Note: If you’re new to the conversation about the Comprehensive Plan update and the draft Future Land Use Map, catch up here before reading this story.
Remember the game of telephone we played as kids? Someone would whisper in the ear of the person to their right, “Jane walked the dog to the store.” That second person passed what they heard — “Jane walked the dog to the shore” — to a third person. On and on.By the time the message reaches the last person in the circle, there’s a good chance it’s very different: “June talked to the frog at the shore.” Sounds similar, sure, but they’re completely different situations.Over the past three months, the many-pronged discussion about Charlottesville’s Comprehensive Plan revision has become rather like a game of telephone, said Missy Creasy, assistant director for the city of Charlottesville’s Neighborhood Development Services.It’s particularly true of the conversation surrounding the Cville Plans Together process and the draft Future Land Use Map, she added.(Before you proceed, if you haven’t yet, please read this explainer. This is an inherently complicated process, and we don’t want to add yet another faulty line to the telephone game.)The Cville Plans Together team, which includes folks from Neighborhood Development Services, the Charlottesville Planning Commission and other nongovernment groups around town, understand how easily this information is misunderstood, misinterpreted, wrongly conveyed or ignored. There’s a lot of information that’s not inherently familiar to people without planning experience and expertise, for one, and housing — homes — is something people care deeply about.The draft Future Land Use Map is, well, a draft of the future land use map, a document that suggests a vision for how future development and redevelopment could happen in Charlottesville over the next few decades. A land use map is not a legal document, nor is it showing what will happen. It is a guide — and only a guide — for a zoning code. A zoning code is a legal document, it is far more detailed than a land use map; Charlottesville will undertake a rewrite of its zoning code after the Future Land Use Map is accepted by the Planning Commission for use in the housing and land use chapter of the Comprehensive Plan.The draft Future Land Use Map is a draft of a document that will become one part of one chapter in a longer, more complex, and as its name would suggest, comprehensive, plan.
Rhodeside & Harwell, Inc., the New York City and Washington, D.C.- based firm hired by the city in 2019 to consult on updates to the housing, land use and zoning parts of the Comprehensive Plan, revealed a first draft of the land use map in March and a second draft (the current draft) in early May.Upon the release of that second draft, and a community comment period initially open through May 31 that was extended to June 13 — Sunday — input has exploded.“A lot of feedback is a good thing,” said Creasy, who fully expects people to continue to comment after that date (she knows from experience: this is the fourth time she’s worked a Comprehensive Plan update in Charlottesville). People start paying attention when they can visualize — as they can on any map — how something that was previously an idea, or a concept, might affect them, she added, and that’s understandable. Creasy sees this as an opportunity to educate the community not just on the issues at hand, but on the Comprehensive Plan update as a whole, an opportunity for more people to become engaged and informed citizens in this moment and in the future.Education is one way to cut into the misinformation that’s emerged — and there’s a lot of it out there. As Planning Commission Chair Hosea Mitchell put it during Tuesday’s meeting, “We have all gotten multiple hundreds of emails about this, and there is a lot of confusion related to the process.” And then there are the fliers showing up in mailboxes, on doorsteps, on social media and on NextDoor, full of misleading and incorrect information. Creasy said it’ll probably take a while to clear up the confusion for the public. “Some of these concepts, unless you do this every day, are not something that you would know about.” And once that complex information gets a little misheard, misinterpreted or altogether ignored before being passed on to someone else, who then tells someone else… well, there’s the telephone game.
