The Charlottesville Planning Commission met Tuesday in a workshop to consider changes to the city’s residential zoning ordinance. However, for the second meeting in a row, public participation was well below expectations.
In late January, the commission began its review of the “zoning matrix,” a lengthy list of possible uses in each district of the city. Throughout 2010, city staff members are facilitating the commission’s review of not only residential zoning, but also of uses allowed on commercial and industrial properties.
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When the public did not come to a late-evening workshop April 12, the commission decided to reschedule the meeting.
“I am a little disappointed there has not been more interest,” said Commissioner Genevieve Keller in an interview. “People often don’t pay attention until there is something next door to them and then they call the city to complain.”
“There are so many documents, it’s hard for the public to get a hold on what is important,” said former Mayor Kay Slaughter, one of only two residents who came out Tuesday. “If you really want public input, it needs bullet points. I am experienced, I am a lawyer, and this is daunting.”
Peter Hedlund, representing the Fry’s Spring Neighborhood Association, said it was difficult to review the documents on the city’s Web site and that the notice of the meeting was late. When the meeting began, it still had not been advertised on the city’s own site.
In a small conference room with four of seven commissioners present, Hedlund took the opportunity to ask detailed questions about the implications for accessory apartments. The workshop format allowed city staff and commissioners to answer questions and receive detailed feedback.
“We have experience, from people coming before us, that people care a lot about what kinds of activities occur in their residential neighborhoods,” Planning Commission Chairman Jason Pearson said in mid-April. “We are now deliberating on what changes are appropriate in order to make sure this document is consistent with the ambitions of the community with respect to the character of residential neighborhoods.”
Other city leaders have said that the commission’s work on the zoning matrix has come at the expense of more important issues.
“Is the zoning matrix important? Yeah it’s important, like it’s important to rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic,” Commissioner Bill Emory said in an interview.
“Certainly it is important, and it is one of our work items to align ordinance periods and commas with the general idea of the Comprehensive Plan,” Emory said. “But there are very critical structural misalignments in Charlottesville’s zoning code that have existed, essentially since 1958, that we desperately need to address.”
Emory pointed to major mixed-use developments being approved near residential neighborhoods in the Cherry Avenue entrance corridor. Specifically, the proposed Grove Square development in the Fifeville neighborhood near the University of Virginia Medical Center.
Pearson said it was his concerns about zoning in the Cherry Avenue corridor that motivated him to seek appointment to the Planning Commission in the first place. He maintains that the commission’s review of residential zoning remains an important first step.
Pearson cited the Belmont neighborhood’s recent concerns about noise from restaurants as an example of how the city’s zoning definitions and the uses allowed in the zoning matrix have created conflicts.
“I am comfortable starting with the simpler piece, getting our feet with residential, and then moving on to what I anticipate will be more complex and more location specific,” Pearson said in an interview.
The commission will wrap up its review of the residential zoning at its meeting May 11, when it will hold a public hearing. Afterwards, it will decide on the recommendations to pass along to the City Council. While the council considers the recommended changes this summer, the commission will begin its review of commercial and industrial zoning.