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More conservation subdivisions could come in more towns

MATTHEWS – Conservation subdivisions, in one form or another, have been around in some of the municipalities in Mecklenburg and nearby counties, and there are plenty of existing subdivisions and approved-but-waiting developments.

But not everywhere, and not always in their purest form.trees

That is changing, in some places faster than others.

In Matthews, for instance, a proposed new unified development ordinance, which was approved by the Planning Board late last month and was headed to the Board of Commissioners on Dec. 9 – contains an “ecological development” zoning designation, as Matthews Planning Director Kathi Ingrish described it.

It’s not exactly new – it was created a few years ago, but only for the Crestdale neighborhood – and never really got off the ground, largely because of “hiccups in getting the lands assembled,” Ingrish said. “But it was just too good to have in just one area.”

“It’s a unique development tool that allows houses to be grouped together closely to preserve wildlife areas.”

Other conservation subdivision concepts are under study in Huntersville  and in Cornelius, where a draft new land-use plan would allow their creation when the town considers a new zoning ordinance next year, Planning Director Wayne Herron said.

“We do have language in this plan that promotes that,” Herron said. “What we would have to do is go into the code and create that designation or option. That’s our next step, a new zoning ordinance.”

The third iteration of the draft land-use plan goes back before the Cornelius Board of Commissioners on Dec. 16 for consideration.

Parts of the Huntersville and Cornelius extra-territorial planning jurisdictions, or unincorporated areas, abut the Davidson ETJ, where conservation subdivisions are allowed. It is not uncommon to see areas approved for such high-density subdivisions just across the way from areas of Cornelius zoned rural preservation, where development is now limited to one house per 5 acres.

Other towns with conservation subdivision options include Weddington, where they are conditional zoning designations and tightly regulated to keep the number of homes to the same as traditional housing developments, said Planning and Zoning Administrator Jordan Cook.

In Mint Hill, they are even more narrowly prescribed, so much so that Planner John Hoard said he often wishes they weren’t, to encourage more developers take the town up on the option.

“There are some incentives to it,” Hoard said. “Traditional subdivision lots have to be at least 20,000 square feet and we specify street size. In the conservation subdivision, the lots go down to 12,500 and we reduce the right-of-way.

“But on the flip side, we do get into building materials and house size, and a lot of builders have squawked about the building requirements. Fifty percent of all the homes have to all-brick; that’s the killer.”

One builder in Mint Hill tried – unsuccessfully – to get a text amendment approved relaxing those standards, Hoard said. Another attempted – successfully – to get modifications for a specific project.

Despite the regulations, conservation subdivisions have been developed and are being built-out in Mint Hill, including some of what Hoard called the “nicest and most successful.” They include the huge, 400-lot Summerwood, home to multiple builders; Olde Stonegate, where Citizens Homes “keeps building left and right,” Hoard said; and Telfair, where Bonterra has just broken ground on its second phase of home lots.

Some residents near proposed conservation subdivisions will resist them, at least at first, Hoard said: “There’s a perception that it’s going to degrade their property values, but (the subdivisions) end up being very good and successful.”

The building materials requirements in Mint Hill notwithstanding, there are financial incentives to conservation subdivisions, Hoard said, even though there is no “density bonus,” meaning that like in Weddington, developers can create denser lots but not more of them in the subdivision as a whole. But, he said, “there are financial and economic advantages: the reduction of right-of-ways, and you don’t have to run infrastructure all over the place; those are small things, but they add up.”

“If you look at the general theory of these subdivisions, I think as a planner that they’re a great thing. There are advantages and disadvantages, but there’s a huge segment of the market that wants this kind of thing. It gives people another option.”


For more on this story, please see The dollars and sense of density.

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