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Home / Uncategorized / Planners just want a 
little unity

Planners just want a 
little unity

But the regs have 
no legs with some

WALTER FIELDS: Adopting a unified development ordinance is not a panacea. Photo by Nell Remond

Developers looking to start a project in a county can often find themselves mired in rules and regulations, with different requirements from various towns and counties.

But officials with Gaston County’s planning department are hoping such confusion will be a thing of the past thanks to the county’s unified development
ordinance — once all the cities and towns in the county get on board, that is.

“We still have a few cities and towns that are working on adopting the UDO in whole or in part,” Gaston County planner Willie King said. “It has been a long, slow buildup process.”

Nine places in Gaston County have yet to adopt the UDO: Belmont, Cherryville, Cramerton, Dallas, High Shoals, McAdenville, Mount Holly, Ranlo and Stanley.

Bessemer City, the cities of Gastonia and Lowell and the planning department for Gaston County have signed off on the UDO.

Work began on the UDO in late 2005, with final approval from the county in 2008. Since then, various cities and towns have had their planning boards reviewing and adjusting to it.

“I’m sure it will make it easier for us to work with the county,” said Richard Elam, director of Cherryville’s planning department and part of the team that helped develop the UDO.

Still, Cherryville hasn’t adopted the UDO itself.

Elam said Cherryville had updated its development ordinance recently, so he didn’t feel the UDO was needed for his town as much as for some other municipalities in the county.

The basic premise of a UDO is simple: Set up guidelines for zoning, trees along the street, landscaping, storage and the like that would be appropriate to one geographic area, instead of letting each municipality have its own set of rules.

With individual cities making planning decisions and then leaving them alone — sometimes for decades — the collection of rules and regulations for a developer to navigate can become downright byzantine.

Such was the case with two cities that were much quicker to adopt the UDO than Cherryville has been.

“The cities that adopted it, like Bessemer City and Lowell, had ordinances from the 1970s,” Elam said. “We had up-to-date ordinances from 2002. Some of those other cities needed updating badly.”

Towns with regulations that had more recently been revised probably wouldn’t accept the entire UDO, Elam said.

“There are certain sections we’re looking at, including the landscaping area,” he said. “And we’re planning to adopt part of the UDO into our subdivision ordinance and then also to incorporate their section on things like street trees and open-air storage. It makes it easier for their inspectors to look at things, instead of each city having their own various ordinances.”

Cherryville’s not the only municipality that’s reluctant to adopt the UDO in its entirety. The city of Belmont doesn’t seem likely to, either.

Elson Baldwin, Belmont’s planning director, said the city prefers to stick with its existing code.

“I think it is certainly a good idea for Gaston County to have a UDO,” Baldwin said, “and it is good for development in terms of people who are doing the developing and those departments doing the permitting.

“We have no intention of adopting it for Belmont as an overall code. We’re in talks now about that and have been since around March or April. We’re looking at creating a Belmont overlay district, which would apply to Belmont and along the peninsula (in Lake Wylie).”

As to what the overlay district would entail, Baldwin said the department is still working it out.

“It is very broad in scope, but there would be signage, landscaping and building requirements,” he said.

Walter Fields, a planning consultant with Charlotte-based Walter Fields Group and a former member of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Planning Commission, said the fact that the UDO is being worked on is a huge step in the right direction for economic development in Gaston County.

“I think it is very progressive if all the jurisdictions can agree on a single set of development standards,” Fields said.

“I think that is an economic development tool. Now, if I’m working with a developer and they are looking for a place to go, everyone has the same set of rules.”

Fields said the concept of a UDO has been around for decades but areas around the country are giving UDOs another look as they try anything to kick-start flagging development during the Great Recession.

“The common understanding of a UDO says that instead of having a separate tree ordinance, a separate housing ordinance, etc., you adopt it as a single code,” he said. “It is fairly easy to develop, and most of the consulting firms that develop UDOs have this catalog of zones and they just put it in there.”

But taking a cookie-cutter approach to UDOs can backfire, Fields warned.

“You have to be careful you don’t get something in your ordinance that doesn’t belong,” he said. “When we were working on one in the 1980s for Charlotte, some of the cut-and-pasted language in the ordinances referenced orange groves and desert plants.

“I’ve worked with a municipality that bought one of these and spent the next four years trying to figure out what they had. I saw one that bought an ordinance that had 31 pages of regulations about cell towers.”

Fields lamented that Mecklenburg County doesn’t have a functioning UDO.

“You go to Davidson and you have one set of rules, Huntersville has another set of rules and Charlotte has its own rules,” he said.

But Fields offered a warning to planners who think getting a UDO adopted will be a panacea.

“People look at them as an answer to all their ills: ‘If we just get a UDO all our problems will be over,’” he said. “Well, no. You solve problems by working with the community and developers to come up with an answer. Just buying a book that sold well in Denver or Florida doesn’t necessarily get you what you need.”

Baughman can be reached at [email protected].

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