Three ideas that could shake up planning and development in Charlotte

Planning & Development
Tuesday, June 30, 2020
A crane building apartments in uptown Charlotte. Photo: Nancy Pierce

The coronavirus pandemic has slowed some of the region’s planning efforts and stopped public meetings, but the virus hasn’t stopped Charlotte’s rapid growth. And in a city that’s added more than 150,000 new residents in the past decade, the effects of that growth are visible everywhere from the rising skyline to ever-more-clogged highways.

That’s one reason so many new plans — covering everything from transit to zoning to parks to greenways — are underway right now in the Charlotte region. Amidst all that change, here are three ideas that might shake up how Charlotte plans for its future and what that future looks like.

Impact fees

Many cities and counties around the nation charge developers fees for the new schools, parks and other public infrastructure new residents will require. That’s not the case in Charlotte (though there are “system fees” for new connections to the municipal water system). But assistant city manager and chief planner Taiwo Jaiyeoba recently said it’s an idea worth exploring.

This is food for thought for Charlotte developers, public officials and our communities. Having lived and worked in Cali. and Georgia, two states with impact fees, I understand its pros and cons. Controversial? Maybe. But it’s time to explore it!

— Taiwo Jaiyeoba (@winnerspath) June 27, 2020

Jaiyeoba has shown increasing willingness to explore controversial ideas, like the elimination of single-family zoning restrictions in Charlotte.

Developers fiercely oppose impact fees, which can add several hundred to $10,000 or more to the cost of a new house, depending on the location and amount of fees. Only a few municipalities in North Carolina have the ability to charge such fees, which must be granted by the state legislature and are often the subject of lawsuits.

Chatham County, for example, charges developers a fee to fund the purchase of park land based on the value of lots, and a $3,529 fee for each new single-family home. In South Carolina, Fort Mill won a court battle in January allowing impact fees of $18,158 per new single family home and $12,020 per new apartment unit to fund the school system.

Pushing for impact fees in Charlotte would be one way to raise more money for new schools and a parks system that ranks near the bottom nationally in per capita spending and access. But it would be likely to set off a major battle in the legislature and courts system as well.

Better integration of parks, schools planning

Mecklenburg County is in charge of parks and greenways. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools runs the county’s school system. And the city of Charlotte oversees the Charlotte Area Transit System, a city agency. That fragmentation is one reason planning in Charlotte can feel so disjointed.

It’s also why we have a parks master plan, transit master plan and citywide vision plan underway right now. Charlotte City Council votes on rezoning requests from developers, essentially deciding whether to allow much of the new building we see citywide (they usually vote yes).

Council members receive information about the expected impact on nearby schools during the process, based on formulas that predict how many new students a development will generate. For example, a plan approved last year to build 350 new residential units off I-85 near North Graham Street will result in a net increase of 193 new students, according to the staff analysis.

That would increase crowding at the nearby elementary school from 127% to 142%, projections show. But while City Council considers those figures, they don’t decide where new schools go — that’s the CMS School Board — a fact that council members have lamented in the past.

A similar conundrum exists for new parks. A more unified planning approach could break down the different silos between different government bodies.

Giving existing plans teeth

One reason we’re seeing so many parallel planning efforts underway right now is that there were so many plans already on the books. Charlotte’s Unified Development Ordinance is meant to wrap the zoning code, stormwater plan, tree plan, dozens of non-binding small area plans and more into a single document.

[Read more: Here’s what the next 20 years could hold for uptown Charlotte]

While local ordinances such as those applying to trees and stormwater management have the force of law, many of the other plans generated locally are nonbinding. This applies to documents like the small area plans on the books for many neighborhoods and “vision plans” for districts like uptown and South End.

These nonbinding plans set forward predictions and help people think big to generate new ideas, but they also lead to frustration when new developments don’t follow plans already generated through extensive community engagement and feedback.

So, one simple idea to shake up planning in Charlotte would be to give more deference to plans that are already on the books when considering new development, or even make some provisions in them binding, instead of merely advisory. As any planner will tell you, a plan that sits on the shelf gathering dust is the same as no plan at all.