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City leaders in Bellevue approved an increase in the allowed size of new buildings.

The Bellevue City Council voted narrowly on Monday in favor of allowing new buildings up to 36,000 square feet in the General Residential, Business and Light Industrial/Mixed Business zones.

Any building beyond 36,000 square feet will require a conditional-use permit, rather than undergoing more extensive application criteria and an extended public process under the now defunct Large Scale Development conditional-use process.

After vociferous debate and at the recommendation of Mayor Ned Burns, the council voted 3-2 in favor of passing and waiving three required readings of the new ordinance, not enough to push the waiver through. Another vote later passed to allow the new ordinance at least one more reading, with council deliberations and no public comment, before its likely passage.

The staff-initiated change to city code is part of several proposed changes in recent months to accommodate new housing and commercial development. These include a plan to open up all original townsite residential zones for the construction of duplexes on 3,000-square-foot lots and allow unlimited apartment housing on Main Street with units down to 350 square feet.

Burns, a real estate professional who has championed these efforts, which have been approved by the Planning and Zoning Commission, said he was eager to catch up with the more rapid pace of development in the city of Hailey to the north.

“Hailey on River Street is moving forward robustly. It is clear that we are not,” Burns said.

Hailey’s micro-housing district, which has seen some growth, is limited to a few blocks on River Street. The proposed changes in Bellevue range far and wide across many zoning districts and would in some cases cover the entire downtown commercial core.

Councilmen Shaun Mahoney, Chris Johnson and Doug Brown voted in favor of increasing building sizes and scrapping the Large Scale Development requirements, which Community Development Director Diane Shay described as “onerous” for developers. At Shay’s recommendation, the council added a provision that buildings could be much larger, for example in the case of a hospital (in excess of 100,000 square feet) or other public building.

Council members Greg Cappel and Kathryn Goldman voted against the changes, seeking additional readings and more time to deliberate and possibly change the proposed ordinance to include more requirements from developers.

“I have concerns about removing all the safeguards that have been in place for a long time,” Cappel said. “Why not require economic and community impacts from a company coming here that’s probably already done these studies?”

Goldman said she wants Bellevue to have more jobs and housing opportunities, but shared Cappel’s concerns. She said she would not want to wind up with “large empty buildings” in Bellevue from major developments that did not pan out.

Some of the debate on Monday was over how some developments would affect the look and “culture” of the town.

Brown said a “mini-Target” store would surely have some impact.

“But that if there are too many filters [layers of compliance], no one is going to come in here,” he said.

Supporters of the change said it would be best to trust the conditional-use and design-review processes to shape developments.

“I like Bellevue’s downhome shops, but Family Dollar Store made it through the pandemic,” Johnson said. “They might not fit in, but they made it through everything.”

City Attorney Rick Allington said the council need not hurry and could save some Large Scale Development requirements and insert them into the new conditional-use process for buildings over 36,000 square feet.

Brown disagreed.

“It’s time to put this in gear,” he said.

A second reading of the proposed ordinance will take place on Dec. 13, the same night the council will review a staff-initiated change that would allow an unlimited number of housing units as small as 350 square feet on Main Street between Cedar and Chestnut streets. 

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