Lately, said Creasy, there’ve been two major courts of feedback: Those who are hesitant or resistant to the draft of the Future Land Use Map and its recommendations, and those who think it does not come far enough to address housing equity.“The supermajority of correspondence we’ve received on the Planning Commission has been supportive of more housing,” said Planning Commissioner Rory Stolzenberg, noting that the Planning Commission has seen likely a smaller number of, and possibly different, comments than the Cville Plans Together team (who will present its own findings to the Planning Commission on June 29). “Of course, public comment is not a vote — it’s about identifying the needs and concerns of residents. Renters and middle-income homeowners across the city are feeling the rise in home values and seeing their neighbors get priced out of the city, and they’re crying out for more housing — and more affordable housing — to stanch the bleeding,” Stolzenberg continued. “At the same time, some of our homeowners have legitimate concerns and real fears about the impacts of growth and change in their neighborhoods. Our task moving forward is to address those concerns in future iterations of the draft, and to allay those fears of worst-case scenarios with clear messaging of realistic outcomes of the plan.”Another widespread criticism, particularly from those resisting the potential changes, is that the community has not had enough time to understand what’s happening, and thus they feel as though they cannot comment fully. Other letters and comments express concern that Cville Plans Together has not properly engaged historically marginalized groups. Some of the publicly-shared letters request an even longer community comment and engagement period (at least one request is for an additional six months) from the Cville Plans Together team.During Tuesday’s Planning Commission meeting, Commissioner Jody Lahendro lamented that the Comprehensive Plan update is only just now getting such passionate community attention despite the process starting nearly five years ago.“For over four years, the Planning Commission has been pleading, begging, for public comment to come in, to help with this process. And that has taken the form of over 30-some meetings, presentations, workshops throughout the community. It was the Planning Commission’s point of view, it was their objective from the very beginning that they wanted to hear from the public, that they wanted to hear what people had to say about the Comprehensive Plan and about what’s going to happen to our city as a result of the continuing growth. This has been going on for quite some time, and I just wanted to emphasize that, because we’ve seen a number of comments where people are surprised; they feel like it’s just been brought to them for the first time within the last few weeks, and that is just not the case.”The commission did hear from a number of people early on in the process, particularly from members of and advocates for historically marginalized groups, including low-income residents, unhoused residents, and residents of color, said Planning Commissioner Lyle Solla-Yates, which helped the commission understand why considering equity and affordability are important to Charlottesville’s future.“You catch people when you catch them,” said Creasy. And for many folks in Charlottesville, that time is now.Perhaps one of the most biting criticisms that has appeared in many letters and publicly-made comments is that residents, not consultants, are the experts on their neighborhoods. So, some residents are asking, why are we trusting consultants from a firm based in New York City and D.C. to tell us what’s best for our community?The city very intentionally brought in consultants to help with the process, said Creasy. Rhodeside & Harwell had previously helped Charlottesville redesign bike lanes, tree placement and more on West Main Street, so they were familiar with the community even before beginning the Comprehensive Plan processes, Creasy said. They’ve since spent even more time walking around town knocking on doors, on the phone and in Zoom meetings and webinars and, more recently, in-person pop-up sessions with community members.
It’s true that individuals know their neighborhoods well, said J. Rosie Tighe, an expert on housing policy and neighborhood revitalization, among other things, and an associate professor in the Maxine Goodman Levin College of Urban Affairs at Cleveland State University in Ohio. But it’s also true that some residents — particularly homeowners and neighborhood associations that typically reflect only the views of those who have the free time to commit to neighborhood association activities — tend to look out for their own interests and not those of their neighbors or the greater community.“There’s a real distrust of expertise among a lot of homeowners, because they want their interests to be reflected in the plans,” said Tighe. “What they don’t understand is that there are other interests that might trump theirs. Or, they might be looking at a very narrow blip of this plan, whereas planners are looking at the whole.“It’s important as planners to balance out the needs of a neighborhood, and you have to look at all the needs of a neighborhood, or the needs of everybody in a neighborhood, not just the homeowners,” she said. “And then balance that with the needs of the city. Planners are coming at it from a more holistic point of view.”Planners look at housing studies, examine what needs a city or town has, consider income points at which more housing is needed, where it’s needed and not needed, and so much more. “They are seeing all this data that the homeowners are not necessarily seeing, or don’t find valid,” she said.That’s why “citizen engagement is essential to urban planning as a field,” Tighe said, and she understands that people have worries and concerns — in general, human beings are averse to change. Community engagement “is how planners get buy-in and legitimacy for their plans. It’s really necessary to engage the neighborhoods, but they have to do it in a way that is inclusive and not just dependent on ‘this group of homeowners represents this neighborhood,’ because that’s not the case. Planners have to be careful to balance those homeowner needs and those very vocal squeaky wheels with what they know is the need of other people in the city to be able to acquire and live in affordable housing.”Charlottesville likes to think it’s unique, but this is extremely common, Tighe said, particularly in so-called progressive communities. “You’ll get very politically progressive people who will support the values of equity, diversity, and inclusion, but not when it’s in their actual neighborhood. It’s really problematic that people don’t see how exclusionary those behaviors are, that they don’t really mesh with what they’re saying or what they’re voting for. […] It would be nice if people lived their values a little more.”
The Cville Plans Together community comment period ends Sunday, June 13. Consultants have already begun compiling and organizing those comments, which they will present to the Planning Commission during a June 29 work session.
There will be a way for people to see that their comments were received and considered, and the June 29 session is open to the public. We’ll update with the link as soon as it’s available.
Nothing will be decided in that session — it is for listening and learning. After that session, the Planning Commission will have a better idea of what they and Cville Plans Together will have to do to get to the next step: a (final) Future Land Use Map.