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Charlottesville neighborhoods ask Council to reform city development department

As Charlottesville searches for a new director to head the city’s planning and development department, leaders of city neighborhoods on Thursday called on the City Council to consider making changes to protect their homes and communities.

“We’re in a unique position to pick a new leader, and I hope we can be engaged on it,” said Heather Hill, vice president of the North Downtown Residents Association.

“It’s not our job to tell you how to restructure the department, but I hope you will take our input,” Hill added.

The City Council held the work session to give neighborhood representatives a chance to speak directly about their concerns over how the city communicates information about development proposals.

“We started this conversation back in October about how we can get neighborhoods more involved earlier in the development process,” said City Manager Maurice Jones.

Following that meeting last year, neighborhood leaders sent a letter calling for reform of the city’s department of neighborhood development services. In January, former director Jim Tolbert announced he was leaving the city to take a job in Georgia.

The city also has to fill the position of assistant city manager now that David Ellis is leaving the job he held for three years.

Both openings give the city an opportunity to restructure the relationship between citizens and land developers.

Rachel Lloyd, president of the Venable Neighborhood Association, summarized the feeling of the group.

“Many of the neighborhood leaders here have volunteered their services to the city for years and we have had plenty of positive interactions with [neighborhood development] staff over that time,” Lloyd said. “However during the October meeting, several people spoke about a variety of difficulties that they’ve experienced with NDS.”

The letter, which has now been signed by the presidents of 12 neighborhood associations, asked that neighborhood development staff members be more courteous to citizens and provide better customer service. But what the neighborhoods really want, the letter said, is to be told when development proposals have been submitted to the city.

“Neighborhood leaders are hungry for timely information about proposed changes within their neighborhoods,” Lloyd said. “But information from the city is often late or doesn’t reach the right people.”

Lloyd said the culture of the planning department needs to be changed to become more supportive of neighborhoods.

“We have to go beyond this to request that NDS itself proactively reach out to neighborhoods to discuss emerging proposals,” said Bruce Odell, president of the Martha Jefferson Neighborhood Association. “Solutions should include real incentives or an organizational arrangement within NDS and City Hall that ensures dedicated neighborhood service, protection and advocacy.”

Jon Bright, president of the North Downtown association, echoed the call for planning staff to become more responsive to citizen needs, especially in historic districts that have specific aesthetic guidelines.

“When residents go to NDS to find out what they’re allowed to do and what’s appropriate, they’re typically not developers,” Bright said. “As residents, they are not down there on a frequent basis, and when they try to find out what the guidelines are, they are not getting a lot of good feedback.”

The president of the Orangedale Neighborhood Association wanted to know why Cherry Avenue between Roosevelt Brown Boulevard and Elliott Avenue had been reconfigured with little public outreach. Work on the streetscape project has temporarily stalled due to recent snowfall.

“What was wrong with the traffic flow along Cherry Avenue?” Carmelita Wood asked. “Why were turn lanes taken out? Now it’s causing greater traffic back-up along the road there.”

Wood wanted to know what outreach was done to get input from both commuters and neighborhood residents who use the road.

Councilors were receptive to neighborhood concerns.

“Each of us on council have wanted to push for better citizen engagement,” said Councilor Kristin Szakos. “I think there are areas in which we probably do more than most cities in Virginia, and yet our community really expects even more.”

The council’s work session also was an opportunity to discuss a draft handbook to guide citizen engagement.

Councilor Bob Fenwick said he doubted the document would make a difference.

“I have never heard anyone say in their complaints about NDS that they needed a handbook,” he said.

Councilor Kathy Galvin said she heard neighborhood leaders’ concerns clearly, and said city staff members need to operate in the best interest of the taxpayers who pay their salary.

“This is real, and I want to acknowledge your frustrations,” Galvin said. “Policy is what the council is supposed to do. It is up to us to set the vision and it’s up the city management and departments to execute it.”

Councilor Dede Smith also agreed that NDS needs to provide better customer service.

“We have such unique neighborhoods each with their own situations and unique problems,” Smith said.

She also added the city should invest in more staff members who can help with the needs of historic districts.

Mayor Satyendra Huja, who ran the planning department before Tolbert was hired in 1999, said its director sets the tone for how it runs.

“It really all depends on the attitude of the leader of the department,” Huja said. “I don’t want to second guess the department and how they do things.”

Jones said the city does have an opportunity to create a new relationship between developers and citizens as it selects a new planning director, but it’s important to set expectations that are in keeping with Charlottesville’s size.

“We get a lot of ideas from cities a lot larger than us that have larger planning departments, and we’re not geared up for that,” Jones said. “That doesn’t mean we can’t look for different ways to be efficient.”

Jones said he hopes to advertise both open positions by late March and hire replacements in May.