“I had no idea they were building that there.”
It’s one of the most common complaints about development in a fast-growing city like Charlotte. A small house or patch of woods you’ve driven by for years is suddenly gone, scraped clean and replaced with a stand of new apartments or a clump of townhouses. Although developers are required to notify neighbors before of most rezoning petitions, and city staff makes an effort to get out the word, there's no guaranteet that the yellow rezoning signs, letters mailed to property owners, and word-of-mouth in neighborhoods keep everyone informed.
“Currently, we really handle public outreach through petitioners (developers),” said Dave Pettine, rezoning program manager, speaking at City Council’s Transportation, Planning & Environment Committee on Monday. But as the coronavirus pandemic shakes up established ways of doing business, the city is looking at ways to improve community involvement in the rezoning process — especially in neighborhoods that often feel left out.
Understanding the development process can be an equity issue in Charlotte, which still suffers from the legacy of redlining and housing segregation. Many wealthier neighborhoods have strong community organizations that can push back, exert political pressure and extract concessions from developers. Other neighborhoods, often with lower average income and more renters, don’t have the same community infrastructure.
“We already know the Dilworths and Elizabeths are very active,” said Pettine. “What about the others?”
Here are four steps the city is considering as it looks at tweaking the rezoning process.
Putting community meetings online
City Council meetings have been broadcast for years, including livestreams on Facebook and YouTube. That makes it easy to watch the meetings from anywhere, or go back and rewatch them anytime you miss one (if you’re so inclined). And since the pandemic started, they’ve also allowed remote comments.
That’s not the case for developer-hosted meetings about rezonings, which are generally required to be held in neighborhoods. There, developers review plans, take audience questions and gather feedback that often makes its way into the final project.
Such meetings are usually held in the early evening, and they can be tough to attend for parents or people whose jobs don’t allow flexibility. Oftentimes, people don’t know a meeting is happening, and have no way to recap it if they don’t attend in person.
With the expansion of livestreaming and web cameras into every part of our lives, that could be changing. The city is considering requiring developers to stream meetings online, where they would be recorded and available to watch later.
“One of the things that has been a little bit of a benefit from covid is the community meetings have gone to a virtual form,” said Pettine. “We know it’s a challenge to get out to a meeting sometimes, with work, childcare and other things. Not everyone can attend.”
Mayor Pro Tem Julie Eiselt supported the idea.
“We’ve always heard people have to get childcare,” said Eiselt. “I’d love to see the community meetings online as well.”
Changing who gets notified, and how
The city of Charlotte requires developers to mail notifications about proposed rezonings to property owners within 300 feet of a site. That’s actually more than the state requirement (which covers only adjacent properties), but can still leave hundreds of interested people out of the loop.
“Three hundred feet is a great distance, but rezonings affect people within miles of that property,” said Pettine.
Mass mailings are an outdated system, some council members said. Braxton Winston said the city should explore new methods, like sending text messages to people in a given radius of a development, with information.
“The technology is there to get people a wide dissemination of information at a low cost,” said Winston.
Eiselt suggested that rezoning notification signs — those yellow placards you see around town — include ways to make it easier to find information about what’s being proposed, like a QR code that automatically loads a video or photo. The signs now include the rezoning number (say, “2019-102”) and the rezoning.org website, where interested people can click around for the corresponding number and download documents.
“You could get a video on what that project’s about, and take away some of the responsibility that’s on the petitioner to provide that information,” said Eiselt.
Bringing more groups into the fold
When it comes to neighborhoods, the amount of expertise in community groups varies widely. Some are stocked with lawyers, architects, planners and people with plenty of spare time to dig into development proposals. Others are comparatively much less active, and might not include the critical mass of dedicated people with the knowledge and time to parse dense, complicated language.
“We have a lot that are more active than others,” said Pettine. He suggested the city needs to proactively find ways to work with neighborhood groups that don’t have as much capacity. “It’s not just taking the ones we already work with regularly and improving those. Let’s focus on the ones that may need some assistance.”
Council member Larken Egleston said that will be especially important as development patterns change and new projects like the Silver Line push growth into neighborhoods that aren’t used to seeing frequent rezoning requests.
“There’s neighborhoods in my district that do this every month and are really familiar with the process,” said Egleston. “People will start rezoning and developing and investing in neighborhoods that aren’t used to this process...It presents a really big challenge.”
Making the jargon easier to understand
Charlotte makes a lot of information about rezonings readily available online: applications, maps, feedback forms and technical documentation. But if you don’t understand the arcana of zoning rules, it can be hard to make sense of. And the website can be less-than-intuitive to navigate.
Interactive maps instead of static PDF documents, FAQs, easy-to-navigate contact lists and glossaries de-mystifying the jargon of zoning are all simple steps the city could take to make the process easier to understand.
“Are there ways we can create some educational videos that are a little more engaging?” said Pettine. “There’s really a lack of information on the process itself...I think that’s an area we certainly recognize we can make improvements on.”
“When we talk about a rezoning going from R-4 to R-22, folks might not know what that means,” said Pettine. “How do we provide that in a little bit more easy-to-read summary?”