Review of zoning rewrite continues in Charlottesville

Earlier this month I asked if this was the summer of AC44, as Albemarle County’s review of its Comprehensive Plan has been called. Compared to a similar effort in Charlottesville, AC44 is in its infancy being at just halfway through the first phase, which is taking a look at the county’s longstanding efforts to preserve rural area land from overdevelopment through growth management. 

We’re now well into the third year of the Cville Plans Together initiative, with both an Affordable Housing Plan and an updated Comprehensive Plan calling for a significant increase in residential density. 

At their meeting on August 9, the Charlottesville Planning Commission and Charlottesville City Council got an update on the creation of a Zoning Diagnostic and Approach report intended to inform the new zoning rules that will make it easier for bigger buildings on almost all parcels of land across the city. 

“Zoning is that set of regulations and tools that define the buildings that can be built, the building spaces as opposed to open space, and then how land can be used,” said James Freas, the city’s director of Neighborhood Development Services.   

An overview of the timeline for the rewriting of the Charlottesville zoning ordinance

Freas said the zoning rewrite offers the opportunity to address problems that have built up over time in the zoning code. One example over the years has been the way height is calculated as there are many conflicts. Freas said the rewrite is intended to make the city’s zoning rules easier to read.

“We want a zoning ordinance that someone can readily refer to and understand what they can do with their property, or what could possibly happen in their neighborhood and at the end of the street,” Freas said. 

Freas said the rewrite could also include further changes to the Future Land Use Map adopted as part of the Comprehensive Plan. That document suggests increases in density on every residential parcel, intensity depending on the color of the map. 

“When we talk about implementing the Comprehensive Plan, we’re talking about implementing the vision of the Comprehensive Plan,” Freas said. “We’re talking about affordable housing as we have been throughout this hole process. Addressing inequities. Walkable, people-focused. Protecting the natural environment and then significantly, working with our existing urban design and historic preservation in pursuit of all of these other goals.” 

Other words and phrases Freas highlighted are climate change, context-sensitive design, reducing approval times. 

“These are all kinds of key words from the strategies that make up the land use chapter and all things that ought to be reflected in the zoning ordinance as we move forward,” Freas said. 

Eventually there will be a toolkit created to avoid displacement of existing landowners in at-risk communities identified as “Sensitive Communities” in the Future Land Use Map. Freas said he had to make one clarification. 

“When we talk about preventing displacement as construing that as somehow protecting these vulnerable communities from change and that is not what we’re talking about. There will be opportunities for redevelopment in those communities but the idea is how do we protect the people who live within that neighborhood from displacement. To put it another way, how do we create opportunities for the people who live in that neighborhood to continue to live in that neighborhood. We know and our experiencing that gentrification is what happens when people are pushed out. They no longer can afford to live within the community. And that’s the issue that we’re trying to address.” 

This week will see the publication of a draft inclusionary zoning program intended to tie density to affordability, as well as a model of how the market may react to an increase in allowable density. 

“The rules of thumb as we move into this?” We’re seeking the greatest level of affordability that is market viable,” Freas said. “We’re aiming for sixty percent of [Area Median Income]. That’s what we want to get to. We have to see what the market can support.”

One programming note. My summary of Charlottesville property transactions in July should be posted some time this week. That will go to paid subscribers first, but you’ll be able to see this 19th installment of this endeavor on Information Charlottesville

Some of the potential details of how the zoning code is reflect the goals of the Affordable Housing Plan

The zoning approach recommends that the available building space depend on the characteristics of a particular lot including frontage, size, acreage. Other changes will include reducing the number of parking required in new developments. 

In the public comment before the discussion, Former Commissioner Genevieve Keller noted that the draft approach calls for the elimination of the Planning Commission in granting critical slopes waivers and design approvals for projects in the city’s official entrance corridors. She said she appreciated the desire to streamline the process by having staff make the final call. 

“But I also think there is a role for the public and sometimes the entrance corridor or the slopes is the only way the public gets to know about a project and so I would ask you to try to think of ways to keep the public involved,” Keller said. “I don’t know if that means putting it on the consent agenda or having a small committee of two of you that are working with staff.” 

Commissioner Hosea Mitchell shared the concern about turning over final approval to staff in aesthetic situations. 

“I worry that if we begin leaning towards black and white we lose some of the aesthetic concerns that the architects suggest that we ought to have,” Mitchell said. 

Commissioner Jody Lahendro said he was concerned that planning staff are already overworked and may not have the time to conduct a thorough review. He said he’s spent time in the past two years reviewing site plans as a member of the Tree Commission. 

“Things were being missed and just handled administratively and then finding out there were problems later on,” Lahendro said. “I am looking for transparency and I want there to be transparency and the opportunity to question the decision made by staff.” 

Some Commissioners suggested simply transferring the duties of the Entrance Corridor Review Board to the Board of Architectural Review. 

As for critical slopes, Freas said that change is more about timing. Currently the Planning Commission is asked to make a determination on waivers at the same time a rezoning is considered. That is often before detailed site work has begun. 

“We all inherently recognize the value of protecting critical slopes,” Freas said. “That’s not what’s at issue here. It’s really just at what stage of the development process does it make sense to do this review.” 

The Commission also had a long discussion about height. Commission Chair Lyle Solla-Yales said he feels the city needs to allow as much as possible in new buildings. 

“Height of course is a huge issue in terms of aesthetics as well as affordability,” Solla-Yates said. “If you want to raise prices, reduce height. It’s extremely powerful. I’m concerned about the friction between our affordable housing goals and any additional height regulations.” 

Public comment will be taken through the end of the month, including in an online survey. NDS staff are meeting with various neighborhood groups to gather comment from members of the community. The draft report will be updated to take all of that feedback into account. Freas said the goal is to release at least a portion of a draft zoning code to the public in early 2023 with adoption later that year. 

“We are aiming for spring of 2023,” Freas said. “I will note that spring runs all the way until June 21.” 

For the full discussion take a look at the video on the city’s streaming video archive. I may have more on from this meeting in a future installment of this program. There was a discussion of parking requirements and that will take its own segment. 

Here are the many ways you can get involved, including the filling out of a survey.

Before you go: The time to write and research of this article is covered by paid subscribers to Charlottesville Community Engagement. In fact, this particular installment comes from the August 15, 2022 edition of the program. To ensure this research can be sustained, please consider becoming a paid subscriber or contributing monthly through Patreon.

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