Planning Commission recommends Development Code, setting stage for City Council public hearing on December 5

After several sessions following the September 14 public hearing, the Charlottesville Planning Commission has recommended a Development Code that will usher in a new era for the city’s built  environment. 

Their final work session on October 18 was about three hours long and contained a lot of wordsmithing and adjustments of various parameters for the new Residential Core Neighborhood A District. This was added after the public hearing at the insistence of housing groups who want to  implement an aspect of the Future Land Use Map intended to help prevent displacement. (view meeting materials)

Draft language for the proposed RN-A zoning district

For more information on the concept, go back and read my story “Charlottesville City Council pitched on restoration of “anti-displacement zones” which summarizes the elected body’s discussion from October 3. 

At one point, outside legal counsel Sharon Pandak had this observation about the discussion she was hearing about details that were changing on the fly as the six Commissioners deliberated. 

“This is going to be amazing micromanaging and not developing general standards,” Pandak said. 

Not developing general standards could open the city to legal challenges in the future. 

Commissioner Carl Schwarz was skeptical of the concept of allowing households in the areas to be designated RN-A to have fewer development rights than everyone else.

“People who have lived in the neighborhood forever, born in the 50’s who have lived their entire lives and they’ve got a dwelling that is their personal wealth,” Schwarz said. “Are we cutting out that personal wealth by doing this?”

Schwarz said there are many families whose children have already left who don’t want to return.

“But that house is their inheritance,” Schwarz said. “Are we hurting those people through this?” 

Commissioner Phil d’Oronzio is a member of the Housing Advisory Committee, a group whose members otherwise consist of leaders of nonprofit housing groups and an employee of the Charlottesville Redevelopment and Housing Authority. He said that potential wealth is not as important as attempting to prevent displacement.

“We seem to have a pretty loud and clear signal that neighborhood preservation [and] housing preservation without developer invasion is heavily weighted against value,” d’Oronzio said. “Secondly, I  mean you still have plenty of value there.  You can sell that and have somebody come in and build a single family residence.” 

Schwarz asked d’Oronzio who was coordinating that information. 

“The provenance is Joy Johnson and Emily Dreyfus,” d’Oronzio said.

Johnson is a resident of Westhaven and the Section 3 coordinator for CRHA. Dreyfus is a political organizer with the Legal Aid Justice Center. Both are members of the Cville Plans Together steering committee, with Dreyfus representing a group called the Charlottesville Low-Income Housing Coalition and Johnson representing CRHA.

The list is current as of February 2023. Disclaimer: I was a member of the committee while employed at the Piedmont Environmental Council. I only attended one meeting as I chose a route back to journalism as soon as the pandemic hit in March 2020.

The Legal Aid Justice Center website stores two reports from the coalition that sought to influence the outcome of the Cville Plans Together initiative:

Commissioner Lyle Solla-Yates is a resident of the 10th and Page neighborhood, one of the areas that would be designated as RN-A.

“I’ve talked to some of my neighbors who live in this area and asked them ‘is this what you want?’” Solla-Yates said. “Quoting my neighbor Bumblebee, ‘my property value is mine. Don’t take it.’ Everyone has said no, they don’t want this.” 

Schwarz said many in the same neighborhood are uncomfortable with the whole process.

“It’s new and different and scary with the idea that someone could build multiple units there in a backyard,” Schwarz said. “It’s scary but that’s the same fear that the whole town’s got.” 

d’Oronzio discounted these points of view and said he was willing to take a leap of faith on the RN-A district as a short-term measure.

“The plural of anecdote is anecdotes, not data,” d’Oronzio said. “I am viewing RN-A as a, I don’t want to say stopgap, but a zoning district that is designed to give us breathing space to do the small area plans and to provide that protection.”

“I guess my biggest problem with it is that it seems like we are doing something to do something and the question is will this actually stop displacement or flipping?” said Commissioner Rory Stolzenberg.

Stolzenberg said he did not think the RN-A district would do anything to stop the well-documented behavior of knowledgeable individuals or entities purchasing properties for less than they are worth and converting them into properties that sell in the half-million dollar range.

“And then they are flipping them largely within the existing building envelope into well over median houses and nothing we do here is going to prohibit that, nothing is going to make that harder,” Stolzenberg said. 

Commission Chair Hosea Mitchell sought to move the conversation along with the assumption that City Council wanted a district like RN-A. He steered the discussion toward some changes that Commissioner Stolzenberg wanted to suggest. Essentially, he would allow a property owner to have two additional units on site by-right if the existing structure is kept. 

“So it’s a little bit less restrictive than the currently proposed RN-A which makes me feel a little bit better about the moral ambiguity here,” Stolzenberg said. 

At this point, Mitchell was ready to send on a recommendation to Council. More on that in a moment. 

A map depicting the lowering of by-right uses in the Core Neighborhoods Corridor Overlay District.

The six Commissioners also touched upon the Core Neighborhoods Corridor Overlay District which covers sections of Preston Avenue and Cherry Avenue. These areas would now have slightly less by-right potential than other corridors, but developers and property owners could apply for a special exception permit that would be given if certain criteria are met. (See alsoPlanning Commission learns of plan to treat Preston Avenue differently in new zoning code, October 15, 2023)

Commissioner Lyle Solla-Yates sought to change the name of the permit and its purpose and cited the specific code.

“2.9.6-C, Special Exception Permit to be Public Benefit Bonus,” Solla-Yates said.

“So instead of Special Exception Permit, you want to call it a public benefit bonus?” asked Commissioner Rory Stolzenberg. 

“Yes,” Solla-Yates said.

Specifically, Solla-Yates wanted to take away the ability of City Council to make a decision on whether such a permit should be granted. He said these should be handled like the other affordability bonuses that pervade the entire draft Development Code .

James Freas, the city’s director of Neighborhood Development Services, said he was concerned about making that change.

“The thing I’m concerned about is that we provide bonuses for the affordable dwelling units but the standards to get that bonus are very, very clear,” Freas said. “These are not.” 

Commissioner Rory Stolzenberg raised a point about the entire point of the Cville Plans Together initiative. 

“I mean I would argue that this entire thing since long before I was around in 2017 was about making for predictable, non-discretionary processes to have a zoning code that is not based on arbitrary decisions made by Council on an ad hoc basis,” Stolzenberg said.

Commissioner Karim Habbab agreed with Stolzenberg’s point but felt the overlay district would support some of the equity goals of the initiative.

“It does offer a seat to Fifeville and 10th and Page to advocate for what they want in these areas and that is the only way,” Habbab said. “If we don’t have a special exception, there’s no mechanism for the community to have that voice.”

Freas said another way would be community involvement in the small area plans that are to be created for each of what are no longer called “sensitive” communities. 

The Commission reached consensus on keeping the discretionary review in but tweaked some of the criteria. I’ll have more details on their alterations in a future edition of the newsletter when they were summarized for Council at their October 25, 2023 work session. 

Before the vote, Commissioners stated their real estate holdings in the city.

  • Hosea Mitchell said he owns two condominium units in Belmont and he lives in both of them.
  • Karim Habbab owns no property.
  • Phil d’Oronzio said he owns a house in Belmont and his mortgage company is based in Charlottesville.
  • Carl Schwarz owns a single-family home in 10th and Page and is employed as an architect.
  • Lyla Solla-Yates a small house in 10th and Page.
  • Rory Stolzenberg owns a house in the Locust Grove neighborhood.
  • A seventh position has been vacant since June. Read more about that.

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 30, 2023 edition.

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