A regulatory tool being debated at City Hall would give neighborhoods more power to block developments they deem out of place through the creation of so-called “conservation districts.”

City officials are holding a public hearing Tuesday on the proposed ordinance, which aims to preserve certain attributes of an area without imposing the severe restrictions of historic designation. The proposal from Council Member Cam Gordon may face some resistance from a new, largely pro-density City Council, however.

 “I think there’s a lot of interest in growing the city, but I think a lot of people want to do it in a planful, thoughtful manner,” Gordon said. “They don’t necessarily want to destroy the things we value and love most about our city.”

City planner John Smoley said rather than trying to preserve specific buildings, conservation districts would focus on the design or aesthetic character of a neighborhood. “They could have standards related to minimum and maximum heights, minimum and maximum setbacks, landscape features that should be present, those sorts of things,” Smoley said.

Council Member Lisa Bender, who chairs the council’s zoning and planning committee, said she is concerned about this being used to stop specific developments. She said the ordinance would have been better timed during the recession, when there was more time to guide growth and design, rather than “during an economic opportunity time when there’s interest in developing the city.”

It’s also unclear how many areas are interested in the districts. “It could potentially be a huge flood of areas that are places where our city has determined we want to direct growth,” Bender said.

Gordon said the proposal originated from the Prospect Park neighborhood, which is seeking to preserve the single-family homes around the Witch’s Hat Water Tower. The neighborhood is simultaneously encouraging dense growth in more industrial areas closer to University Avenue, where a new light rail station will soon become active.

Neighbors originally explored historic designation for the Tower Hill Park area, Gordon said, but found it would likely be too cumbersome for people making simple home improvements.

Gordon said conservation districts could also apply to other areas like Dinkytown, where six-story buildings are being proposed in place of existing one- and two-story buildings, or Cedar-Riverside. He said the districts could be as small as a block long.

"It could potentially allow new buildings to come in, but it would want them to follow some kind of agreed-upon guidelines," Gordon said.

The city’s heritage preservation commission denied demolition this week of three small Dinkytown buildings to make way for a hotel, asking the city to consider a historic designation study. The decision will ultimately fall on the City Council.

Smoley said in addition to Prospect Park, neighborhoods such as Marcy-Holmes and Uptown's Lowry Hill East have expressed interest in the new ordinance. Dinkytown is located in Marcy-Holmes.

Right now, communities largely dictate the character of their neighborhoods through small area plans. But those are mere guidelines, whereas a conservation district would have the force of law.

“What we envision this regulating would be architectural styles, development patterns, scale, or landscape designs that are common to the district and notable to the district,” Smoley said.

In the draft language, one-third of property owners in a proposed district must express their consent before a study is initiated. Two-thirds of owners must consent to adopt the guidelines of a district.

Tuesday’s meeting will be held in room 319 at City Hall at 4:30 p.m. Here is the text of the proposed ordinance:

Conservation District by eric_roper

Photo: Jennifer Syverson sits with other opponents of Opus' six-story Dinkytown development at a City Council committee meeting this July.