A long-awaited review of Charlottesville’s zoning code is underway, and members of the city’s Planning Commission spent Tuesday evening discussing one specific change.

“One topic that council has requested us to come up with in the short term is a definition of how we measure building height,” said Lisa Robertson, the deputy city attorney charged with overseeing a legal review of the zoning.

“We are continuing our quest to get through this big document that City Council asked us to review,” she added.

Last September, City Council ordered a review of the zoning code to address “provisions that seem to be the most frequent sources of confusion,” according to a staff report from that meeting.

This work, as well as an update of the Comprehensive Plan, is to be completed by June 2018.

Among other suggested changes in the legal review of the code audit is a switch to calculating building height by stories rather than feet.

Robertson has suggested several changes that are not favored by developers such as the elimination of a special-use permit for “infill development.” Another change is to eliminate the “planned unit development” zoning that allows developers to request custom zones specific to a particular property.

“The Planning Commission struggles with applications on a regular basis, expressing that the PUD’s being proposed aren’t generating the type or quality of development that were anticipated,” Robertson wrote in her review. “Sometimes [they] look significantly different at site plan stage than as represented at the time of rezoning.”

However, the Charlottesville Area Development Roundtable (CADRe) has sent a letter to the city requesting that what they describe as “substantive changes” to the zoning code be made after the Comprehensive Plan is updated.

“PUD’s are an important method to design unique solutions to unique sites,” reads the CADre letter sent to the commission in late May. “The PUD is one of the only opportunities the city currently has to produce creative design and great places that the Comprehensive Plan contemplates.”

While Robertson has suggested several dozen changes to the code, the commission’s discussion Tuesday was largely confined to how the zoning code should establish the maximum height of a building.

“What we’re looking for here is to tweak our existing definition not to make major changes but get rid of some of things that are impossible to interpret,” Robertson said.

Robertson said City Council wants this item to move forward as a separate public hearing before the overall review is completed.

Commission Chairman Kurt Keesecker said he wanted the rules to be consistent.

“Ultimately our goal is to put an emphasis on the streets,” Keesecker said. “It’s really about the primacy of the building and how it relates to the street.”

However, he reminded the commission that Charlottesville is a hilly city, and coming up with a universal standard might prove to be a challenge.

“It’s difficult to imagine a flexible enough provision that allows for every odd case that we’re going to have in the city,” Keesecker said.

The four commissioners present established consensus that the maximum height of a building should be calculated from the property line rather than through an average of its walls, but they would want to see diagrams of what that would look like.

Another controversy relates to changes to how building heights are measured. In her written remarks, Robertson suggested switching to measuring height by stories rather than by feet.

“The measurement of the height of a building as a specific number of feet has, as a practical matter, proven nearly impossible for the city zoning inspectors to measure,” Robertson wrote.  

For instance, a three-story building on Booker Street in the Rose Hill neighborhood was constructed at the maximum legally allowed height of 35 feet in the single-family residential zoning district. The structure continues to be unoccupied because its proposed use as a three-unit apartment building is not compatible with the zoning.

Another suggested change is to specify how much of a building in a “mixed-use” building must be residential. Robertson has recommended at least 12.5 percent be residential. Percentages were removed from the code in 2005.

CADRe is opposed to both of those changes.

Robertson’s review also calls for changes to descriptions for several of the city’s commercial zones.

“The ‘descriptions’ of each district don’t uniformly identify the objectives intended to be achieved by the regulations of each district,” Robertson wrote.

For instance, the city’s B-1 commercial district is intended to be a “transitional” zoning district. Robertson wants commissioners to consider if that truly is the case. As an example, members of the Kellytown neighborhood have protested the forthcoming construction of a three-story office building in a two-block area of Rose Hill Drive where existing structures are only one story.

Susie Hoffman, a resident of Augusta Street, wants the commission’s review to consider requiring larger buffers between residential and commercial zones. She also would like the potential height of buildings in B-1 to be restricted to two stories.

Another change would be to create an overlay district for affordable housing that would establish incentives for developers to build such units. Another would be to classify single-family residential zones as “low-density residential districts.”

Robertson also wants a formal definition for “micro-unit” to guide future applications.

The commission’s legal review of the zoning code will continue this summer.