Expanded parking zone approved in downtown New Bern to fix “permitting problem”

Changes to New Bern’s downtown parking ordinance will expand the zone that is exempt from off-street parking regulations.

The New Bern Board of Aldermen have approved an amendment to the city’s Code of Ordinances that expands the downtown business area exempted from off-street parking requirements. 

The board voted 5-1 to approve the changes recommended by the city’s Planning and Zoning Board to address a longstanding problem for city staff and business owners looking to move into the central retail core of New Bern’s downtown historic district. 

Alderman Rick Prill was the lone no vote. Alderman Bobby Aster was not in attendance. 

During a presentation at the Board of Aldermen’s October 10 meeting, Jessica Rhue, director of Development Services, said there has been a history of applying parking standards incorrectly in downtown New Bern. She said the text amendment corrects a permitting problem “by making what’s been happening in reality for years match what’s allowed on paper and affords the same parking exemptions now allowed in a very narrow area to a broader area that composes what we actually think of as historic downtown.”

The text amendment approved last week expands the downtown exempted parking area to include real estate to the west side of East Front Street and down to the south side of South Front Street. 

New Bern’s Land Use Ordinance previously required off-street parking be provided for new commercial developments as well as businesses moving into existing structures and utilizing a “change-of-use” occupancy. 

Under the updated ordinance, new businesses moving into the exempted area will be allowed to occupy an existing building without having to meet parking requirements that could preclude the new use of the building due to a lack of parking spaces.

The text amendment defines the downtown zone exempted from off-street parking as: the area encompassing those properties abutting the east side of Hancock Street, the south side of South Front Street, the west side of East Front Street, the south side of Broad Street from the west side of East Front Street to west side of Craven Street, and the north side of Broad Street from the east side of Craven to the east side of Hancock Street.

A problem in need of a solution

Rhue said dating back to 2017 until late 2022 there were “multiple legacy staff people issuing zoning approvals that the ordinance does not quite support as written.”

Due to those approvals, Rhue said there were at least six downtown businesses operating out of compliance because they did not meet the strict letter of the parking ordinance.

“It’s my belief that what has happened was that previous staff members believed that all of historic downtown was exempt from parking standards and they would approve the use and move on,” Rhue explained.

A map of downtown New Bern shows the expansion of the area’s off-street parking exclusion zone outlined in red. Though the map incudes the Riverfront Convention Center, the Board of Aldermen ultimately voted to remove it from the expanded zone.

After consulting with legal staff, Rhue said the city had changed its development processes and now requires that new businesses receive a zoning compliance certificate, which states that the business must comply with zoning requirements for parking, setbacks, height limits, and other standards.

Rhue said under the former process only developments that were required to go to the Board of Adjustment or through a development review committee process received that level of scrutiny “and that was an antiquated way of operating and we needed to update it and we have.”

“It is very difficult in part of our downtown for a business to open under the new way we are doing permitting where you have to get that zoning compliance permit,” Rhue said. “Not opening businesses downtown is not a solution, nor is permitting businesses that don’t meet our ordinances and laws.”

The newly drawn map excludes most of the area’s undeveloped property and maintains the current parking requirements for short-term rental businesses.

The original proposed text amendment prohibited the elimination of any parking that exists within the new boundary unless a special use permit was granted by the Board of Adjustment. Aldermen removed that provision as well as the inclusion of the Riverfront Convention Center within the newly drawn boundary. 

Background of new parking exemptions

Rhue said the New Bern Planning and Zoning Board discussed the issue over a five-month period, from May to September of 2023. 

During initial discussions at the Board’s June 6 meeting, four board members said they were not in favor of moving forward with the proposed expansion of the off-street parking exemption zone. 

During that meeting, Chairman Brad Jefferson said he had reached out to Swiss Bear, New Bern’s Main Street organization that facilitates development of the greater downtown area. Jefferson quoted Executive Director Lynne Harakal as saying that she was “in favor of doing away with all parking restrictions downtown.”  

The map was modified, and the planning and zoning board approved the new map with one dissenting vote. 

Concerns raised by citizens, alderman 

Prior to the Board of Aldermen’s discussion and vote last Tuesday, a public hearing titled “Flexibility in Administration Required” was held on the proposed parking changes during which only two people spoke. 

A speaker asked that the board delay their vote and consider reestablishing a parking committee to look at eliminating off-street parking and how it might affect downtown and surrounding areas. 

During a lengthy discussion, Prill raised a number of concerns he had with the Code of Ordinances text amendment. Prill made a motion that the board delay action on the proposed changes until members of the board who would like more detail on the matter had the opportunity to do so. The motion was not voted on for lack of a second. 

“I’m concerned we may be trying to go too far in addressing the concerns that you have,” Prill told Rhue. 

He said previous boards and city staff had chosen not to address the issue.

“It’s a good example of kicking the can down the road,” he commented. 

Prill said he took issue with the assertion that buildings in the original exempted area are similar to ones in the newly expanded area.

“If you look at areas in red (new zone) you have very few properties where the buildings run lot-line-to-lot-line, so they’re not similar in character,” he said. 

Prill also noted that there is little room for on-street parking in the expanded exempt zone should new businesses move in.

“Where is parking going to happen? Are we setting ourselves up to be forced to have to build a parking deck somewhere?” he asked. 

According to information Rhue provided on October 10 in answer to email questions submitted by Prill, in the previously exempted area there are 260 on-street parking spaces, while the expanded exemption area has 114 on-street parking spaces.

In his email, Prill also asked why no action was taken on the formation of a parking study committee made up of Planning and Zoning Board members and City officials that was discussed by the Board.

“The Planning & Zoning Board discussed this issue for five months. There was no vote taken on establishing a parking committee,” Rhue replied.

During last week’s meeting, Prill said he was concerned that the Planning and Zoning Board was taking a “progress at all costs” attitude to downtown New Bern.

“There are costs to be paid for development. I’d rather see deliberate, smart, well thought out growth happening in this community,” he commented.

By Todd Wetherington, co-editor. Send an email with questions or comments.

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