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After almost 50 years, Billings finalizes complete zoning code overhaul

After almost 50 years, Billings finalizes complete zoning code overhaul

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Billings City Council

Members of the Billings City Council after the November 2019 election.

For the first time in nearly five decades, city planners have wholly redrawn Billings' zoning codes and the city council will now begin the process of adopting them.

"We believe the new code will bring clarity and simplicity," Nicole Cromwell, the city's zoning coordinator, told the council on Monday. "We have strived to make it simple."

The council's consideration of the new code comes after a series of seven public hearings held before the city's planning commission over the summer and fall. The planning commission unanimously approved the new code last week, and now, over the next few months, the council will decide whether to adopt it. 

Council heard its first report Monday night, where Cromwell spent the bulk of the evening explaining how the new code changes what the city has had on the books since 1972 and how it will work as Billings continues to grow and develop. 

Known as Project Re:Code, the committee working on it when the project began was nearly two dozen people, comprised of city staffers, business owners, Realtors, architects and other community members. By the end, they had 18 people working on it. 

The new code includes everything from the detailed — like new regulations on commercial sign height and size — to the broad, like what exactly defines neighborhoods, commercial areas and industrial zones and what can be built there.

Closely watched was the rewriting of the zoning codes governing casinos and bars and craft alcohol establishments. 

Under the new code, any newly constructed or remodeled bar or casino would have to be built at least 600 feet from places like parks, churches, schools and residential neighborhoods. Along with that, the new code eliminates giving bars and casinos waivers to that requirement. 

Cromwell pointed to Grand Avenue as an example. From 9th Street West to 54th Street West, Grand Avenue has 22 bars or casinos; under the new code only five of those establishments would be in compliance with the new requirements, she said. 

However, the new code allows for those existing businesses to stay as long as they're not destroyed, abandoned for six months or closed for a year, Cromwell said. If the bar or casino gets destroyed by accident or disaster, it can't rebuild as a bar or casino if it doesn't fit the new zoning requirements. 

The same is true if the building is closed for a year or abandoned for six months. Cromwell said the building can't be reopened as a bar or casino if it doesn't fit the new zoning requirements. 

The guiding principle for the zoning code reboot was managing Billings' growth and preserving its neighborhoods. Roughly 83% of Billings is residential and planners wanted to "protect the integrity" of the city's neighborhoods.

So the new code updates the city's 10 residential districts to seven neighborhood zones. The city's community commercial zone was broken up into three different zones, each with different regulations and requirements.

Developers will have new requirements under the city's planned neighborhood development regulations. The updates were designed specifically to discourage developers building in the county first and then seeking annexation into the city.

"We're taking the entire code and making it work better for the people of Billings," Cromwell said. 

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