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Cedar Falls council majority continues push to lower threshold for overriding P&Z opinions

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Downtown Cedar Falls

Downtown Cedar Falls when looking south on Main Street.

CEDAR FALLS — The question of whether the City Council needs fewer votes to override Planning and Zoning Commission recommendations on zoning ordinance amendments has moved to the next stage.

At the same time, the conversations have created tension between officials.

During a committee meeting Monday, the council voted 5-2 to draft an ordinance to reduce the threshold from five to four members of the seven-person council. Councilors Simon Harding and Kelly Dunn dissented. Gil Schultz said after the meeting that he also opposed the change despite his vote not being recorded that way.

That ordinance still requires three readings and Mayor Rob Green’s signature.

The “super majority” or “two-thirds majority” threshold has been in place since 2003, according to Community Development Director Stephanie Sheetz.

“By requiring a super majority vote, you’re allowing the minority to control the majority,” said Councilor Daryl Kruse. “That was the primary point of this, along with the fact that Planning and Zoning is appointed – and council, as elected officials, hear everything from our constituents throughout the city and would seem to have possibly, more of an updated viewpoint from our citizenry as to why we choose to not follow planning and zoning and to just go with a regular majority.”

The council previously decided it will resolve the threshold issue prior to voting on a 5-4 recommendation of the commission to not publicly review site plans for residential additions and floor expansions for buildings in downtown's more commercialized sections.

“A 4-3 vote in anyway is always contentious,” said Harding. “It can flip flop back and forth. The need for a 5-2 to overrule or go against planning and zoning, it actually creates more stability. I don’t see it the way Council member Kruse does. I respect his view. But to me, it creates stability and takes the controversy out of it.”

State law requires the commission to play a role in zoning changes, according to City Attorney Kevin Rogers. However, it doesn't standardize the proportion of votes needed to override the commission’s recommendations.

The discussion on downtown zoning has been ongoing since the second half of 2021. Several meetings happened before the ordinances changing the downtown's zoning to a “form-based,” arguably more streamlined system was adopted into law in November.

Several amendments have been considered – after a city election and new members were seated – and in one case, actually adopted. But frustrations were recently voiced by several commission members about the issue continuing to come up.

“I get the stability” argument made by Harding, said Councilor Dustin Ganfield, “but this would be what serves our city best regardless of what group or ideology happens to be in charge and have the majority.”

After hearing past discussions of the commission, he suggested having a joint meeting to better the relationship.

“Having viewed many of the Planning and Zoning meetings, there is not a togetherness,” he said. “We can fix that. We can work together here.”

Former mayor Jim Brown, who is now president of the Cedar Falls Economic Development Commission, threw in his two cents. But he also criticized the four councilors who’ve been the spark behind the ongoing conversations.

“Part of the wisdom behind this high threshold … is to try to keep politics out of zoning. There’s wisdom in doing this as I’ve seen politics has indeed crept into our decision making process,” Brown said. “The past eight months of stalling, referring and filibustering is proof of this.

“Four of you have been stalling a final decision. But you need five to get what you want. Instead of allowing the zoning to finally move forward, you’ve been giving endless referrals back to P&Z, sometimes even duplicating or giving no direction to Planning and Zoning members for their consideration," he said.

"And that hasn’t worked, so now you just want to change the rules of the game and that’s not good. It does not make Cedar Falls look good.”

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Cedar Falls, Waverly City Government Reporter

I've covered city government for The Courier since August 2021. I'm a Chatham, NJ native who graduated from Gettysburg College in 2018 and previously worked for publications in New Jersey and Pennsylvania.

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