Commission, Council discuss parameters for allowing commercial uses in residential neighborhoods

The release of a final draft of the city’s next zoning ordinance has been delayed for another week according to James Freas, the city’s Director of Neighborhood Development Services. It was supposed to come out last week but there has been a need for more legal review before an updated draft is ready for public review.

On July 13, 2023, the City Council and the Planning Commission held another long work session to go through the three modules that have been released over the course of this year. 

This most recent work session covered two items. Unfortunately, this edition of the newsletter only covers the first one and even that is just partial.

Appointed and elected officials discussed the rules for the Residential-A, Residential-B, and Residential-C districts that are all intended to increase housing across the entire city.  The exact amount for each won’t be known until that new draft is released. 

One concern offered by critics of the new zoning code is that reduced setbacks will lead to bulky buildings that alter neighborhood character. Christy Dodson of the firm Code Studio explained that these will allow for more control of what the future looks like. 

“When you’re thinking about how you’re controlling for building size and building location, in today’s regulations, the setbacks and the height are the only tools, the only dials, that impact that bulk and mass,” Dodson said. “In the proposed regulation, we have a few more dials and I want to make sure that we understand what those dials do and how we can change them to get the outcomes we may want to see.” 

The new regulations add the dials of “width” and “building coverage.” Dodson said controlling width and reducing setbacks can help make sure new structures be “house-scale.” She went through multiple examples of this in her presentation. (view the presentation on cvillepedia)

The consolidated draft will have provisions for “alternative forms” that could be used in all three residential districts for commercial purposes. These would take the form of “house-scale business” or “shopfront house” or “corner store.” Dodson previewed the “shopfront house.”

“And the intent of this really runs the spectrum from something that is a house that looks like a house and has the form of the house but has a business,” Dodson said. 

Dodson sought feedback from the group on whether these should be limited to corner lots, whether they should be limited in size. Uses would be controlled by a table that’s currently available in the first module. 

“Most of these do require a special use permit so there’s a process associated with that and these are most limited in R-A so things like food and beverage would not be allowed in R-A,” Dodson said.

In the draft version that will be released this week, the proprietor would not have to live in the home in this alternative form. But should they? 

Examples of alternative forms. The shopfront house example comes from Austin, Texas

There was a lot of discussion at the meeting about the impact that commercial uses might have on communities that up until now have been residential. Charlottesville Mayor Lloyd Snook asked this question about special use permits, or SUPs. 

“Does the SUP process permit us to say that ‘there are already two others like this and you don’t get one because you’re third in line and you weren’t one of the first two,’” Snook asked. 

Lee Einsweiler of Code Studio said there could perhaps be language in the zoning code to address the spacing of businesses, but that legislative approval by the Council would be key. 

“So there is some nuance to this and that’s why the special use permit is really important for things that you are concerned about and whether they would have significant impacts,” Einsweiler said. 

Einsweiler said if the city really wants to encourage businesses in residential areas, at least some of the uses should be by-right rather than require special use permits. 

“If you see these as a baby-step up from home base business to something slightly larger that might eventually grow into something even larger, it’s a real challenge to go through that formal process,” Einsweiler said. “This is an experiment for you. You don’t really have a major pattern of historic versions of in spite of the fact that clearly there were at one point in time in some of the neighborhoods and as you bring it back, you should probably be a little bit careful about it for sure.” 

But what about specific kinds of retail businesses?

“Could you address vape shops?” asked Chair Lyle Solla-Yates. “I’m getting a lot of questions about vape shops?” 

“A vape is just something you happen to sell, so you know, if the state is allowing you to sell it, we’d have to ask the attorney whether we can constrain it,” Einsweiler said. 

Attorneys have been consulted about this specific issue and we’ll see what the draft says. 

Speaking generally, City Councilor Michael Payne said he didn’t want to make strict prohibitions that would stifle commercial activity in residential neighborhoods. 

