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The Chase campus at 303 E. Republic Road installed a nature trail to complement its buffer of mature trees.
Heather Mosley | SBJ
The Chase campus at 303 E. Republic Road installed a nature trail to complement its buffer of mature trees.

Good fences make good neighbors

Buffer yard enforcement requires resident vigilance, city officials say

Posted online

The city of Springfield’s comprehensive plan, Forward SGF, sets forth a new idea of land use for the city with the concept of placetypes – 10 categorizations of areas that prioritize their sense of place over their use.

Forward SGF acknowledges those transitional areas where one placetype abuts another. The plan establishes a need for a transition zone on either side of a placetype boundary to reduce friction brought by competing uses.

Buffer yards – areas including vegetative and physical barriers that separate placetypes – are an essential element of a transition zone. Often described in detail in rezoning requests, these can be the difference between a successful or unsuccessful application from a developer.

As Forward SGF explains, buffer yards are intended to offer a barrier between two areas with different intensities of use – as when a commercial area exists beside a residential area. Buffer yards matter because they cut down on the noise and mitigate the appearance of a zone that is at odds with a lower-intensity area.

A recent example of the significance of buffer yards was seen in an application by Reding Management LLC and Redec LLC, which successfully applied for a change to a limited business district from residential to place a 7 Brew Coffee at the southeast corner of Sunshine Street and Jefferson Avenue.

The developers achieved a zoning change, but its conditional use permit for a drive-thru, central to the 7 Brew business model, was harder won.

The difference-maker for council was the addition of 14 trees – specifically, seven evergreens and seven understory trees – to the buffer between the activity of the proposed shop and the relative peace of the existing neighborhood.

Complaint-based enforcement
At a March 16 neighborhood listening session, Springfield City Council member Craig Hosmer criticized the city’s complaint-based approach to enforcement of its codes. This applies to infractions like neighbors with overgrown lawns or trash bins that never move from the curb, which require a complaint to the city’s Building Development Services department to remedy, but it also applies to buffer zones.

“We don’t have primary enforcement in the city of Springfield,” Hosmer said. “You have to complain about something before the city will ever do anything.”

Buffer zones were an example of the problem for Hosmer.

“What (developers) do sometimes is they cut down the trees. They don’t water,” he said. “The trees are all dead and nobody enforces, and nobody goes back and says, ‘You promised this neighborhood that you were going to keep a green space as a barrier between your development and the neighborhood.’”

Hosmer said once a developer installs a buffer zone, the city looks at it and never goes back.

“We never check it. We never enforce it,” he said.

In an interview last month, Hosmer explained why complaint-based enforcement is inadequate where buffer zones are concerned.

“Most people don’t know when they drive through a neighborhood if there’s supposed to be buffers at all,” he said.

Zoning applications are approved or denied based upon the plans submitted by developers, and buffer zones have specific requirements, down to the number and type of trees and shrubs. The city has the information and expertise to enforce buffer zone requirements, and most neighbors do not.

With primary enforcement – i.e., enforcement by city officials – developers’ toes are held to the fire, Hosmer noted.

“If you monitor a little bit and people know you’re watching, people will self-regulate,” he said. “We tolerate a lot of poor conditions in this city because we rely on complaint-based enforcement.”

Enforcement
Daniel Neal, a senior planner for the city, said buffer yards were first prescribed in the city as far back as 1995 with the last complete rewrite of the zoning ordinance.

When intensities are similar, as in a transition from single-family to multifamily areas, buffer yards are smaller and might consist of 15 feet of space containing trees, shrubs, a fence or a combination of elements. A buffer between residential and commercial or industrial districts would have larger buffer yards – perhaps 150-200 feet in depth with intense, rather than sporadic, plantings, he said. The number of trees per 100 linear feet is prescribed, even down to the types of trees; as an example, between a single-family residential zone and a commercial one, regulations might call for three canopy trees, three understory or evergreen trees and 20 shrubs.

The department charged with enforcing buffer yard requirements is Building Development Services. The area of city code that deals with buffer yards states, “if at any time after the issuance of a certificate of occupancy, the director of Building Development Services determines that the approved landscaping does not conform to the standards and criteria in this section, the director shall issue a notice to the owner and to any known tenant or agent, citing the violation and describing what action is required to comply with this section. The owner, tenant or agent shall have 30 days … to restore the landscaping as required.”

The code also states that a certificate of occupancy for a building will not be issued unless all screening and landscaping is in place according to the landscape plan.

BDS Director Brock Rowe said some grace is given, as when a business opens in the winter when planting is impractical. A temporary certificate of occupancy may be granted in such an instance, but a permanent certificate will not be granted until the buffer yard meets requirements. After the certificate of occupancy, enforcement is complaint-based, Rowe said, as staffing limitations make primary enforcement impossible.

“We don’t have enough people to be proactive – to drive from business to business doing annual inspections,” he said. “We do it based on complaints, and that’s true with most of our enforcement.”

The office has only one staff member handling zoning issues, Rowe said, and that person will investigate when a complaint is lodged and take the case all the way to municipal court, if necessary.

Rowe said when buffer yard vegetation is in place, it has to stay alive long enough to pass a final inspection. Officials will verify that they are properly planted for long-term survival.

Rowe urged citizens to be proactive by submitting notifications through the city’s citizen resource center, which accepts online or written service request forms about failed buffer yards.

“We need to make sure we do maintain those, but if we don’t know about that, we can’t make it happen,” he said. “We need some help.”

Neal added that many buffer yards are behind buildings and not easily viewable from the street.

“It does sometimes take residents or somebody that’s directly affected to call in to the citizen resource center and say, ‘I think some trees have died here; the fence is falling apart,’” he said. “If they give us notification of it, we’re able to look into it.”

Neal gave some examples of successful buffer zones: Chase Bank, 303 E. Republic Road; Hy-Vee, 2150 E. Sunshine St.; a Raga Properties office building at 3810 E. Sunshine St.; Mercy Clinic, 2716 W. Republic Road; and Cox South Hospital, 3525 S. National Ave.

Rowe said most companies with buffer yards have spent a lot of money creating them.

“They do a pretty good job of maintaining those. It’s an investment when you do that,” he said. “They do take time and make sure trees are healthy, plants are there, a retaining wall is staying up. They know what it means.”

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