As growth booms, commission urges speedier UDO process

Construction along the Blue Line Extension, photo from 11th Street looking at uptown Charlotte skyline. Photo: Nancy Pierce

The City of Charlotte’s key advisory committee on growth and planning – the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Planning Commission – wants the city to, in so many words, get moving as it re-envisions, reorganizes and rewrites ordinances that govern building and development in Charlotte.

 “The Planning Commission remains concerned with the slow pace of progress as growth and development in one of the country’s fastest growing cities is continuing without the Place Type / UDO standards we very much need,” the commission said in a letter to City Council sent Nov. 20.

Related: Time for a new vision for Charlotte?

City planners want to reorganize and update the city’s various overlapping development ordinances into one Unified Development Ordinance (UDO). The planning commission letter comes almost six years after the planning department began its initiative to examine and update its zoning ordinance. A consultant hired in spring 2012 concluded in 2013 that the zoning ordinance too often works against the goals of the city’s adopted plans. It wasn’t until two years later, in late 2015, that a different consultant, Camiros, was signed to work with planners to revise the city’s ordinances. The latest estimate from city planners is that the new ordinance would be adopted sometime in 2020 – eight years after the process began.

“We agree urgency is important,” interim Planning Director Ed McKinney said in an interview Dec. 1. “There’s a level of complexity to this that does require a fair amount of methodical work.”

PLANS AND POLICIES VS. ORDINANCES

Policies and city plans are treated as guidelines, not requirements. The zoning ordinance, by contrast, holds the legal requirements for development, setting out a myriad of detailed instructions such as setbacks from the street, how much parking is required, lot sizes, etc. A developer is required to follow the ordinances but isn’t required to follow the plans.

The last time the zoning ordinance was revamped was during the six years leading up to its 1992 adoption. Although newer zoning categories such as TOD (Transit-Oriented Development) have been created since then, many properties still carry the vintage zoning, with standards dating to the 1980s or earlier. Those older categories tend to produce a more auto-oriented, pedestrian-hostile form of development than planners now want.

In areas where the city wants to encourage development to boost its light rail lines, for example, the older zoning works against the city’s plans and policies. One example among many: Transit station areas are supposed to require new development within a 5-minute walk of the station to be pedestrian-oriented and mixed-use, not auto-centric. But a gas station-convenience store was built recently just a 4-minute walk from the Scaleybark light rail station, because the property’s zoning had not been corrected to make it conform to the station area plan. The new gas station met all the legal requirements for its old I-2 (Industrial) zoning, so the City Council had no opportunity to vote on whether to allow the development.

Along the Rail Trail in South End, some apartments (shown under construction in 2014) met the existing zoning standards but drew criticism for design, because their doors and patios open directly onto the trail instead of being raised a few feet for privacy. Photo: Mary Newsom

As part of creating the UDO, planners are working on a proposed “Place Types” Policy. It’s a new term for Charlotte. Planners want the revised zoning ordinance to focus more on the character of the places developed and less on the specific uses that would – or wouldn’t – be allowed. So they’re drafting a policy that would “describe the places we value and want to create,” in the words of an Oct. 23 presentation to the City Council. (Read more about the city’s Place Types planning.)

CONCERN ABOUT SLOW PACE ISN’T NEW

Charlotte’s UDO process has moved more slowly than similar efforts in some other cities. For example, the City of Raleigh from 2007 to 2009 wrote a new 2030 Comprehensive Plan, which it’s now updating.  More than three years later, in early 2013, the city adopted a new Unified Development Ordinance.

The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Planning Commission was expressing concern at the slow pace even two years ago, in December 2015, as public criticism was rising about the design of apartments being built under existing zoning codes, especially in fast-growing South End.

The commission – whose 14 members are appointed by, variously, the mayor, City Council,  Mecklenburg County commissioners and the Charlotte Mecklenburg School board – has no official power beyond offering recommendations about whether to approve rezoning petitions and city plans.

Whether the planning commission’s push for more speed will make a difference isn’t clear. The current timeline calls for the city planners to draft a Charlotte “Place Types” Policy by summer 2018, with adoption in fall 2018. The first draft of the Unified Development Ordinance is estimated to arrive by early 2019, and McKinney estimates it will be adopted in 2020.

“It’s a complicated effort that we’re trying to do,” he said.