As Charlottesville embarks on the latest update of its Comprehensive Plan, City Council wants to find new ways of getting more residents involved in a process to help shape future development.
“We’re a fast-changing city and there is a lot of fear and concern about change and displacement particularly among our historic African-American neighborhoods that are cheek and jowl with the corridors that continue to have the most potential for redevelopment,” said City Councilor Kathy Galvin. “That is really the big issue.”
Virginia law requires all localities to develop a Comprehensive Plan and update it every five years to reflect changing conditions. Charlottesville last updated its plan in August 2013 and is expected to complete another review by June 2018.
The Weldon Cooper Center for Public Policy at the University of Virginia estimates the city’s population was 46,623 in 2013. That estimate increased to 49,071 for 2016.
In September, the City Council directed the Planning Commission to craft a community engagement strategy for the plan update at a time when many are experiencing a rising cost of living.
The commission has spent several meetings over the last two months developing that strategy.
“Good ideas are in our community, and if we go into the engagement in an open and accessible way, we’ll be able to hear those and hopefully act on them as the plan evolves,” said Kurt Keesecker, chairman of the Planning Commission.
The plan crafted by the commission has several guiding principles. One acknowledges projections that depict the city of Charlottesville as continuing to grow.
“Assuming recent trends continue, the city will change and grow,” reads the second guiding principle. “The community must have the opportunity to be heard as to how that growth would occur and can be managed.”
For the first engagement strategy, Keesecker said the commission proposes holding four meetings across the city to gather input from people.
“They would be located in different parts of the city on different nights over the course of a series of weeks to make it available to everybody,” Keesecker said. Each would be open to all members of the public.
“It’s really about announcing what we’re trying to do and what our goals for the engagement process are and the Comprehensive Plan in general,” he said.
After those meetings, the commission proposes having smaller meetings with neighborhood groups and other stakeholders. The third stage would be to come up with different land-use scenarios depicting outcomes, including a no-growth strategy.
City Councilor Wes Bellamy said the commission’s plan had a fundamental flaw because no public input went into crafting it.
“One of the things that is continuously said is that, ‘You all may listen to us, but you’re not hearing us,’” Bellamy said. “When people feel as if they want to be heard, they don’t want to be brought in during the second phase.”
Councilor Bob Fenwick supported Bellamy’s position.
“It’s a community engagement strategy, but the community has not been engaged up to this point,” Fenwick said.
Keesecker said the public component of the community engagement strategy was only just beginning.
“All we have done is said there will be some large meetings and some more fine-grain meetings, but in those initial meetings at the beginning, the topics you’ve brought up would be the place to get that information,” Keesecker said.
Councilor Kristin Szakos asked if there could be pre-meetings with other groups to get their opinions on community engagement. Keesecker said he would support that if it would address Bellamy’s concerns.
Bellamy repeated his concerns and said many people will not feel welcome if they do not get a chance to understand why the Comprehensive Plan is important to them.
Galvin said she felt the Planning Commission’s approach was “revolutionary” because it seeks to get neighborhood voices in the discussion before the conversations about the Comprehensive Plan really begin.
“I think you need to be applauded for coming to this step because we have never seen this before,” Galvin said. “It has always been something where it just happens in a routine way to update the Comprehensive Plan.”
However, Galvin said she felt it was necessary to hire a facilitator to help the process.
“All of these are good ideas, and I would like to find a way to be able to have that kind of professional help,” Keesecker said. “The community is engaged. The question is, can we have them engage with us in a way that we can do anything useful?”
Bellamy said a facilitator would not be needed if the city government could build relationships with groups that feel threatened.
“If we have relationships with each other, you won’t have to go that route,” Bellamy said. “I don’t want to be the one to hold this up. I just want that point made,”
City Manager Maurice Jones said one idea would be for staff to work with the Planning Commission to identify groups that should see the community engagement strategy before the kick-off meetings begin later this spring.
“I think if we do that and work with you all, it will give an opportunity to weigh in on the early part of this process,” Jones said.
Galvin said she endorsed the guiding principles and the first two engagement steps.
Bellamy, however, was not satisfied. He asked staff about who had helped the Planning Commission write their engagement strategy.
"The Planning Commission did it by themselves," said Alexander Ikefuna, the city's director of neighborhood development services.
The council agenda had set aside 20 minutes for the topic. Forty minutes into the discussion, Mayor Mike Signer sought to bring the conversation to a conclusion, prompting a tense exchange with Bellamy.
"I hope that we can move this along because your point has been made and we need to figure out...," Signer said.
“No, my point has not been made," Bellamy said. "I'm having a conversation. That's extremely rude, for you to be the chair of the meeting and you cut me off while I'm talking but you expect me to just follow what you're saying."
Signer later apologized for cutting off the discussion.
Galvin made a motion to adopt the commission’s strategy but with a provision that community members be consulted before the kick-off meetings begin. The motion also gave direction that up to $100,000 be set aside to hire a facilitator. The motion passed 5-0.