On Tuesday night, the Charlottesville public had what is likely its last chance to weigh in on a proposal that will have major implications for the future of the city.
In two weeks, City Council is expected to vote on a controversial draft zoning ordinance that supporters say will help solve the city’s affordable housing crisis and critics say will turn the city into a developer’s dream with dire consequences for longtime residents.
Roughly 100 people expressed their concerns during public comment at City Hall over the course of four hours Tuesday.
Like many previous public comment sessions, the crowd was split between opponents and proponents, with similar arguments to ones presented in the past.
The proposed zoning ordinance is complex, a result of years of work by current and former city officials. But at the core of it is this: The ordinance would allow for more multifamily housing which will theoretically create more housing units throughout the city driving down the costs of housing citywide.
Supporters paint it as an issue of supply and demand.
Increase the housing stock, and prices will drop over time as there will be less competition in the market, they say.
A long list of groups have voiced support for the ordinance. A housing coalition letter includes signatures from the Piedmont Housing Alliance, Haven day shelter, Legal Aid Justice Center, University of Virginia Equity Center and other groups committed to housing affordability.
“Charlottesville’s affordable housing critics has accelerated in recent years, disproportionately impacting Black and Brown community members, displacing low-income residents and forcing more people into homelessness,” reads the coalition letter addressed to council. “The zoning code you are considering is an historic accomplishment and a major step forward for Charlottesville putting its values into action.”
Opponents have accused supporters of being too idealistic. They don’t believe that the zoning would reduce housing costs. Instead, the city will lose its charm, transformed by large buildings that dwarf Charlottesville’s historic neighborhoods. More units will lead to more people, they say, straining the city’s infrastructure, overwhelming its school system and creating more traffic. Some have even argued that the process of the zoning ordinance is illegal, a criticism Mayor Lloyd Snook has denied.
Both sides made many of those same broad arguments in the past.
“This process has been going on so many years,” councilor Michael Payne told The Daily Progress after the meeting. “Most of the things are definitely things that I’ve heard before and people have brought to us at various meetings.”
When Kevin Lynch stepped to the podium, he said he was originally enthusiastic and supportive about the zoning process.
“We need affordable housing in Charlottesville desperately,” Lynch said.
But he was “shocked” by what happened next.
“How did we get from an affordability plan which we started with to this density plan which we have now with no affordability?” he asked. “There seems to be this misconception that if you just open up zoning and make it as permissive as possible that the market will sort it out.”
The economics are not that simple, he said.
“What I see in this plan is a house flipper’s mecca,” Lynch said. “They’re going to come here and break up lots into little McMansions.”
This is a key concern of critics, who worry developers will tear down homes and build large apartment buildings for a big profit.
Another local, Sam Gulland, disagreed with that characterization.
“I don’t think this ordinance is a developer’s paradise,” Gulland told council. “But I am excited about the market being able to provide more housing and more types of housing.”
“As part of my job I’m involved in rewriting zoning ordinances, amendments, comprehensive plan rewrites. This is one of the most thorough processes that I’ve seen,” he continued.
At this point in the process, sweeping changes to the ordinance appear unlikely. Council and the planning commission have already worked to make revisions to the code, and councilors have said they are aiming to vote on the ordinance before the end of the year.
“We have heard from the public. Now we need to hear from one another,” councilor Juandiego Wade told The Daily Progress after the meeting.
In the coming weeks, council will work to address any of the councilors’ or the public’s remaining concerns. But those changes will likely be limited to smaller tweaks rather than large alterations.
“If there’s major changes, we would have to pretty much start over,” Wade said, adding he doesn’t expect that to happen.
Wade wouldn’t reveal which way he would vote, but said he wants more housing supply.
“We still have some work to do on [the ordinance], but I think we’re heading in the right direction,” he said.
Payne said the proposal’s allowance of more duplexes and triplexes in residential neighborhoods is a good step forward and that there are other areas with density increases that are “positive and appropriate.”
He does, however, have some concerns about possible displacement in areas such as Preston Avenue, Rose Hill and 10th & Page.
“Is there a risk of a flood of capital investment coming in that might have a diffuse regional benefit for young professionals but for the people who live directly in that neighborhood may push them out at an even faster rate?” he asked.
But he noted that the Residential Core Neighborhood A, or RN-A, district in the plan is meant to protect against that possibility.
The planning commission created RN-A districts to address the displacement concerns. It allows developers to build more units if those additional units are made affordable.
“The intent of this district is to encourage the construction and continued existence of moderately priced housing, the creation and preservation of affordable housing, to respect the cultural heritage of the neighborhoods, and to support the overall promotion of a convenient and harmonious community,” reads a city document.
But exactly where those districts will be is not yet known. Council will have to sort out their dimensions before voting on the final zoning map.
While there were plenty of zoning opponents on Tuesday, it appeared there were more supporters than critics. Land use attorney and developer Nicole Scro with the Charlottesville-based Gallifrey firm kept a running tally during the meeting and reported that 57% of speakers spoke in favor of the rezoning proposal, 36% against and 6% neither for nor against. Councilor Brian Pinkston left with that same impression.
“One of the things I get out of meetings like this is just really hearing and seeing directly from constituents how they feel about it,” he said. “I feel like the city is leaning pro-zoning ordinance.”
He referenced one of the speakers who said during public comment that her children are now young adults and are struggling to find housing in the city.
“I’ve got three young adult children who are struggling to find their way. So I’ve got housing security myself, but I’m related to people who don’t,” he said. “I think that’s a reality for a huge part of our population.”
Asked if he supports the zoning proposal, he said he is in favor of more density and “generally supportive of what’s being attempted.”
So while neither Wade, Payne nor Pinkston outright said that they’d vote for the ordinance, each indicated some support. Those three votes — which could be cast as soon as Dec. 18 — are all it would take to turn the proposal into reality.
But as Payne noted, nothing is guaranteed.
“Life is life. Plenty of things could happen,” Payne said. “I think we are on track to get it done by the end of the year. That’s the intention and hope. But of course something could happen.”
This story has been updated with figures reflecting the stated position of speakers at the meeting.