long process of analysis looking at zoning history. Yes this is the same as the last 10 of these that you’ve done, it’s not a big deal. You get in front of the board of adjustment and it takes them five minutes to approve it.
Nicole K: Okay so really the whole process isn’t in five minutes, it’s that last portion.
Nicole C: Right, but it’s something that you would wish, it’s like “oh my gosh why are we doing this again.”
Nicole K: Yeah so a lot of that will just go away, but it’s not going away entirely. So if there’s something that somebody goes to the new version of the code and they’re like, oh well that still doesn’t work, there’s still going to be a process for them too.
Nicole C: Right exactly. And we’re building in what we’re calling administrative relief so it’s for like the really tiny changes like less than 10 percent of the code requirement and you just need that little bit of room to move the building like a foot. It’s not going to be a whole full-blown variance you make your case, you meet the criteria, and administrative relief and you’re good to go.
Nicole K: Love it. It sounds so much easier than the current process is. Awesome.
Nicole C: Well we hope so.
Nicole K: I think it will be. Any other things that you’ve been hearing that are really common misconceptions about the rezoning that maybe we should cover real quick?
Nicole C: Not common misconceptions. There’s a lot of very specific things that come forward as questions from the written code and then, you know, just clarifying those for folks. I do that a lot. People can call me anytime, 247-8662. Some people have me on speed dial.
Nicole K: I do have your number in my phone now.
Nicole C: So always available for questions.
Nicole K: You’ve been incredibly available and incredibly helpful. I do appreciate every time that you’ve got on the phone with me and spent time working through the issues that my clients have had so…
Nicole C: sure absolutely, it’s what we’re here for.
Nicole K: I love it. Okay, anything else?
Nicole C: Nope that’s it.
Nicole K: Alrighty. Well thank you for tuning in and definitely go check out that website. Put in your property address, see what the current zoning is, see what the proposed zoning is, take a look at what that’s going to mean for you and make sure you understand everything it means. We’ll see you again soon.