Growth control: Dickinson officials say fill vacant developments before starting new ones

When Dickinson Planning and Zoning commissioners ended a debate last week in a tie vote over a rezoning petition from the developers of the proposed Barons Vista subdivision, concerns were not so much around what might be developed there, but whe...

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Press Photo by Nadya Faulx The yet-undeveloped Dickinson Hills subdivision is seen Tuesday with a view of the proposed Barons Vista development in the foreground. With hundreds of acres of vacant platted around the city, some Dickinson city officials are hesitant to approve new properties for development.

When Dickinson Planning and Zoning commissioners ended a debate last week in a tie vote over a rezoning petition from the developers of the proposed Barons Vista subdivision, concerns were not so much around what might be developed there, but when it might be developed, if ever.
At issue with the 282-acre project - which includes a rezoning request for single- and multi-family residences, as well as general and community commercial land - is the possibility that, without existing adequate infrastructure and access roads, the land just west of Dickinson may never be developed.
Ultimately, the commission last Wednesday took no formal action on the request - which included zoning for single- and multi-family residences, along with general and community commercial land - and sent it without recommendation to the Dickinson City Commission. City commissioners are expected to review the proposal next month.
Though Barons developers argued that the commission was unfairly judging its project on the faults of past developments that have sat vacant for years, commissioners have expressed hesitance to approve new subdivisions with so many around the city still awaiting development.
“Let’s face it, it is our job on the planning and zoning board to control growth,” said Commissioner Jay Elkin, who was among the four commissioners to vote against the Barons Vista rezoning request. “We have the opportunity here to let developers catch up, in-fill and allow them to make some money.”
There are no official numbers on just how many acres and lots have made it through the rezoning and platting process before the city, only to sit vacant for years. A 2012 vacant residential lot survey for the “Dickinson 2035: Roadmap to the Future” comprehensive plan found that more than 570 acres, including nearly 850 lots, were zoned residential but not developed. Another 192 commercial lots across 172 acres were found to be vacant.
“It’s always been a concern of mine how many vacant lots we do have, how much we have entitled out there,” Elkin said.
City/county planner Steve Josephson said there are about 3,275 residential units across several major developments throughout Dickinson - though it’s a far from comprehensive count - that received entitlements but never moved forward, some for nearly a decade.
“They were approved, but nothing has happened,” he said.
Once a plat is approved and recorded, it stands as the legal definition of what land looks like, down to the lot and block. A plat can’t be reverted or rescinded unless by the request of the landowner, Josephson said.
Though there has been some discussion of imposing “sunset clauses” on projects to set timelines for development and discourage vacancy, Josephson said he isn’t aware of them being used in Dickinson.
“It’s up to the developer to do what they need to develop,” he said. In a private market, “we have no control over it.”
For the city to take on a new property is “quite a commitment,” Josephson said, from extending infrastructure to providing city services such as police and fire. The further away a development is from the city, the more cost it is to extend services, noted interim planning director Mark Milstone.
It’s cheaper to in-fill those existing developments, Josephson said, both to developers and the city.
“When you do develop, you want to keep as close to the city as you can,” he said, adding he would just as soon see existing properties develop than new ones on Dickinson’s outskirts.
And that could get in the way of future developments, including Barons Vista, located on the eastern edge of the area included in the 6,100-acre West Dickinson Area Plan, a guide to future land uses in the region west of Dickinson.
“We’re leapfrogging,” Elkin said of the proposal to develop Barons Vista before neighboring Dickinson Hills, which received a final plat in 2014, has moved forward. “We don’t want to leapfrog anymore.”
Elkin said he isn’t opposed to Barons’ concept.
“They had a worthy project,” he said.
But Elkin said he would prefer to see more in-fill around Dickinson before the sprawling development is built out.
“Do we want a lot of empty buildings around?” he said.
The oil slowdown has played some hand in commissioners’ cautious attitudes toward new developments; Elkin said he worries that some vacant properties “will never be developed.
“And then who’s on the hook for infrastructure needs that were placed in there for all of the property?” he said. “That’s what we need to ask ourselves.”

Faulx is a reporter with The Press. Contact her at 701-456-1207.

Related Topics: DICKINSON
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