“There are definitely people I’ve canvassed and talked to who wish they had a corner store or a coffee shop they could walk to and we do have examples of that in the city,” Payne said. “At the same time, it’s definitely true there would be areas of the city where I’m sure the neighborhood would not welcome some particular use coming in. I don’t know if the special use permit process is a way to kind of navigate it but I would be uncomfortable just a blanket saying it is just illegal and absolutely not possible to have some commercial uses mixed in with residential because we see there is a real desire for that in areas of the community.” 

However, Payne acknowledged that there could be unpredicted outcomes. 

The “Use Table” in the first module of the draft zoning expanded the amount of commercial uses that could be conducted in residential areas. (view story on first module)

Commissioner Rory Stolzenberg said he thought that many of the businesses would end up being run by homeowners who had a passion for a particular service or good. 

“It’s never going to pencil for like a corporate 7-11 or a Starbucks to open up in the middle of a residential neighborhood but for someone who lives there and wants to set up a couple of cafe tables and get an espresso machine to be social and to bring together community,” Stolzenberg said. 

Stolzenberg said he did not want commercial uses to be limited to commercial lots. He also suggested making some uses by-right if the business owner also lives on the property. Einsweiler said that be hard to enforce.

“It’s just really difficult to know who is where and I also know that many many successful examples of these are not owner occupied,” Einsweiler said. “They’re leased spaces.” 

Commissioner Karim Habbab suggested having an “owner occupied” requirement in Residential-A. 

“I would be for that with exceptions for specific uses like a convenience store,” Habbab said. “And I don’t know what list of uses is until we dive into it. Hopefully we can have a work session where we can dive into those uses or we can send you feedback.”

Another issue discussed was whether commercial uses should be allowed only on corner lots or whether they should be allowed on all properties. Planning Commissioner Hosea Mitchell suggested a special use permit should be required for non-corner lots. The Commission’s Chair was bullish about midblock businesses in general.

“I know there are no mid-block businesses in Charlottesville but if there were and we would legalize them, suddenly they would magically appear and pay taxes which I see as value,” said Lyle Solla-Yates.

Mayor Snook had a different take.

“I am generally not a fan of commercial uses particularly in residential zones in R-A in particular,” Snook said.  

Snook also added that the purpose of R-B zones around schools was to have people live in those locations there and not to have stores there. He said he could support only having commercial uses on corner lots in residential neighborhoods.

“The reason I have suggested focusing on corner lots is that it provides a natural system of rationing,” Snook said. “You can only have but so many of that particular use if they’re going to be on corner lots. That doesn’t mean it is the most intelligent way to ration.” 

Vice Mayor Juandiego Wade reminded Council and the Planning Commission of the time he worked as a transportation planner for Albemarle County where he had to review traffic impacts from businesses. He wants to proceed cautiously with commercial uses in residential areas. 

“I would like as much for it to be [special use permit] as possible because that gives us an opportunity to review it based on what’s going in the neighborhood,” Wade said. 

Planning Commissioner Phil d’Oronzio said he opposed any requirement that a property owner must live at the site to enable a business use.

“You could easily have a situation where an owner-occupant is renting the storefront to somebody and the owner-occupant then needs to depart and to preserve the ownership of the property, they need to rent out the residential unit, too,” d’Oronzio said. 

Commissioner Carl Schwarz also rejected the idea of an owner occupancy mandate but did support a different requirement.

“I do think that we need to have a resident, someone living on the property, and I would say at least 50 percent of the square footage should be residential,” Schwarz said. “That way at least if its a nuisance, there’s somebody living on the site that is experiencing the nuisance.

There was much more in the work session and many conversations. I will admit this edition of the newsletter has been delayed because it’s difficult to go through a four hour conversation when you can only work in increments of an hour or two. 

What exactly will be in the draft? We’ll know more this week and I will try my best to drop everything to write about it. This stuff is important and I think more people need to be taking a look as the final vote looms later this year. 

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 July 31, 2023 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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