As Charlottesville continues to experience a building and redevelopment boom, some officials are hoping increased public participation in the Comprehensive Plan update can help ensure that the city grows in a manner that benefits all its residents.
“We keep getting the message that we are not getting all the different voices at the table,” City Councilor Kathy Galvin said at Thursday’s meeting of the PLACE Design Task Force.
The Comprehensive Plan was last updated in August 2013, and councilors want the next review to be completed by the summer of 2018.
“Every five years, we are required by the code of Virginia to review the Comprehensive Plan,” said Genevieve Keller, a planning commissioner who is also on the city’s PLACE Design Task Force.
Since 2013, several new buildings have been constructed on West Main and in other locations across the city, prompting concerns about whether the city is becoming too dense.
Groups such as the Legal Aid Justice Center and the Public Housing Association of Residents want more voices to be heard as the city pursues redevelopment of the Strategic Investment Area, including development of a form-based zoning code.
City Council directed the Planning Commission late last year to come up with a strategy to engage the community for the plan review. One councilor criticized their efforts when it came before council on March 20.
“It was approved by council, but Vice Mayor Wes Bellamy had a number of issues with the engagement strategy,” Keller said, adding that Bellamy wanted more groups to have a say in crafting the plan.
Since then, the city has been reaching out to individuals and groups that Bellamy suggested, and earlier this week held a meeting. Keller said only three of the contacted individuals attended.
“They did come and we had a good discussion, but we outnumbered the public because there were three staff people, four commissioners and three members of the targeted group,” Keller said.
Keller said she would like to see an entire chapter of the Comprehensive Plan dedicated to community engagement.
“The feeling among many of us on the Planning Commission is that we need to be upfront that we’re going to make mistakes,” Keller said. “This is an organic process. We are going to try our best to engage the public to the extent we can. But community engagement should not be used to prevent things from happening or to stall them.”
Earlier this week, councilors approved the transfer of $100,000 from the capital improvement program budget’s reserve account to a line item specifically created to help pay for the Comprehensive Plan update.
In the budget adopted earlier this month, City Council allocated more financial resources to community engagement. They set aside $110,699 for a new position in the Department of Neighborhood Development Services for “community engagement / placemaking / design.”
Kate Bennis, a PLACE member and president of the Little High Neighborhood Association, asked if that position could take on some of the work of the Comprehensive Plan.
Galvin said that is one of the duties of the new position, as well as implementation of the Comprehensive Plan. She said the person hired will have to have the context required to understand development in the city.
“What we’ve been doing, I’m feeling, is that we have process divorced from facilitators who do have the content knowledge for that which they are facilitating,” Galvin said. “So you get disconnects and misunderstanding and disjointedness in public meetings.”
Keller said neighborhood associations can get the ear of City Manager Maurice Jones through quarterly meetings. However, she said many in Charlottesville distrust the government and have decided to opt out of the system and not to share information about city-led meetings.
“While we are inclusive with all the groups we know about, we also have to find other channels because sometimes groups don’t trust the city,” Keller said.
Rachel Lloyd, a PLACE member and president of the Venable Neighborhood Association, said it can be very difficult to get people engaged.
“We do neighborhood emails and stuff like that, and I get maybe 50 percent clicks,” Lloyd said. “Not everybody is reading. When we aggressively try to court a whole neighborhood to come to a picnic, it literally took hand-delivering a flyer to every single door in the neighborhood.”
Lloyd said the chapter for the community engagement strategy should have information on the ethical considerations that should be made by decision-makers.
“That’s where I perceive there to be a big gap, and I think that’s the root of a lot of disengagement,” Lloyd said.
Galvin pointed out that advisory bodies do not make decisions and are limited in what they can consider when making recommendations.
“The Planning Commission and Board of Architectural Review are not legally able to talk about decisions about land management and, therefore, development from an economic standpoint,” Galvin said. “The only ones that can are the council.”
For instance, a plan to create a historic overlay district for a section of the Woolen Mills neighborhood appeared to be heading toward passage. The Planning Commission recommended the idea in November, at which time several residents began to make arguments against the idea. The request has been deferred.
“A decision isn’t a decision until it goes to council,” Keller said. “Why should you engage before that because you’re just letting out your ideas ahead of time and instead of spending a lot of time and energy, when you can wait until it matters?”
Mike Stoneking, the chairman of the PLACE Design Task Force and a member of the board of directors of Charlottesville Tomorrow, questioned how City Council could be required to make decisions consistent with community engagement.
“How do you propose binding council to perform and vote based on some measuring tool of input?” he asked. “We are a representative democracy in that we don’t do everything by referendum for a reason.”