By Sean Tubbs

Charlottesville Tomorrow

Friday, February 4, 2011


Charlottesville City Council


Planning Commission

spent two hours Thursday vigorously debating the intricate details of an ongoing review of the city’s critical slopes ordinance, but left several questions unanswered.

The ordinance is under review because of concerns it is too broad and the criteria for waivers are too ambiguous.

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Planning Commissioners Michael Osteen, Kurt Keesecker and Dan Rosensweig listen to Charlottesville Mayor Dave Norris (left to right)

“Applicants cannot be confident of a consistent public process, and the commission frequently is frustrated by discussion that focus more on the intent of the ordinance than on the application at hand,” wrote Commission Chairman

Jason Pearson

in a memo to councilors before the meeting.

The ordinance has been under review for well over a year, and Pearson said the meeting was a chance to get feedback from Council before going further. While a majority of commissioners have agreed on elements of a new ordinance, there is still a split vote on other proposals.

“The commission doesn’t [want to] steer the ordinance into a place Council doesn’t want to go,” Pearson said.

The critical slopes ordinance was passed by council in 2005 in response to a public outcry that the


and Carter’s View developments were destructive to the environment, acccording to city planner Brian Haluska.  Both were by-right developments, and the ordinance was intended to give the city some ability to regulate development on hillsides.

The current ordinance does not permit development on slopes in excess of a 25% grade, but applicants can apply for a waiver based on one of four criteria.

In the past year, the commission has made many decisions, including the creation of a single waiver which would be granted if the applicant demonstrated whether the project would have a great enough public purpose to justify disturbing the slope.

Jason Pearson

“We’re proposing there’s only one basis on which there will be a waiver, and that is, is the public purpose going to be better served by granting the waiver rather than not granting the waiver,” Pearson said.  “The question is, do we have to find that public purpose in the

comprehensive plan


As one example of a public benefit, Pearson raised the possibility of a pedestrian bridge across the Rivanna River to connect the

Woolen Mills

neighborhood with


in Albemarle County.

“You’d have to disturb slopes and would probably have to build in the river so you’re definitely going to disturb slopes,” Pearson said. “But you might be doing so for the purpose of pedestrian  connectivity.”

City Councilor

Satyendra Huja

said he felt the comprehensive plan was broad enough to encompass all possible reasons why a waiver could be granted for a public purpose.

But Commissioner

Genevieve Keller

said she felt there were other documents, such as the City Council vision, which could also provide public reasons.

Another question was whether there should be a “safety valve” which would allow the commission to grant a waiver even if the applicant had not met all the criteria.


Dan Rosensweig

was concerned this would introduce more ambiguity into the process, and would make it less likely that developers would purchase land to develop.

“There’s a broad consensus that we should identify what we want to preserve, but the question is whether the critical slopes ordinance is the way to do it,” Rosensweig said. He suggested that the upcoming revision of the city’s comprehensive plan would be the more appropriate venue for the discussion.

“My sense is that if the applicant is not complying with the law, then deny the application,” Norris said. “I don’t know why we have to create some fuzziness here.”

“We have achieved the objective of getting council’s feedback,” Pearson said. “Council may have not answered all the questions, but we have input.”

Rosensweig said he felt it was important to get more feedback from the public before moving ahead with the ordinance. Pearson said the public will have their say at a joint public hearing later this spring.


John Santoski

said he was ready for the ordinance to move forward, rather than be written to satisfy every single councilor and commissioner.

“I’d rather see us make our best efforts to put our best ordinance forward rather than drag our feet because we can’t do it perfectly,” Santoski said.


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