We are closer than ever before to the adoption of a new Development Code for the City of Charlottesville which will result in fewer steps that property owners will have to take to build on their land. The new zoning will also enable more building space on every single lot within city limits. But should some land receive fewer development rights to discourage speculative development?
On October 3, the Charlottesville City Council held their second work session on the proposed Development Code. Mayor Lloyd Snook said he wanted to provide another opportunity to go through questions he and other City Councilors have about the process. (view the work session)
“The first question I had posed to the City Tax Assessor was will taxes go up based on the potentially more intense use of the land in [Residential-A], [Residential-B], and [Residential-C] lots?”
Snook’s question was prompted by activity on the social media site NextDoor where some claimed that property taxes would triple due to the potential of having three residential units.
“As I understand it, this is not a simple yes or no answers but has a lot of ‘it depends’ on whether neighbors are selling for three times as much, not whether neighbors might sell for three times as much,” Snook said. “As I understand, the answer is as it has always been that it depends on what comparables are doing.”
“Comparable” is a real estate term used in the assessment process. City Assessor Jeffrey Davis has a letter dated September 18, 2023 that Snook read from. (view the letter)
“I think it is logical to assume that by increasing the density, property values may rise over time but there is no basis for an immediate increase in assessments,” Snook said.
Another claim by opponents of the Development Code is that the city’s Comprehensive Plan is invalid because the Virginia Department of Transportation did not adequately review the document.
“I think we can put this one to rest pretty quickly,” said City Attorney Jacob Stroman. “The allegation of illegality relates not to the adoption of this zoning ordinance which is before Council at this time but relates to an allegation that is past us which relates to the amendment of the Comprehensive Plan. The statute that is at issue here has no bearing on Council’s consideration of the zoning ordinance and any allegation of illegality is ill-founded.”
In August 2022, Charlottesville Circuit Court Judge Claude Worrell threw out all but one count of a lawsuit as I reported at the time.
The main topic of conversation at the October 3, 2023 Council meeting was displacement and what might be done to stop it.
Since then, readers of Charlottesville Community Engagement know that the Planning Commission will consider this Wednesday two overlay districts intended to provide tools to stop the purchase of land in historically Black neighborhoods where families with lower household income and wealth.
Council first heard from Antoine Williams, the city’s housing manager. He will be responsible for ensuring compliance with the new rules for affordability. He defined “anti displacement” for Council.
“Anti-displacement… is generally referred to as strategies and policies to prevent involuntary displacement of long-standing often lower-income residents from their neighborhoods due to gentrification or other development pressures,” Williams said. “An anti-displacement strategy framework aims to create inclusive, stable communities where residents can afford to live and thrive.”
The Comprehensive Plan designated these areas as “Sensitive Communities” and the Future Land Use Map suggested geographic locations that would have fewer development rights than the rest of the city in the new zoning. This idea had been discarded by the time the Planning Commission held their public hearing on the Development Code on September 14 but they will consider its return on Wednesday.
Williams said the new zoning code will require ten percent of units constructed outside the three residential zones to be affordable. He also said there will be density bonuses for additional height as well. These rules will be codified in an Affordable Housing Manual which can be viewed here. Williams said there are limits to what zoning can do.
“It can’t address economic inequality, it can’t control property values, or address all displacement issues,” Williams said.
City Councilor Michael Payne said he understood, but asked if there was a tie between the proposed zoning and being able to use other tools such as housing vouchers, a land trust, or using low income housing tax credits.
“Does zoning interact with these tools in any way?” Payne asked. “In other words, do you see situations where depending on what the zoning is, it makes it more or less feasible to implement some of these strategies?”
Williams said the city is studying the concept of a “housing equity district” which he said could identify individual properties with long-term residents or tenants. That would perhaps allow more tax abatement.
“One thing that’s been discussed and is being vetted is concepts where you could freeze tax values or work with the owner of the said home to ensure that that [resident] could have the opportunity of right of first refusal or the city or a land bank or a land trust,” Williams said.
Since the Planning Commission’s public hearing, the Housing Advisory Committee has been working to restore the overlay district that was discarded. This group is currently led by leaders of nonprofits who receive funds from the city to build, maintain, and rehabilitate housing.
Sunshine Mathon is the executive director of the Piedmont Housing Alliance. He reminded Council that the city conducted a housing needs assessment in 2018. (review the document)
“The results were grim,” Mathon said. “At that moment in time, five years ago, it identified that the city needed to deploy 3,300 housing interventions… to address household cost burdens experienced by low-income families in our city. Disturbingly, it also estimated that the challenges would only worsen in the coming decades without deep investment and focused action.”
Since then, the Housing Advisory Committee took a major role in developing the Request for Proposals for the Cville Plans Together initiative of which the zoning rewrite is the third leg. The first was the Affordable Housing Plan which called for the elimination of policies to only allow one unit per lot as well as a commitment for Charlottesville to spend at least $10 million a year on housing.
Mathon said there is still a major obstacle related to economics.
“The headwinds to progress that every city faces are similar,” Mathon said. “One, we operate within a social fabric that privileges housing as an investment vehicle over housing as a human right. Corporate aggregation of homes across the country including in Charlottesville is the latest expression of this principle.”
Mathon said the city has to protect certain neighborhoods from the potential effects of upzoning, citing the recent study by RKG. He said the Housing Advisory Committee recommended restoration of what had been called “Sensitive Communities.”
“The anti-displacement zones overlay… grew out of this assessment and attempted to redistribute development pressure by differentiating maximum densities,” Mathon said. “More density in historically exclusionary neighborhoods, less density in anti-displacement zones.”
Mathon went on to detail a proposal to limit development in the short term through an overlay while small area plans are developed for each area. He said without an overlay, the problem will get much worse.
The Council discussed many more items and ideas in detail and heard from City Attorney Jacob Stroman about how many of them would likely not be allowed by Virginia law. One was an idea from Planning Commissioner Phil d’Oronzio to put limits on who could have additional development rights in the overlay districts. Stroman had reservations.
“We’re not trying to give a dispositive opinion on the fly about this kind of program and I don’t want to leave that impression at all but I think it is good to realize that there are going to be some hurdles, perhaps some difficult ones, that we’re going to have to contemplate,” Stroman said.
As with many of these summaries, that’s not the end of the meeting. There’s a lot to learn from these meetings. Council had another work session on October 11 on anticipated population trends that I will eventually write up.
As I complete this version of the newsletter, I can report that the materials for the Planning Commission’s deliberations now include more details on the new zoning district that is being called the Core Residential Neighborhood A. I’ll have more details in a future newsletter.
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 October 16, 2023 edition.
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