Plan to allow taller buildings sent back to drawing board

OROVILLE – The Oroville City Council could not see its way clear to raising the height restrictions on commercial buildings within the city limits and sent the proposal back to the planning commission for further study.

The council’s decision came during a public hearing at their Tuesday, Oct. 22 meeting. The hearing was set to discuss three building related issues in the city’s commercial zones. In addition to the proposal to increase the height of buildings in the C1, C2 and C3 zones, the council also considered eliminating the required 20 foot setback for commercial buildings and requiring ground floors for multistory commercial buildings be reserved for commercial and retail-type businesses, rather than residential uses.

Oroville City Planner Chris Branch explained that the C1 designation is generally used downtown, that C2 follows the highway and that C3 exists in the zoning code for Oroville, but is not in use yet. C3 has to do more with commercial tourist uses, Branch explained.

No one appeared to give testimony either for or against the three proposed changes.

“The reason we are discussing making these changes is because they have been kicked around in meeting after meeting. Developers have asked can we do this and can we do that. We decided to kick it into the public forum,” said Branch.

The first change they discussed involved the requirement that multi-story buildings retain the ground floor level for commercial or retail space, rather than residential. This is because there is a limited number of properties for expansion of retail in the downtown area and if apartments used the ground floors the space would be even more limited.

“Several communities like Grand Coulee have worked up similar requirements. Buildings with residences or apartments on the upper floors and retail and commercial on the lower floors are generally called ‘walk ups,'” said Branch.

“Will this prevent people from taking their storerooms and making them apartments,” asked Kathy Jones, the city clerk.

“Yes, this will limit several of the interesting situations we’ve had occur over the years,” Branch said.

Councilman Ed Naillon made the motion to approve the measure and it was seconded by Councilman Tony Keopke and was carried.

The next ordinance under discussion was the one to eliminate the 20 foot setbacks for commercial building “front yards” in the C2 zone.

“We asked what was the planning commission’s thinking back in 1991 when these setbacks were authorized. Maybe it was a preference that parking be in front. Nowadays it is often preferable to have parking in back,” said Branch. “By eliminating the setback it will give property owners further options.”

Naillon speculated that the setback requirement was probably to present a “softer front” to the public with more green space. The councilman said he would like to see a continued setback when one or more sides of a commercial property border a residential area.

“What you don’t want to see is a tall building up against the property boundary,” Naillon said.

Councilwoman Neysa Roley, who also lives in an area near the C2 zone said she also has a concern about eliminating setbacks.

Branch told the councilmembers that there were still restrictions on how much of the property could be covered by non-permiable material and that green areas would most like still be required to meet the regulations.

“When you mix in drainage issues, etc. I see most of your concerns fixing themselves,” said Branch. “However, you could also end up with some things you do not like… not everyone will get what they want.”

Branch added that if the council was unsure about passing the ordinance the planning commission could take it back for another look at lot coverage requirements.

However, Councilman Walt Hart III moved the city pass Ordinance 751. Keopke provided the second and it was put to a vote passing three in favor (Hart, Keopke and Roley) and two against (Naillon and Councilman Jon Neal).

Ordinance 752 would raise the building height from 35 feet to 50 feet within the C1, C2 and C3 zones. The number of floors would be limited to four.

After the concern about fire protection was again raised, Branch read a staff report prepared by Christian Johnson, the city’s building inspector. In the report Johnson discusses how new building construction has made the likelihood of a major fire in a taller building less likely. New construction materials, fire sprinkler systems and other protections have increased the safety of buildings.

Keopke said he still had concerns over fire safety, especially in light of the fact the Oroville Fire Department does not have a ladder truck.

“I have less problem with height than the setback as far as what makes a quality looking community,” said Naillon.

Branch said today’s building codes were stricter. He also relayed a recent conversation he had in Chelan, which has several 40 foot plus buildings, about how often they use their ladder truck.

“They said the truck is more often used for industrial buildings so they can shoot water down from above,” Branch said.

How having taller buildings and not having a ladder truck would effect the city’s insurance rating — the rate that determines what property owners will pay for their insurance, was discussed.

“It could increase everyone in the communities insurance,” said Fire Chief Rod Noel.

Noel said that his department hadn’t had the need to carry the 35 foot ladders in the 37 years he has been connected with the department. The nearest ladder truck is in Omak and although Osoyoos, B.C., Oroville’s nearest neighbor, has several buildings over 40 feet tall, they do not have one.

A ladder truck would cost between $200,000 and $300,000 and would necessitate a larger fire hall to park it in, according to Councilman Keopke.

“For one to five buildings I can’t see doing that,” said Keopke.

After some discussion about starting a capital improvement plan to buy a ladder truck in the future, the council decided to send the proposal back to the planning commission for further study.