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Charlottesville leaders, residents split over zoning rewrite

Charlottesville has unveiled the latest draft of a revised zoning ordinance, a 400-page document that will help determine where and what type of buildings can be developed in the city for years to come.

The draft, which for better or worse promises to boost density in a number of neighborhoods, will not be the final version of the zoning proposal. Locals will have the ability to share their thoughts both before the Planning Commission on Sept. 14 and City Council at a later date. Council will then be able to make adjustments to the draft after hearing what the public has to say.

In conversations The Daily Progress has had with community leaders and members of the public, the consensus on the proposal is there is no consensus.

Some, such as resident Leslie Mandus, are upset with the plan, saying it “will provide a minimal, minimal amount of affordable housing.”

“In 20 years, a D.C. reporter will write an article about what went wrong in Charlottesville,” Mandus said.

Others view the proposal as flawed but a step in the right direction.

“I’m not saying this draft is perfect,” Caetano de Campos Lopes of the Charlottesville Climate Collaborative said. “It has many aspects that could be improved. They were not as bold as they could have been, but at the same time, I respect that strategically sometimes you move in a more gradual way to achieve the ideal zoning code.”

One issue that city resident Mary Summers Whittle has with the new draft is that, in her eyes, it does not vary much from the previous draft.

Whittle said she is concerned that the city’s infrastructure will not be able to sustain the increase in development that would be allowed under the current draft plan.

“It seems dumb to me to say, ‘Let’s have a building free-for-all and then we’ll add infrastructure later,’” she said. “That’s a recipe for disaster.”

She said she worries that, if the plan is approved, the city will see an exodus of people.

John Hossack lives in a neighborhood that was developed a half-century ago. He said he feels that the plan will create too much disruption among homeowners.

“The idea that a house could get demolished and replaced by a three-level apartment block is just not appealing,” Hossack said.

He would prefer to see the city incentivize accessory dwelling units.

“ADUs would be part of existing homes, above garages or small homes in backyards and could be priced within the budget of lower income residents,” he said.

Like Whittle and Mandus, he said he worries that city infrastructure will not be able to handle an increase in development.

“Can the water main support many apartments in the developer-selected location? Can the existing sewers handle the waste?” he asked.

In a July memo, the city concluded that its infrastructure systems “have sufficient existing capacity to handle the likely development that could occur under the new zoning ordinance.”

Whittle would have liked to see a new plan for infrastructure along with the zoning proposal.

“We have a city that just had a 900,000-gallon water leak. City Hall is flooded. We haven’t gotten mail in eight days,” she said, questioning the city’s ability to provide for an increase in population.

While some are concerned that the proposal does not include parking mandates, others consider it a victory. Matthew Gillikin of Livable Cville, a group that advocates for affordable housing and sustainable transportation, is one of them.

“It eliminates parking mandates, which drive up housing costs and increase reliance on cars instead of other more affordable and environmentally responsible modes of transportation,” Gillikin said when listing parts of the proposal he supports.

On the whole, Gillikin said he thinks the latest draft proposal has room for improvement. But he considers it an upgrade nonetheless.

“Our current zoning code is a complete mess and not effective for helping our community meet our goals around housing affordability, environmental sustainability and economic opportunity,” he said. “I think the revised draft is a significant step forward.”

In a July letter co-signed by Livable Cville, the Legal Aid Justice Center, the Charlottesville Low-Income Housing Coalition, the Piedmont Housing Alliance and more than a dozen other organizations, the signatories expressed support for the plan.

“The draft zoning code is a great improvement over our current code, which has historically played a major role in creating and perpetuating Charlottesville’s affordable housing crisis,” they wrote, while also adding a number of recommendations.

Two of those broad recommendations — maintaining medium-intensity zoning and providing flexibility to ensure a wide range of housing types are built — are reflected in the new proposal, Gillikin said.

From a climate perspective, Lopes lauded the plan to incorporate mixed-use housing which will prime neighborhoods for not only residential buildings but also grocery stores, offices and restaurants.

“When services are closer to where people live, you are going to be increasing the probability that people are not going to use a car [to access them],” he said. “So not only are you going to be reducing the need for cars, but you’re going to be increasing the demand for public transportation.”

That increased demand will lead to more public transit options, Lopes said, calling it a “positive cycle.”

City Council Member Michael Payne said he sees good things in the plan.

“There’s a lot more work to be done, but I think with the reality of Charlottesville being a landlocked city of 10.5 square miles, the plan is moving toward allowing construction of more affordable housing types,” Payne said. “As we grow as a city that’s really the only way you’re going to get more affordable market-rate housing. Otherwise, it’s just an acceleration of single-family homes.”

Lyle Solla-Yates, chair of the Planning Commission, said he has concerns that the depth of the city’s housing shortage and the high cost of construction will make the new code less effective in addressing public problems than he’d like.

“That said, I see important progress here in addressing the housing, climate and equity challenges we were asked to take on,” Solla-Yates said.

The commissioner referred to “guardrails” in the plan that he said will “ensure that what we get is within the scale of what we are looking for as well as some more flexibility to provide affordable housing that I believe will mean more homes at better prices where and when we need them.”

Payne and Solla-Yates both mentioned the special-use permitting process, which Solla-Yates called “complicated for small businesses.” Permit use will almost certainly be discussed by the commission and council in their upcoming meetings.

Council likely won’t take a final vote on the proposal for a few more months. Payne estimated that vote wouldn’t occur until December, although that timing is not set in stone.

“Personally I am glad that council won’t have to do any serious voting on this [in the immediate future],” said Mayor Lloyd Snook.

One question he’d like council to focus on: “What is the problem we are actually trying to solve?”

In the next five years, he expects to have 2,500 more people living in the city. By 2050, Snook said Charlottesville’s population could expand to 68,000.

How will the city accommodate that steady growth?

“On the one hand, you could say we need to create as much affordable housing as possible at every opportunity we can because we just don’t have enough,” Snook said. “On the other hand, that’s not much of a plan.”


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