Monday night, Charlottesville City Council unanimously voted to adopt the newly-updated Comprehensive Plan.

They did so on the first reading and public hearing, after nearly three hours of public comment from dozens of community members, most of whom spoke in favor of the plan. 

This wasn’t the first time Council discussed or heard about the plan — the revision has been ongoing for nearly five years, longer than the entire council has sat on the dais. It’s also three years overdue: The state requires that all localities revise their comprehensive plans every five years, and Charlottesville has been operating on the plan adopted in 2013.

Last month, the Planning Commission unanimously recommended that Council adopt the revised plan, with a few amendments. Monday night, that’s just what Council did.

 

What’s in the plan?

“The Comp. Plan is this really broad document that very extensively covers almost every aspect of the city,” explained Rory Stolzenberg, a member of the Planning Commission that recently (and unanimously) recommended the plan to Council.

The plan (read it here) is a vision for what local government and citizens would like to see in the city. But it’s not binding. It simply outlines what could happen. It’s a vision for how buses could run, or what individual property owners could do, or how the city could improve its park system, to name some examples. And it’s something local officials look to when making decisions.

The newly-adopted Comprehensive Plan includes a number of major changes from the one adopted by (an entirely different) Council in 2013, particularly in the areas of housing, land use, and community engagement and collaboration.

It also contains a revised Future Land Use Map, which has been the most publicly contentious component of the plan so far, and which will be used for a comprehensive rezoning of the city, altering the potential for what can be built and revamped, where. It’s also important to note that the FLUM will be revisited and tweaked after the city undergoes a lengthy comprehensive rezoning process.

 

A focus on equity 

The biggest overarching change to the new plan is the inclusion of equity and opportunity as a guiding principle of the plan. (The others are community culture and unity, local and regional collaboration, environmental stewardship and sustainability, and connections and access.)

As the Cville Plans Together website highlights, “land use planning and development in Charlottesville, as in many places, has not always been equitable for all people. In order for the City’s plans to be both meaningful and effective, the issue of equity must be addressed.”

According to the plan, this means all residents should have access to housing, transportation, healthy food and varied employment options. In order to address these issues, the team said it would speak to “those most impacted” in an effort to “ensure that the City’s plans and regulations address the needs of ALL residents, including the least advantaged and most vulnerable.”

While the word “equity” appears 84 times throughout the new, revised plan (including when referring to job titles and offices within city government), it was used just three times in the 2013 plan — once in reference to the Comprehensive Plan Vision statement from 1995.

Equity has been a component of prior Comprehensive Plan values, but it has not previously had so prominent a role as the one outlined on the Cville Plans Together website: equity is “the requirement for effective planning.”

“In a lot of ways, the 2013 plan has a lot of good stuff in it,” said Stolzenberg. “But equity was very much the driving focus of this [2021] plan from the beginning, especially as it evolved after 2017 [after various white supremacist-led rallies occurred that spring and summer] and how the request for proposals for the consultants was drafted, and really just kind of in the overall direction given to and by the steering committee.”

Work on this updated plan began nearly five years ago, and for the past couple of years has been guided by the Cville Plans Together team, which includes a steering committee of project advisors from various communities throughout the city; city staff and leadership, particularly folks from Charlottesville’s Neighborhood Development Services; the Charlottesville Planning Commission; consultants from Washington, D.C. -based urban planning firm Rhodeside & Harwell, Inc.; and many others, including thousands of individual citizens. 

 

Other changes

The new Comprehensive Plan also contains a new chapter structure. Housing is now its own chapter (last time it was part of the land use chapter, said Stolzenberg), separate from Land Use, Historic Preservation and Urban Design, which is yet another chapter.

The Housing chapter is chock-full of strategies, said Jennifer Koch, an urban planner with RHI and Cville Plans Together project manager. The chapter includes recommendations for funding, for governance and tenants’ rights, housing subsidies, regional collaborations, and more, said Koch. The Housing chapter is meant to work in tandem with the Affordable Housing Plan, which Council endorsed earlier this year.

The Cville Plans Together team heard a lot about the Environment, Climate, and Food Equity chapter, Koch said (it was the second most-commented on topic after Housing). One key addition to this chapter is a food equity component, which encourages the city to invest long-term in sustainable urban agriculture and edible landscaping. It also looks at the Food Equity Initiative City Council has already been working on with the Food Justice Network and Cultivate Charlottesville. 

“There’s a lot of desire in the city to see more access for both healthy food and food in general, but also local food,” said Koch. “Other things we heard about [included] protecting water resources and the tree canopy.”

A lot of what’s in the Economic Prosperity & Opportunity chapter is already in the works throughout the city, said Koch, but they added goals and strategies around community wealth building and COVID recovery for businesses. “It’s a small piece of the Comp. Plan, but it’s obviously a large thing in the city, so, we wanted to make sure it was recognized in there,” said Koch.

The Community Facilities & Services chapter didn’t get a major overhaul, but it now contains additions regarding “some important recognition of the need to coordinate city infrastructure and facilities along with any growth and change in the city,” Koch explained. For instance, making sure that the land use map is implemented in coordination with transportation improvements.

There are two entirely new chapters in the plan as well.

The first, the Community Engagement and Collaboration chapter is “a big update,” said Koch, a flagship change, really. “What that looks to do is both build in public education about planning and city processes in general,” said Koch. 

This new chapter lays out how the city can be more engaged with the community (and more inclusive with its engagement) in order to help people better see and understand how city government works, how city government should work for them, and empower them to speak up when city government is not working for them. It suggests things like hosting trainings in land use for residents and establishing metrics to ensure community outreach is equitable.

James Freas, head of Neighborhood Development Services, said in a City Council work session Monday evening that the first major test of the strategies outlined in the Community Engagement and Collaboration chapter will be the upcoming yearlong rezoning process.

 

‘Collecting dust on a shelf’ 

The seventh and final chapter, the Implementation chapter, is another new addition, and it’s meant to help keep the Comprehensive Plan — and the 300-something strategies it contains — from collecting dust on a shelf.

According to Stolzenberg, much of what was outlined in the 2013 Comprehensive Plan “didn’t really get implemented much at all,” and since he wasn’t on the Planning Commission at the time, he can’t say for sure why.

The 2013 plan, which the city will use until adopting a revised one, talks a lot about creating a city with more frequent buses, housing that works for everyone, more mixed-use areas that include denser housing and amenities that folks can walk to, etc. “But at the end of the day, those are just words unless you have the actual implementation that drives it,” said Stolzenberg.

And the Comprehensive Plan document is used on a regular basis: Whenever a project application comes before the Planning Commission for review, the city staff report on the project outlines for the commission what the project does and does not align with in the Comprehensive Plan. Something that aligns with affordability components of the Housing chapter may not align with the land use map, for instance, said Stolzenberg.

It’s just not used as much as it could be, said Stolzenberg.

“That’s the perennial problem with plans in every sense,” said Stolzenberg. “You finish them, you feel really great about yourself for adopting it, and then it goes and sits on a shelf and doesn’t really get implemented at all.”

The concrete implementation steps laid out in the Comprehensive Plan, as well as the methods for taking that progress, means that there’s “a good chance […] to really make actual progress, instead of being stuck on a shelf to be referenced when you need to find the section that supports the thing you like.”

During Monday night’s Council meeting, a number of folks mentioned that though many people have worked hard on many components of the Comprehensive Plan for years, the most difficult — and most important — part is yet to come.

“The real work is in implementation,” said longtime public housing and tenants’ rights advocate (and plan supporter) Joy Johnson during Monday night’s public comment period. “That’s where the real work is going to happen.”