Planners roll out detailed game plan for new ordinance

Mecklenburg County subdivision-aerial 2010

When Mayor Pro Tem Vi Lyles convened the Charlotte City Council’s five-member Transportation and Planning Committee on Feb. 8, the City Council members may not have realized just how much Ed McKinney, the city's interim planning director, was about to reveal in his progress report on a new city zoning ordinance.

At the last update from staff in August, the committee did get a glimpse of some basics: Chicago-based Camiros Ltd. had been selected as the prime consultant. Local partners will be Bergmann Associates (formerly Gantt Huberman Architects), Wray Ward advertising/marketing and Parker Poe law firm.

The committee had also been told it might take as long as four years for a new zoning code to be completed and approved by the City Council. That timeline would involve an extensive public engagement process. The latest timeline might shave about a year off the process.

The new ordinance will entirely reconstruct the existing code, clarifying and shortening it (the current code is more than 800 pages), so that an audience other than land-use attorneys and developers could navigate it with relative ease. That might mean more illustrations and infographics and a lot less text, and a robust online component.

The council committee members knew the new code will lean toward a newer approach to zoning codes, one that focuses less on separating land uses via lines drawn on a map, and looks more at how the development’s buildings will relate to the spaces around them. (A few of the current zoning categories reflect that newer thinking, but most don’t.)

What they heard from McKinney was a more detailed work plan, encompassing nearly all aspects of this ambitious effort. 

Here’s a summary of some of the big ideas and the process that will shape them:

  • The new code will be a “hybrid”—a combination of what’s called a “form-based code” and the conventional single-use zoning codes that have dominated cities for 75 years. Form-based thinking emphasizes the public spaces in a city and aims to create streets that are welcoming to all, not just motorists. It encourages development based on city blocks and districts rather than development parcels. It also encourages arranging buildings in a more urban pattern, closer to the street and sidewalk, instead of setting them behind parking lots or other unused spaces. Although single-use zoning may still find a place in the new ordinance, it will be within the context of making stronger urban places.
  • The final product will be comprehensive. The plannerspeak for that is a "unified development ordinance" (UDO). The goal is, in McKinney's words, to “align seamlessly with other ordinances,” such as the tree ordinance and storm water ordinance.
  • The UDO will minimize the need for conditional rezonings, which is a zoning that applies specifics to the site in question, beyond what the simple zoning category calls for. Those types of rezonings today account for 80 percent of zoning applications. A conditional rezoning is more costly and time-consuming for both developers and planners and can lead to unintended consequences in the neighborhoods they affect. The new ordinance will tilt toward “by-right” development, which means fewer negotiations with planners because the end result will be predictable, with the ordinance producing the kind of development the planners and the city want to see.
  • The ordinance will redefine what a “district” means in terms of its place-making characteristics. The planning department’s urban design staff has been working to craft a set of new definitions, with a different vocabulary, to describe different kinds of development. Staff urban designer Grant Meacci calls this notion “place-types.”

McKinney outlined the timeline and the process as a four-phase effort. Phases 1 and 2 have already begun, and will focus on developing a “Community Character Manual.”  The manual will define the characteristics the new ordinance will be seeking to produce. 

Charlotte planning staff intends to take the lead on those phases, in part to bring the consultant team and various commissions that will be involved up the learning curve. The groups expected to be most involved in the first two phases will be the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Planning Commission, members of other boards and commissions, and an advisory committee. There will also be some educational sessions for the general public. Phases 1 and 2 will culminate in May with a work session for the full City Council and in June when the planning department will ask the council to OK the bulk of the consultant contract.

Phase 3 would take an estimated 18 months. Its goal would be to craft the draft ordinance. This is when the public engagement will intensify. McKinney projects this phase would end by early 2018.

Phase 4 will be when the draft ordinance meets public scrutiny. McKinney did not put an expected duration for this phase, but if it takes a year that could mean the new zoning ordinance is completed by early 2019. That would be a year earlier than planners’ previous estimates. 

In response to McKinney, council member Lyles said she recognized that rewriting a development code for a city the size of Charlotte will be complex, both technically and politically, and the likelihood that Charlotte will keep growing rapidly will complicate the effort. But she and the other City Council committee members at the meeting voiced an eagerness to proceed. 

McKinney said he plans his next update to the Transportation and Planning Committee on April 11.