As Albemarle County and Charlottesville consider changes to how decisions are made about land use in urban areas, the former head of Nashville’s planning department briefed local developers and officials Wednesday on his city’s transition to a “form-based” zoning code.
“We think our community character planning is proactive in terms of deciding what we want,” said Rick Bernhardt, former director of the Metropolitan Nashville-Davidson County Planning Department in Tennessee. “It’s not simply reacting to whatever comes in.”
Bernhardt was invited to speak by Charlottesville’s new chapter of the Urban Land Institute, a nonprofit that promotes best practices in land use and real estate.
“I feel that we have the opportunity just at the right time in Albemarle and Charlottesville to start this group,” said architect Gregory Powe.
Bernhardt retired this summer after helping Nashville add form-based components to its code with input from more than 18,500 residents.
“He went through a very comprehensive process, very participatory, to effectively rezone Nashville to stimulate creating the kind of place that Nashville wanted to be, and he used form-based code as the vehicle to codify this process,” Powe said.
Under traditional zoning, planners and politicians designate where different types of uses can occur. Under form-based zoning, the structure of a building is more important than the use.
“We went to contextual building placement,” Bernhardt said. “If you’re going to build a building, let’s build it in relation to the buildings around it.”
Architectural designs are not reviewed in Nashville. Instead, there is a “community character manual” that provides policies and expectations.
“I’m not terribly interested in regulating architecture because what is more important is the massing and the form of the building and its relationship with the street,” Bernhardt said. “Those buildings become the walls of your public space.”
The zoning map of Nashville and Davidson County is colored by different “transects” that offer different rules for different areas.
“It’s a very targeted approach of where you want certain types of development,” Bernhardt said. “Each transect area in our case has neighborhood centers, corridors and open space.”
Nashville did not entirely switch to form-based zoning. Instead, there is an overlay district in specific geographic areas.
“In our case, we have a county of 500 square miles and we strategically worked with council members that had development pressures,” Bernhardt said.
Bernhardt said areas of Nashville under form-based zoning increased 113 percent in value from 2005 to 2013 compared with just 33 percent countywide.
The benefit for property developers is certainty.
“For each of those areas, there are four pages of the zoning code,” Bernhardt said. “If you’re a property owner and you know where your property is, you can go and get those four pages of the zoning code and that’s all you need to know.”
Before the form-based zoning was enacted, buildings often required variances that would take up to two years of review.
“Since the code was adopted, not a single project downtown has had to go through a variance,” Bernhardt said.
Albemarle’s community development director said the concept is not new to the county.
“We’ve had the neighborhood model now for 15 years, which is based on form-based planning and the concepts with the transects,” said Mark Graham. “We have gone to a form-based code in one area and that’s the Downtown Crozet District.”
Graham said the small area plan currently underway at Rio Road and U.S. 29 could call for a comprehensive rezoning for the area to incentivize redevelopment.
“It is likely that a form-based code will be coming with that,” Graham said.
However, Graham said the county would continue to regulate architectural standards.
Alexander Ikefuna, director of Charlottesville’s department of neighborhood development services, said the city is considering form-based zoning.
“We have the Strategic Investment Area plan which was completed at the end of 2013 and the City Council approved it in February of 2014,” Ikefuna said. “One of the components of the plan is code changes and we’re looking at putting together a form-based code to implement the SIA.”
There is no timeline for when those code changes might take place. The city has just begun an audit of the zoning code.
“We are meeting with individual property owners right now to discuss the project with them and to hear their concerns,” Ikefuna said. “We are going to have a resulting document that will create some kind of predictability for developers.”
Ikefuna also said the West Main streetscape project included a rezoning that he described as a “hybrid” form-based zone.
Several times during his presentation, Bernhardt repeated that citizen involvement is necessary for a form-based zoning code to be successful.
“We spent a lot of time at the beginning of our planning process and at the beginning of each of our community plans discussing the realities of growth,” Bernhardt said. “This community was going to grow, and so we could either ignore that fact and accept what happened or we could acknowledge growth and then shape that growth the way that we wanted to.”