Downtown Keene

People can take a first look and comment on a zoning overhaul planned for downtown Keene. 

The draft of the downtown Keene zoning update is available to view ahead of more public input sessions next week.

The city’s community development department along with consultants have spent the past year and a half reorganizing and updating land-use regulations downtown. The proposed changes would add or change dozens of definitions to the code to fit current land uses, streamline the permitting process and establish new subdistricts under a form-based zoning approach.

The proposal is detailed in a draft ordinance, which will need to be approved and adopted by the City Council before it goes into effect.

In a group interview last month, a handful of the key city staffers working on the project explained the ins and outs.

They say the code hasn’t been overhauled like this in 50 years. Because of that, some terms are outdated — “hawkers and peddlers,” for example, which translates roughly to mobile vendors — and many modern land uses aren’t included.

“So the changes that are being proposed are more definitions and definitions that are more clear,” said Medard K. “Med” Kopczynski, Keene’s economic development director.

As it stands now, the lack of present-day terminology poses logistical problems for both developers and city staff. Modestman Brewing opened on Main Street last month, for instance, and Building and Health Officer John Rogers pointed out that it was approved as a restaurant under the zoning code.

Kopczynski added that, technically, there are no bars or nightclubs in Keene — they’re all restaurants, too.

The draft ordinance includes new and revised definitions for more than 60 land uses. Community Development Director Rhett Lamb said the team tried to find the flaws in the current code and remove unreasonable hurdles.

“We’re trying to adjust all these standards to what people are asking for today and what fits a normal high-quality-of-life community like Keene,” Lamb said. “... So we’re trying to open up our downtown and our zoning generally to the kinds of uses that people want to do.”

Over the past several months, city staff conducted focus groups and met with developers, landlords and other people with a vested interest in the zoning update, including nonprofit social service agencies.

The draft ordinance proposes eight definitions that fall under a “social services/congregate living” use category: domestic violence shelter, drug treatment clinic, food pantry, group home, homeless shelter, residential care facility, residential drug/alcohol treatment facility, and social service center. Most would require a conditional use permit from the city’s planning board to operate in the new subdistricts to which they would be restricted.

One of Keene’s homeless shelters, Hundred Nights Inc. on Lamson Street, has made multiple attempts over the past few years to find a new home, but these efforts stalled in large part because the organization would need a zoning variance to operate in most areas downtown, since it’s designated as a lodging house.

Lamb said that forced fit has made the process much more difficult.

“Hundred Nights got the square peg jammed into the round hole as a lodging house — it’s not really a lodging house,” Lamb said, laughing. “It’s truly a homeless shelter, and so we’re creating a definition for it.”

This falls in line with the goal of making the city’s zoning code easier to understand — more definitions means less wrangling and fewer technicalities for applicants and staff.

Kopczynski said Rogers, who is also the city’s zoning administrator, would have more authority to interpret the code so that, “from a business owner’s standpoint, there should be less bureaucracy and more clarity.”

Rogers noted that another major objective has been to consolidate information and make it easily accessible. As it is now, he explained, details about parking are split up between eight different parts of the code.

Senior City Planner Tara Kessler said it might sound simple to take the land-use regulations and “put them all in one place,” but it would be a marked improvement. Staff is also adding graphics to the code documents and has been diligently checking for contradictions within the city’s ordinances or with state law, she said.

Lamb noted that the zoning update is just one part of an ongoing effort to streamline city services, a project that’s included reorganizing the offices on the fourth floor of City Hall to create the community development department.

Aside from adding definitions and cleaning up the city’s land-use regulations, the project involves one other major aspect: the implementation of form-based zoning.

While traditional zoning focuses on separating uses with districts such as residential, commercial and industrial, form-based zoning instead makes building form the priority, allowing for mixed uses where appropriate in the interest of accomplishing a community’s long-term vision.

With the help of consultants who work with municipalities on similar projects, the team’s proposal would delineate the downtown area and divide it into six subdistricts, each intended to maintain the character of the existing neighborhoods and structures: core, growth, edge, limited, transition and institutional campus.

“If you were over by the edge of Winchester Street over by Ralston Street, that’s a totally different look and feel than Main Street,” Kessler said. “If we want it all to be part of the downtown, we can’t just have one zoning district that provides a set of standards for all of downtown because we wouldn’t have an identity anymore.”

Each subdistrict listed in the draft zoning ordinance includes building form standards, which address lot size, setback, buildout, height and “activation,” or a structure’s entrances and windows. The benefit of form-based zoning, Kessler said, is its ability to preserve what exists in some areas while encouraging growth in others.

While the average Keene resident likely won’t notice any changes if the zoning overhaul is approved, city staff say the updates would make the process easier for new development or anyone seeking to change the use of their existing structure. They also clarified that the update is specific to downtown and would not affect the rest of the city.

Feedback from next week’s public input sessions will be collected and used to make any necessary tweaks to the draft ordinance, which will then go to the City Council for adoption, in a process that could begin as early as January or February.

The public is invited to watch a presentation of the draft during the Dec. 9 joint meeting of the planning board and the council’s planning, licenses and development committee in City Hall’s second-floor council chambers at 6:30 p.m.

There will also be an open studio Dec. 10 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. in the storefront at 45 Main St., next to Subway, followed by a community workshop in council chambers again at 6:30 p.m.

Sierra Hubbard can be reached at 355-8546 or at shubbard@keenesentinel.com. Follow her on Twitter @SierraHubbardKS.