The Commission is tasked with helping staff clear up language in the zoning code Credit: Credit: City of Charlottesville

The Charlottesville Planning Commission continued this week with their “legal review” of the rules that control the size, shape, placement and use of buildings within the city’s 10.4 square miles.

“The easiest way to think of this is as a compilation of anything and everything that the city attorney’s office finds fault with in the current zoning ordinance,” said Lisa Robertson, the city’s deputy city attorney.

The current zoning ordinance was adopted by City Council in September 2003. While several amendments have been made since then, Robertson said many have issues with the code.

“Quite frankly, our ordinance is not a good one,” she added. “It hasn’t been well-drafted. It hasn’t been well-edited.”

Commissioners have spent several work sessions addressing various issues such as how the height of a building should be measured. Their efforts are part of a City Council directive issue given last September to conduct an audit of the zoning code and an update of the Comprehensive Plan by June 2018.

But Robertson said there are certain elements that Council wants addressed sooner rather than later because there are a lot of loopholes and uncertainties.

“What we’re trying to come up with in the near future is a set of recommendations that can move forward in the next 60 to 90 days for adoption in what we’re calling the short-term,” Robertson said. “We really need to wrap up what we’re doing so [the commission] can make short-term recommendations for things to be advertised to be considered at a public hearing [this fall].”

At the July 11 meeting, Robertson wanted the commission to review rules for the city’s mixed-use zones and commercial zones.

Commissioners agreed there was a need to streamline that aspect of the code.

“When we get into the real nuts and bolts of the land-use discussion for the [Comprehensive Plan], we’re probably going to find that the mixed-use corridor sections of our code could be simplified and made better and cleared towards a vision,” said Commissioner Chair Kurt Keesecker.

For instance, Robertson said the Corner zoning district allows for “bonus” residential density in “mixed-use” building proposals but there is no clear standard for what would actually be required.

Commissioner Genevieve Keller said she would not like to see any bonus residential density in the Corner district.

“We’re a block away from a World Heritage site [at the Rotunda] and a portion of this in a historic district in the city and we have conflicts between height and the underlying zoning,” Keller said. “I think this is one of unique districts and if we want more residential development in that area… we probably want them to be living in no more than four stories rather than giving them a bonus to affect the skyline in that area.”

Others disagreed.

“The city of Charlottesville is changing,” said Commissioner Taneia Dowell. “If we can put a hotel in a predominantly residential neighborhood [at William Taylor Plaza], I don’t see the need where we have to be so concerned about preserving the University area.”

Robertson pointed out there is currently no bonus for additional height in the Corner district, but other mixed-use districts do have that ability.

“In Downtown Extended, you can have twice the height for a mixed-use building than you can have for any other kind of building and there is no minimum standard for what the mixture has to be,” Robertson said. “[You can have] nine stories instead of five and all you have to do is put one little apartment in a commercial building or one little rental office in a residential building.”

Dowell said she would prefer that any additional height for a building above the by-right height should be granted through the special use permit process rather than an automatic qualification just for being a mixed-use building.

The discussion also turned briefly to the Cherry Avenue zoning district. Should a “mixed-use” building there be entitled to 21 or 43 dwelling units per acre by-right?

Keller supported the lower figure.

“If you want to radically change the traditional development pattern and character of Cherry Avenue, you go with 43,” Keller said. “If you want to keep it a little less intensive and less University oriented, you probably go with 21.”

One commissioner pointed out that the Comprehensive Plan is vague on what the zoning code should be.

“All [the 2013 plan] says about mixed-use is that the goal is to ‘establish a mix of uses within walking distance of residential neighborhoods that will enhance opportunities for smart-growth interaction throughout Charlottesville,’” said Jody Lahendro.

During the public comment period, a representative from a pro-development group said any zoning changes should be put on hold until after the Comprehensive Plan update is reviewed.

“I can feel this group struggling because there is no central vision guiding this conversation so it makes it very frustrating to listen to because if you don’t have that vision guiding it, you’re making substantive decisions that aren’t based on any agreed-upon vision,” said Ashley Davies of the Charlottesville Area Development Roundtable. Davies is a former city planner who now works for the law firm of Williams Mullen.  

Davies said she would support reducing or eliminating special use permits and making much of the zoning code as by-right as possible.

Another representative from the development community said that zoning is a political activity and ultimately discretionary.

“Hoping that zoning can achieve all things among competing interests and goals and objectives is really a fool’s errand,” said Mark Rinaldi who has previously represented Midway Manor before the Planning Commission. “You can only do what you can do. Development and growth and tastes and needs versus wants dynamically change over time. They’re not going to be constant.”

One attorney said that no matter what, she wanted the Planning Commission to help with a major crisis within the city.

“I hope that you as a group can make whatever emergency recommendations you can make in the very near future to address affordable housing,” said Emily Dreyfus of the Legal Aid Justice Center.

The Planning Commission will next take up the legal review at a work session on July 25.