The issue of apartments and density has been a hot topic this election season in Frisco. While campaigning, a majority of Frisco City Council candidates stated that controlling the number of apartments would be one of their top priorities if elected.
Frisco has 11,949 existing urban living and garden-style apartment units, 3,663 units under construction and another 7,248 units in the pipeline.
Residents have expressed opposition to apartment projects in the city because of an increase in traffic, among other reasons—opposition city officials say they understand but in some cases do not have the legal authority to address.
According to city and development law officials, the city is bound to approve certain multifamily projects because of the zoning process and property rights. Although the city has taken steps to control the amount of land
zoned for apartments, it does not have the ability to regulate some land that is already zoned for multifamily.
“This issue of high density has been around for five years, and the concern is the multifamily growth in Frisco is majorly impacting the community and the infrastructure,” Frisco Mayor Pro Tem Will Sowell said.
However, city officials say multifamily living does have a place in Frisco, and that place is in mixed-use developments along major transportation corridors. In this respect, Frisco is following a trend found across the country, city Director of Development Services John Lettelleir said.
Sowell said it is the responsibility of Frisco’s elected officials to ensure that residents understand the zoning process.
“It’s an obligation we have to also balance the needs of land owners and their rights, and what the residents want for the future of the city,” he said.
Lettelleir said the city has taken significant strides throughout the years to reduce the number of multifamily units in Frisco.
“When Frisco was starting to grow, there was not a professional staff in place such as a city planner or even an engineer to thoroughly evaluate zoning requests,” Lettelleir said. “So land tended to get overzoned for certain land uses, and this happens in all communities.”
Between 1999 and 2000, with the zoning that had been in place for the past 34 years, the city had potential for 65,000 garden-style units, Lettelleir said.
Garden-style apartments generally take up more land because they incorporate surface parking rather than structured parking, may have multiple buildings and also have bigger units than urban-style apartments. An urban-style development is one building constructed around a parking garage and generally has smaller units than a garden-style apartment complex.
The city made single-family home developments a priority to bring down the amount of land zoned for apartment buildings, Lettelleir said. City officials initiated a zoning change to alter some of the multifamily zoning to designated single-family zoning and asked the staff to increase the development standards in the comprehensive plan to help reduce the number of apartments, Lettelleir said. Now zoning is in place for only 26,000-27,000 garden-style apartment units.
Frisco has two types of zoning approvals: nondiscretionary and discretionary.
Nondiscretionary zoning approvals take place when zoning is already in place on a piece of property for what the landowner or developer wants to build.
“For instance, if that zoning allows apartments, then there is no discretion in the city’s ability to say yes or no to that use,” said Tommy Mann, a Dallas attorney who specializes in zoning and land use law.
In nondiscretionary zoning cases, the city has an obligation to approve the project. If a nondiscretionary zoning case is not approved, a developer could sue the city for damages, Mann said.
Mann said it could be confusing to residents when the planning and zoning commission approves a site plan for an apartment project. In the city of Frisco, the planning and zoning commission has final authority on site plans if the project is zoned for that area and meets minimum development standards.
“If it is only a site plan, there is no discretion to deny [a project] just because it is a use that people have objections to,” Mann said.
The second type of zoning approval is discretionary zoning, which occurs when the correct zoning is not in place for the type of project the developer wants to build.
In a discretionary zoning case, the developer is required to apply for a zoning change. If planning and zoning commissioners, city council members or residents have reasonable objections to the change, the council has the authority to deny the zoning change request, Mann said.
Based on the city’s comprehensive plan, which was updated in 2015, a land use strategy was designed to guide leaders to make decisions regarding the community land use pattern.
In the city’s comprehensive plan is a component called the Future Land Use Plan. This is a policy document designed to guide decision-making related to rezoning proposals and for determining the appropriateness of a particular land use at a specific location in the community.
However, the comprehensive plan is not a binding document. According to Chapter 212 of the Texas Local Government code, the comprehensive plan does not override zoning already in place or establish zoning boundaries.
Lettelleir said a property owner may choose to develop a project if the zoning is in place for it regardless of what use the Future Land Use Plan shows; however, if a property owner makes an application for rezoning, the comprehensive plan should be an important consideration in the city’s approval or denial of the request.
“Just because the future land use plan might say urban living, mixed-use [or multifamily] does not guarantee that zoning is going to be approved,” Lettelleir said.
Lettelleir said when a zoning change is requested, the city staff goes through a thorough process to recommend approval or denial to the planning and zoning commission and the city council. But it ultimately comes down to the city council to make a final determination on the request.
One of the major effects residents believe multifamily housing can have on the community is an increase in traffic, Sowell said. However, he does not think apartments are the cause of crowded roadways.
“The reason traffic is so bad in Frisco is because people are generally leaving Frisco to go somewhere else for their job,” Sowell said. “Then you have those that live in Prosper and Celina that travel through Frisco. So the only way we are going to truly impact traffic in Frisco during rush hour is to bring the job centers to Frisco, and that’s what we want to do with the $5 Billion Mile.”
Sowell said the city should consider zoning changes along the Dallas North Tollway and US 380 that would allow multifamily components within mixed-use developments.
Lettelleir said another common misconception is that an influx of apartments will cause overcrowding problems in Frisco ISD. Urban living-style apartments are becoming more popular in Frisco as mixed-use developments increase, particularly along major transportation corridors. He said because urban-style units are not geared toward families but rather single adults, young couples and senior citizens, an increase in that type of multifamily unit should not substantially increase the number of children in the district.
Todd Fouche, FISD deputy superintendent for business services, said the district is not concerned about multifamily developments increasing the student population. He said even garden-style units are not expected to bring in more students because developments are new and more expensive. However, in 15-20 years he said those same units could be less expensive and could bring in more students.
“From what demographers tell us and what the city has shared with us, urban living developments don’t yield many students, so it’s not something we have a strong concern about,” Fouche said. “And if they do yield more students, our job is educate those students.”