“[The UDC] allows the city to develop in a manner that we want it to,” City Administrator Paul Mendes said. “Not helter-skelter growth. It would be organized [growth], it would be formal, and it would be a level of quality that would be sustainable.”
While city officials said the code will allow the city to ensure the quality of future development, some business owners and developers have expressed concerns about the challenges the code presents to existing and ongoing projects across the city. City officials said they are working with business owners to address these issues, including possible amendments to the code the City Council will consider in November.
Adopting the code
Magnolia’s UDC is a set of rules instructing developers and business owners on the required appearance of development in the city. The regulations cover a range of categories, including building materials in nonresidential zones, the height of signs and tree conservation during construction. The city of Tomball and The Woodlands Township also have development standards.
According to Magnolia’s UDC, the city is divided into 12 zoning districts with different regulations about what kind of development is allowed in each zone. Zoning districts include residential, nonresidential and the historic district known as The Stroll, among others.
Before the UDC was adopted in 2015, the city compiled its comprehensive plan in April 2013, said Tana Ross, economic development coordinator and planning technician for the city. The plan outlined the city’s goals regarding development in Magnolia.
“The Unified Development Code is the application of how to make the comprehensive plan work for the city,” she said.
Ross said the city held town hall meetings, considered resident input and worked with a consultant for about two years before adopting its UDC.
While the UDC applies to establishments within Magnolia city limits, Ross said Magnolia can regulate signs, streets and infrastructure in its extraterritorial jurisdiction, according to a ruling from the Texas Legislature.
As the city limits expand through annexation at the request of property owners, the UDC will help the city control its growth and its appearance, Mendes said.
“As the city grows it will absorb portions of the ETJ, so you want it to meet the same codes and [maintain the] proper width of streets,” he said.
Unifying city development
To receive a permit to build in Magnolia, the city must approve development plans. Ross said the city wants to provide business-friendly policies, but some business owners have expressed concerns about certain rules.
Chris Blair, owner of Magnolia Diesel Performance on FM 1774, said he believes he had verification from the city of Magnolia to use a sign on the property he purchased in September 2016. However, he said the city later told him the sign was not allowed. Blair said he is working with the city to come to an agreement on the use of the sign.
“This is my home town,” he said. “I don’t want to be going through this.”
Following voiced concerns from business owners about sign regulations, a sign committee was formed earlier this year, and the City Council will consider various amendments to the UDC in November, Ross said. Amendments would grant larger signs to Magnolia’s Stroll district, the use of on-premise real estate signs and larger signs for multitenant commercial-use facilities.
Along with the amendment, the city is working to phase out the existing signs that are not in compliance with Magnolia’s UDC, such as signs taller than 7 feet and billboards.
“[The UDC] applies what the residents have spoken and said they want in the city,” Ross said. “They were very specific about the fact that they do not want the portion of [FM] 1488 that is in the city limits to look like FM 1960 [in Spring]. They do not want all of the commercialism look.”
Ross said she and City Attorney Leonard Schneider are working to let owners of non-conforming signs know how long each sign has before it must be replaced to comply with the UDC.
In addition to signs, local business owners have also expressed concerns about building material regulations.
Magnolia Parkway Storage, located on Buddy Riley Boulevard, opened in late October. Project Manager AJ Kelly said Raymond Jordan, owner of the facility, spent about $100,000 more than budgeted to comply with the UDC.
“This is a storage facility, and storage facilities by rule are generally metal buildings,” Kelly said. “We submitted the plans without all the thousands of dollars of brick and stucco [materials], and of course it was immediately met with resistance from the city.”
Kelly said the city did allow the business to put metal on some portions of the buildings. However, the sides of the buildings facing FM 1488 and Buddy Riley Boulevard feature brick.
“[Masonry] is something that was also very much wanted by Magnolia residents,” Ross said. “They’re very interested in people having permanent buildings that show they are [invested] in the community.”
Despite concerns from local business owners, the city has issued a similar number of new commercial building permits since the code was implemented.
Magnolia issued 17 commercial permits for new structures, additions and exterior improvements within city limits between 2012 and 2014, according to city data. From 2015—the year in which the city adopted its UDC—to September 2017, the city issued 14 similar permits.
Magnolia city officials said the board of adjustments, the planning and zoning commission, and the council try to work with business owners to come to agreements and communicate requirements regarding the UDC.
Board of adjustments Chairwoman Anne Sundquist said a business owner or developer can come to the board of adjustments to appeal a decision made by the planning and zoning commission or the council.
“If [business owners] feel there has been an administrative error in some way, they can come before the board of adjustments, and then if they need to take it further, they have to go to a district court,” she said.
To further development, Mendes said the council is open to approving exceptions to the code.
“There’s a number of things that [business owners] have come in and said, ‘Look, this makes it difficult for us,’” Mendes said. “If it makes sense, then we can go with the council and planning commission and get some exceptions to it, because it makes sense—not [because of] who’s asking for it.”
Several amendments to the UDC will come before the council in November. Additionally, the planning and zoning commission will discuss amending land clearing policies and regulations regarding the sizes of protected trees.
“These are direct business-friendly responses to requests from owners of local businesses,” Ross said. “As with any city that has gone through this process, the first two to three years of implementation [of a UDC] is considered a time of change.”