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Zoning overhaul shifts into high gear as city gets community input at forum

Efforts to rewrite Buffalo's antiquated zoning ordinance began in earnest Tuesday during a community forum at Erie Community College City Campus.

About 400 people attended the interactive forum, in which their input was solicited to help replace the current City Code with a new "unified development ordinance" that city officials say will result in a more streamlined, user-friendly regulatory framework for development in Buffalo.

"Buffalo has lived with the same zoning ordinance since 1953, the year President Dwight Eisenhower settled into the White House and the first color television sets hit the market," Mayor Byron W. Brown said.

Brown started plans for a rewriting of the zoning ordinance, dubbed the Green Code, a year ago with a series of neighborhood meetings.

"This is a process the city very much wants to see the community drive," Brown said Tuesday.

To that end, citizens attending the latest forum were asked to register their responses to a series of questions about land use and zoning using interactive clicker technology.

Moderating was Robert G. Shibley, director of the Urban Design Project in the School of Architecture and Planning at the University at Buffalo.

Shibley was assisted by Leslie S. Pollock, head of Illinois-based Camiros Ltd., a consulting firm that specializes in neighborhood planning that will rewrite the City Code based on input from residents over several dozen meetings.

Brendan R. Mehaffy, executive director of the Mayor's Office of Strategic Planning, encouraged those attending the forum to stay engaged afterward.

"Quite frankly, this is going to be a very intense year of planning in the City of Buffalo, but necessarily so, because we're trying to get all of the development codes that are out there to work in concert," Mehaffy said.

Based on the responses, nearly half of the audience identified themselves as concerned individual citizens, as opposed to those representing a neighborhood organization, nonprofit group or local business. More than a third were residents of the West Side, and three-quarters identified themselves as white.

The demographics prompted Shibley to observe aloud that more efforts were required to get the input of a broader cross-section of citizens for this part of the project.

"We're going to have to get out to the neighborhoods where we can get the full cross-section of participation," Shibley said. "This isn't good enough.

Half of those attending the forum strongly agreed, in principle, with the concept of a unified development ordinance, though Shibley did not get much feedback from the 7 percent who strongly disagreed with the concept.

Thirty-one percent strongly agreed that a system of conditional uses could make the ordinance simpler and more flexible. Local preservationist Timothy Tielman said that proposed changes or planned reuses should be as obvious as possible.

"Most people see things as they're walking by in the street. We need some public notification, a scarlet letter of a 'Z' for a zoning issue, posted on the property," Tielman said. You go across to Fort Erie, you see developers required to post changes to property. We don't have something that simple in Buffalo."

Brown said Buffalo's current outdated code results in a development process that is long, contentious and uncertain. "The new zoning code will change this," he said. "The new code will also help citizens drive fewer miles, use less energy and improve our environment."

The mayor said that in June, a first draft of the new zoning code will be unveiled at a series of neighborhood open houses to be held at nine locations throughout the city.