The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Planning Commission was encouraged last week to be more active in helping to shape future development of one of the nation’s fastest-growing cities.
“The reason you exist is to determine what is right for the community at this time and in the future,” City Manager Ron Carlee told the group while it gathered for an all-day planning retreat.
Carlee, Mayor Dan Clodfelter and at-large council members Vi Lyles and David Howard told commissioners that they needed to help shape the city’s vision for what kind of development it wants and be more aggressive in seeing that vision through.
After their guests delivered some blunt words, the commission decided to forego its planned agenda and instead brainstorm ideas for how to revisit their mission. Those included:
*Seeking more input from the planning staff on rezoning applications before public hearings are held.
*Forming a small committee to handle mandatory referrals on inter-governmental land exchanges.
*Developing an annual work plan to help them achieve their vision.
*Improving communications with the planning staff to determine what obstacles they face and what assistance they would like from the commission.
*Improving communications with the City Council.
*Holding more meetings with community members.
*Collecting more information on the city’s transportation plans to incorporate into their work.
The Planning Commission’s Executive Committee plans to decide what steps will be taken next at its work session Oct. 5.
Several commission members said they had believed that they were supposed to have a more limited role.
Commissioner Deborah Ryan, an associate professor of architecture and urban design at UNC Charlotte, called the directive “music to my ears.”
Clodfelter said that because the way the “hopelessly convoluted” zoning ordinance is written now and the way it is implemented, there is no way to realize a development vision for the city.
“Your tools are so hopelessly broken and dysfunctional,” Clodfelter said.
Planning Department officials have said a new ordinance is needed because the existing one provides guidance on the types of land use, location and designs, but it lacks a departmental vision. The department found that the ordinance has outdated standards, confusing terminology, and it emphasizes meeting zoning-district requirements instead of focusing on what the rules mean. It also found a lack of linkage between growth policies and regulations, which often focus on separating land uses regardless of whether or not they are compatible.
Work on the zoning ordinance rewrite started about a year ago and it is expected to take up to four years to complete, said Ed McKinney, the city’s interim Planning Department director. The Planning Commission will be involved in the rewrite during the entire process and the commission’s Ad Hoc Zoning Ordinance Update Committee had its first monthly meeting in March, he said.
Commission Chairman Tony Lathrop said the commission will make recommendations to the City Council on the rewrite of the zoning ordinance and concerning land-use policies.
Clodfelter also told the commission that running a bigger and more complex city has also diverted the council’s attention away from issues of importance to the Planning Commission, but the commission needed to make itself heard and focus on the big picture instead of the minutia of projects before them.
“You are so down in the weeds, you are down in the weed roots,” Clodfelter said.
The mayor’s and other city officials’ comments prompted Commission Chairman Tony Lathrop to change the retreat agenda.
Lathrop said after the meeting that based on what he heard from city officials, the Planning Commission needs to be more efficient by moving developers’ zoning requests through the system faster, and that hasn’t happened because the commission has gotten too bogged down in details.
City Manager Ron Carlee echoed Clodfelter’s sentiments and expanded on the comments. The commission needs to have “diverse ideas” regarding what type of community it wants Charlotte to be, he said. Carlee said he saw how planning can be a powerful way to reinvigorate communities from his experience as the county manager in Arlington, Virginia.
“I think our opportunities are only limited by our imagination,” Carlee said.
He urged the planning commission to be proactive and aggressive.
“We are definitely a reactive body, not a proactive body,” said Ryan.
Developing a work plan was one of the ways in which the commission plans to do that. Carlee urged them to make a plan, to work with the planning staff and even have their own meetings with the community.
Commissioner Karen Labovitz was one of the strongest proponents of creating a plan to determine what the commissioners want to accomplish each year and to layout how that will be done.
“I think in order to accomplish some of these things, we will need a number of committees,” Labovitz said.
The work plan priority should be focusing on the city’s zoning ordinance rewrite, Lathrop said.
Commissioner Cozzie Watkins latched onto Carlee’ community meetings idea and suggested having dinners in different communities to hear people’s ideas about development in their area and to tell them what is happening in their neighborhoods.
Commissioners also decided Friday they want to communicate more frequently with the City Council by meeting with council members more regularly. They supported the idea of quarterly meetings with the City Council and having a liaison between the two bodies.
The commission also decided it wants to get more input from the planning staff on proposed projects before public hearings.
That should give commissioners more information about projects earlier in the process, so they are familiar with projects when the public starts giving its input, Lathrop said.
Other ideas for making the Planning Commission more proactive and giving it a larger role in the city’s future included Commissioner Nancy Wiggins’ idea to assign a commissioner and an alternate to attend the City Council’s Transportation and Planning Committee meetings.
Wiggins said assigning people to attend the committee meetings would give commissioners some insight into how the City Council plans and how it wants to address transportation issues. That could be useful when it comes to working on the city’s zoning ordinance rewrite, she said.
By the end of the session, commission members were enthusiastic and energized.
“I think we got more than we asked for today,” said Lathrop. “It turned out great.”