The long-awaited overhaul of Mecklenburg County zoning regulations is underway but any change is years away, likely only after fits and starts and not until policymakers reach agreement.
A meeting last week of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Planning Commission’s planning committee, a key advisory body, showed just how formidable the task is.
Members spent an hour listening to a planning program manager’s presentation and peppering him with questions about how Charlotte’s different neighborhoods, adjacent towns and such issues as utility-line location would fit in.
Perhaps more importantly, for now, they asked how feedback will be obtained from those who have a stake in the process before the foundation is set.
Most everyone – from planners and developers to neighborhood leaders – agrees that rewriting the zoning ordinance is necessary to better guide Charlotte’s growth in the decades ahead.
“There’s a need for the (zoning) ordinance to be a more useful tool for everybody involved, all the stakeholders,” Tony Lathrop, a Charlotte attorney and chairman of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Planning Commission, said in a recent interview.
That means “having an ordinance that is easier to administer for the staff…easier to navigate for property owners and easier for all who read it to understand,” he said.
The current ordinance, he said, is “huge and unwieldy.”
Grant Meacci, program manager for the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Planning Department, told committee members Charlotte should continue to offer a range of choices for housing, transportation, education, entertainment and employment.
In forming a vision for Charlotte, planners divide the city into:
Activity centers that contain increased development intensity.
Growth corridors that are priority locations for growth but might include specific neighborhoods for preservation.
Wedges that contain predominantly low-density residential with limited higher density housing and some commercial uses.
It’s a technical and complex process, Meacci said.
And planners still have a lot of work to do before vision statements and land-use proposals are conveyed to the public, he said.
Planning documents will have to be scrubbed of planners’ language “and jargon that we tend to use and make it understandable for our citizens,“ Meacci said.
As part of planners’ outreach, a website soon will be created that will contain documents and a way for the public to subscribe to ordinance-revision updates, Meacci said.
Meacci told the planning committee that the foundation and approach for a draft ordinance includes aligning zoning districts with “Charlotte places” to implement the vision in planning and policies.
The foundation also calls for a hybrid approach to design by using zoning techniques based on the intent and needs of various areas, he said.
Planning committee members had plenty of questions Wednesday.
Bolyn McClung asked Meacci where landfill space would fit in as part of the zoning review and how development consistency can be maintained from Charlotte into neighboring towns, such as along N.C. Highway 51 to Matthews.
“There’s hardly any difference,” McClung said of the highway corridor. “They both look great.
Have you had conversations with the small towns about what happens when our great places come up against (them)?”
“We’ll get to those type of conversations,” Meacci said.
He told McClung landfill space likely would fall under industrial uses in future land planning.
Sam Spencer, another committee member, said the “sense of place” planners refer to can mean different things in different Charlotte neighborhoods.
He noted, for example, that Windsor Park includes 1950s- and 1960s-era single-family ranch homes.
“Those look very different than what’s in Dilworth or what’s in a new suburban development,” Spencer said.
“But under place types, that’s all going to fall under single-family residential,” he said. “So when we’re taking this out into the community, what do we say to people where, for example, they don’t think that maybe what’s on here represents their neighborhood or their thinking of it in terms of age or income level, and not place?”
Meacci responded, “The short answer is that we may very well find, for instance, single-family residential might be too general” a zoning category and further analysis is needed.
Committee member Cozzie Watkins turned her attention to power lines, which she said are “one thing that can really mess up a neighborhood aesthetically.”
“Are we doing something about making sure that that’s not an issue?” she asked.
In response, Meacci said urban street design guidelines could deal with utility issues, and whether power lines should be underground.
City officials have called the current zoning ordinance “hopelessly convoluted.” Planners have been told the development tools are “hopelessly broken and dysfunctional.”
Focus on vision
Charlotte-Mecklenburg 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 lacks a planning vision.
The department found that the ordinance has outdated standards and confusing terminology.
Work on rewriting the zoning ordinance started more than a year ago and is expected to take up to four years to complete, Ed McKinney, the city’s interim planning department director, has said.
The Planning Commission will be involved in the rewrite during the entire process. The commission will make recommendations to the City Council.
For a community, a zoning ordinance is a regulatory tool that provides direction on how development or redevelopment will occur.
In its simplest form, the zoning classification of a parcel of land dictates how that property can be used. The zoning classification is set by the governing body for the jurisdiction in which the property lies. That same governing body has the authority to rezone property.
A comprehensive assessment of Charlotte’s zoning ordinance, conducted by the Planning Department and a team of consultants, focused on how well the current ordinance implements city policies and plans, such as the “centers, corridors, and wedges” growth framework and general development policies.
The zoning rewrite project also will look at best practices in other communities, both in North Carolina and throughout the nation, and suggest a range of possible new zoning and land-use tools to improve the zoning ordinance and better achieve Charlotte’s planning and development goals.
In a July 2013 report, a consulting team led by Clarion Associates LLC, and including Kittelson and Associates and Opticos Design, noted that during the past 20 years, Charlotte has experienced many significant planning and land-use changes.
During that time, development has been governed by a zoning ordinance that was last comprehensively updated in an extended process stretching from the late 1980s to 1992, the consultants noted.
“As is the case with many older development codes around the country, the current zoning ordinance has become outdated and is not user-friendly (at over 830 pages),” the consultants said. “Many believe it is not well aligned with the city’s planning and development goals, adopted plans and policies, and modern best practices.”
The consultants also said Charlotte is a city of many different places and character types, and special approaches always will be needed in one or more districts.
Seeking simpler solution
Regulations dealing with zoning, land use and development issues are contained in multiple principal documents, primarily the zoning and subdivision ordinances, but also a number of other related documents such as floodplain, tree, and sediment and erosion control ordinances, the consultants said.
“Having development regulations scattered among multiple ordinances presents a challenge to anyone trying to develop in Charlotte,” the consultants’ report said.
One alternative is for Charlotte to continue with a freestanding zoning ordinance, maintaining the system with which the city is familiar, the consultants said.
However, another option that should be considered early in the drafting of new zoning regulations is whether to combine the various sets of development regulations into a consolidated “unified development ordinance,” or UDO, according to the consultants.
Many communities have found that a unified ordinance streamlines the development process, is simpler for the user to understand, and is easier for the city to administer, the consultants said.
They said that approach has been taken in a number of North Carolina communities, including some of the towns surrounding Charlotte and in Raleigh, as well as in hundreds of communities around the country.
A UDO would combine development ordinances in one place to eliminate inconsistencies and create a streamlined process and better user understanding, local planners say.
Meacci last week pointed to Shreveport, Louisiana, which is drafting a unified development code and has established a website with a proposed zoning map.
In January, Shreveport planners identified major changes in the draft code in response to public comments.
One change dealt with food trucks and vendors, an issue being debated in Charlotte.
Noting the growing popularity of food trucks across the nation, especially in urbanized areas, a new section was added to Shreveport’s draft code that encourages orderly development and operation of “these exciting new venues.”
The revision was designed specifically for that downtown and the surrounding area.
In the end, Lathrop said, obtaining public feedback will be critical in drafting an ordinance for Charlotte or people will feel like “the big picture questions are fait accompli.”
Said McKinney: “We’re just making sure that we’ve got the right questions that we need to ask and so we need to do enough investigation on our own to be informed enough to make that stakeholder engagement useful and productive.”
He added, “We understand, clearly, that level of engagement is needed.”