In a historic move, the Charlottesville City Council on Monday night voted unanimously to approve the revised Comprehensive Plan and Future Land Use Map (FLUM), a step many supporters hail as critical in addressing the city’s shortage of affordable housing.
While the plan is not a zoning map, it provides a framework for what kind of zoning could be allowed in the future. The zoning code hasn’t been substantially revised since 2003.
Approving the FLUM is one of the first substantial steps the city has taken to address the city’s legacy of exclusionary racial covenants and redlining.
“The racist history of our current zoning map is well known. It was intended to perpetuate racial segregation in our city and to deprive Black people of their wealth. Laws that were racist by design should be presumptively invalid,” said Angela Ciolfi, executive director of the Legal Aid Justice Center.
Over 70 community members spoke during the meeting, advocating for and against the map.
The city’s Comprehensive Plan, a guide for local land-use and other big-picture decisions, was last updated in 2013.
The new map changes the high and low intensity designations in the existing map to general residential and medium intensity. This provides more potential opportunities for affordable housing in areas traditionally dominated by single family homes. The FLUM is intended to be consistent with the city’s Affordable Housing Plan.
While a lot still has to be determined by a comprehensive zoning rewrite, this essentially means R1, or single-family home neighborhoods, are no longer required to remain exclusively zoned for single-family homes. This gives the potential for more and different kinds of homes, such as duplexes and triplexes, to be built.
This change has led to significant controversy, with community members organizing community groups to advocate for and against the map, starting petitions and placing ads in The Daily Progress. While some community members see the map as a big step forward for housing equity in Charlottesville, others have voiced concerns that developers will take advantage of single-family home neighborhoods to develop large complexes.
There could be some exceptions to keep an R1 designation if there is a health and safety reason, such as a steep slope in a neighborhood, Planning Commission Chair Lyle Solla-Yates said. He said he doesn’t expect that to be necessary, however.
So many community members showed up to speak at the Planning Commission’s public hearings on the map that public comment on the matter was cut down to two minutes per person at Monday’s City Council meeting in order to allow more people the chance to speak. Typically, public comment is limited to three minutes per person.
“There’s speculation on the internet that we’re about to break the internet,” said Brian Wheeler, city communications director, when he enabled public comment on the Zoom webinar.
Most of the community members who spoke against the map were concerned that increased density and development of larger housing complexes would ruin the character of their neighborhoods.
“I feel the future land use plan in particular needs much more work and further review … Next to our house is a lot we own which is vacant. It has been used for a vegetable garden for 78 years and for 30 years under our watch. This tomato garden is designated for medium intensity development. Under this plan it can accommodate up to 12 housing units … To really visualize this, I’d be glad to give the City Council a tour of my tomato garden to let them see how inappropriate this designation is,” David Aller said.
Mark Whittle, a city resident, voiced concern that the medium intensity designation would destroy neighborhoods and raise housing prices.
“These risks [of the medium intensity designation] include driving prices higher, destroying functional neighborhoods, including low income and incurring major infrastructural costs … Planners divided the community, but a compromise at this point could go a long way to reversing that process. And finally thousands of people will again sleep at night,” Whittle said.
While there was a strong showing of community members opposed to the map, there was a slightly larger showing of residents in favor of the map and the affordable housing opportunities it could provide.
Ciolfi spoke in support of the map.
“At Legal Aid Justice Center, we have triaged symptoms of the affordable housing crisis for decades … We have witnessed countless households move very far out of the city because they can’t afford housing here. We regularly work with families who have doubled and tripled up, sometimes living in their cars in the city in order to be close to jobs and schools and family. We could assign every lawyer to do nothing but eviction defense all day long, and it still would not be enough and that was true before the pandemic,” Ciolfi said.
Liz Emrey, a pastor at New Beginnings Christian Community, said the FLUM could change the lives of people in her congregation.
“This is more than just a theoretical problem. We have members who are living in terrible conditions. We have one member who’s living with the ceiling falling down, black mold, just horrible living conditions, but it’s the only place he can afford,” Emrey said. “We desperately need affordable housing in Charlottesville because this is a desperate time for our folks.”
While councilors unanimously voted to approve the plan and map, there was some debate prior to the vote about the medium intensity designation.
The map designates some areas as general residential, which allows for different kinds of housing to be added into the existing residentials areas. Some neighborhoods have received a new “medium intensity” designation, which is intended to increase opportunities for affordable housing in areas that are not currently considered to be affordable. Examples of medium-density housing include townhouses, row houses, duplexes, triplexes and fourplexes.
Councilors Heather Hill and Lloyd Snook voiced their opposition to approving the medium intensity designation before ultimately voting to approve the map as is.
“I’m not sure we know what it is,” Snook said of the medium intensity designation. Snook suggested leaving the designation off the map until the city could further evaluate the lots labeled with the designation.
“There’s nothing we gain by moving on this right now,” he said. “The result is we have inflicted anxiety on twice as many people as we need to, for what? We will not end up building any units any faster if we delay.”
Mayor Nikuyah Walker, Vice-Mayor Sena Magill and councilor Michael Payne supported passing the map with the medium intensity designation included.
“I get concerned … the likelihood is that when it comes down to the zoning, it’s going to get more restrictive and not less restrictive,” Magill said. “I think it’s good to have this and sit with the idea that this is happening.”