Steven Firestone looks at a large map of an area that’s become the source of a lot of frustration for him.
The map, colored here and there with a pink highlighter, depicts the Lake Wylie area. More specifically, it shows The Sanctuary residential development and two adjacent areas that might soon be rezoned to make way for a new development, Chapel Cove at Glengate.
On the map is the maximum residential density for the area: one house per acre. As far as Firestone — a member of the city’s planning committee — is concerned, that’s the right density for an area like Lake Wylie, and it is in keeping with the recommendations in the Steele Creek Area Plan, which was created with the input of the public.
But for the Chapel Cove project, Crescent Resources is seeking to build houses at a higher density than what zoning allows. The city’s planning department has supported the rezoning request, which still needs City Council approval.
Residents in and around The Sanctuary are upset by the request for a more-dense development, which isn’t all that surprising: It’s not uncommon for many rezoning requests in the county to draw at least one critic.
But this request has a member of the city’s own planning committee siding with residents who are crying foul over the proposed increase in density. He says the method used by city staff members to calculate density for the project is indicative of a broken system.
“Residents see this map and they see the intended density,” Firestone said. “And they see an application like Crescent’s come through a few minutes later with double the density and everyone seems OK with it. It’s confusing and discouraging to them.”
In a request filed in July, Crescent asked for 180 acres east of The Sanctuary to be rezoned to allow it to build 1.75 homes per acre. That’s higher than the current density of 0.4 homes per acre for the area.
To some residents’ disappointment, the city’s planning department considers the 180 acres to be part of the 1,800-acre tract the city zoned in 2003 for The Sanctuary, which was developed by Crescent, and other future Crescent developments. That means the density, when averaged across the 1,800 acres, would be 0.52 homes per acre, which is below the recommendation in the Steele Creek area plan.
Still, residents in The Sanctuary, most of which Crescent sold to a homeowners association in 2007, and nearby are livid at the way the city is calculating density for Chapel Cove. They’ve formed a group, Save Lake Wylie’s Coves, to oppose the development.
“It doesn’t make sense to let Crescent or anyone else calculate density for their project using land they don’t own,” said Marian Black, an organizer with Save Lake Wylie’s Coves. “And they haven’t owned the land for years.”
Crescent did not return calls from The Mecklenburg Times.
Representatives from the city’s planning department say it has always been the department’s policy to calculate density using an existing site plan if one is on file. In this case, Charlotte Planning Director Debra Campbell said, it doesn’t matter that the existing site plan is from 2003.
“It is the same development,” she said. “It also doesn’t matter about ownership. Although we appreciate when we have citizens that are concerned about a development proposal and they are adamant and consistently advocate a position, sometimes we feel as though they are not being reasonable or not understanding.”
Other towns in the area don’t follow Mecklenburg County’s practice of calculating average density, opting instead to set lot-size requirements in a different way.
“We do absolute minimum area per lot instead of density,” said Kathi Ingrish, planner for the town of Matthews. “That’s how it has been done here for more than 20 years, and we think that works much better.”
Ingrish said the town tells the developer the minimum square footage allowed for each lot in the proposed project. The lots can then be divided up however the developers want as long as each lot meets the minimum size requirement.
“For example, I might say to a developer that each lot has a minimum size of 5,000 square feet,” Ingrish said. “It is up to him how many lots he wants to have in his project. When you set density upfront, you also have to look at the amount of land being used for roads and common areas in the development. That would be in addition to housing lots. So we do minimum lot size and don’t set any density upfront.”
John Hoard, planner for the town of Mint Hill, said the town doesn’t use average density but, instead, prefers to set a minimum lot size.
“For us it is simpler that way,” Hoard said. “A large part of our town doesn’t have access to either sewer or water, so they are on septic tanks and wells. We have a 40,000-square-foot minimum lot size, which is basically one house per acre, but we don’t look at it that way.”
Still, Hoard said he could see advantages to letting developers plan projects using density calculations.
“If you have a 200-acre tract, and you establish density, there is freedom there to manipulate lot sizes and have different home types but have the same density,” he said. “At the end of the day, if your concern is about environmental impact and traffic, it should all come out the same, with density spread across an entire area.”
Hoard said he could understand why residents would be concerned about a developer using land it didn’t own as a means to meet the density requirements for an area plan.
“That sounds strange,” he said. “But keep in mind an area plan is what it says it is: a plan for the entire area, not for one specific piece of property.”
City Councilwoman Claire Fallon said she is planning to support Crescent’s rezoning request when it comes up for a vote at Monday’s council meeting.
“I really don’t know about how they (the city’s planning department) calculated the density,” she said. “But I would imagine there are valid rules or they would be challenged on them all the time and lose.
“Someone would have taken them to court. I think the planning staff works very hard and tries to do what is right for Charlotte, and I trust them.”
Fallon served on the city’s planning commission for two years before being elected to the City Council last year. She said that during that time no one griped about the city’s density calculations. But representatives from The Sanctuary had come before the commission, complaining about the possibility of Crescent developing Chapel Cove, she said.
“Back then, they were more concerned with the quality of the houses that might be built on the land next to their homes than they were with density or its effects on the lake,” she said. “Now they’ve changed tactics to be concerned about the environment.
“Well, were they so concerned when their homes were being built out there? Everyone wants to live in a paradise where it is green around them and there is no development. But that isn’t reality, and nobody is more privileged than anyone else.”
Firestone, who as a member of the planning commission is a volunteer, said the way the commission calculated density for Chapel Cove is a first for him.
“I’ve served on the planning board for four years, and I don’t remember a situation where this type of logic was applied,” he said.
He said he has asked the city’s planning staff to consider changing the policy of using existing site plans when calculating density. But so far they had not responded to his request, he said.
“If I cannot look at a map from an area plan and know what density is appropriate in that area, I don’t know what I should be looking at to make decisions on these rezoning requests,” he said. “I would have to go look at every development built there in the past to see if any have a higher density than what is being recommended.
“I volunteer to look at these details. But it is above and beyond the average citizen when (the city) says the area plans on file are not correct. They should be able to look at those maps with some confidence.”
Campbell, the city’s planning director, said she understands the concerns of residents in The Sanctuary. Still, she said this is the correct way to interpret the Steele Creek area plan.
“I believe this is just a case where we respectfully disagree,” she said. “We truly have listened to their views. Just because we haven’t changed our minds about density doesn’t mean we haven’t listened to them.”
BAUGHMAN can be reached at email@example.com.
The Charlotte City Council is set to vote Monday on Charlotte-based developer Crescent Resources’ rezoning request to build homes at a higher density in the Lake Wylie area.
Source: Mecklenburg Times Staff Research