A team of experts from the nonprofit group Smart Growth America visited Charlottesville recently to determine whether the city’s zoning code is helping the community become more sustainable.
“This is a community that cares about itself, from everything to protecting trees to small signs to historic districts to parks,” said Christopher Duerksen, a land-use attorney who has worked with many communities across the country. “But there’s a lot more that can be done.”
Charlottesville is one of 14 communities across the nation that won free assistance from Smart Growth America, an organization that seeks to build awareness of policies that promote mixed-use neighborhoods as the country’s population continues to increase.
The U.S. Census Bureau estimates the current national population at 321 million. That number is expected to climb to 370 million by 2035. Duerksen said that translates to as many as 50 million to 70 million new housing units that will need to be built nationwide.
“Smart growth [includes] strategies that help to build urban, suburban and rural communities at all sorts of scales with housing and transportation choices near jobs, shops and schools,” said Roger Millar, vice president of Smart Growth America.
Millar added that communities also have to address how their infrastructure will handle a demographic phenomenon often referred to as the “silver tsunami.”
“The part of our population aged 65 or older is the fastest-growing part of our population, and we’re actually beginning to track people aged 85 and older,” Millar said. “They’re staying active longer and they’re staying in the workforce longer. That has implications on how we plan and build.”
The group’s visit last week included a public event at the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center, but the main event was a daylong workshop with city staff in which the zoning code was audited.
Duerksen suggested adding community gardens to the zoning code, encouraging low-energy lighting and reducing parking requirements.
“In your code, you’ve done some good things like not requiring parking downtown,” Duerksen said. “But if you’re outside the downtown, you have some pretty heavy requirements for off-street parking. That means more impervious surface, more runoff and more pollution.”
Duerksen, who once served as a member of the Fredericksburg City Council, discussed one obstacle Virginia localities face in changing their zoning code.
“Because this is Virginia, you have a state legislature that likes to serve as a super planning and zoning board,” he said “You can’t really do anything under the old Dillon rule unless the state says you can do it.”
In other words, Charlottesville can’t pass a law that is not authorized by the General Assembly. For instance, the city can’t require property owners to ask for permission before cutting down trees without enabling legislation being passed in Richmond first.
Most of the public event was spent addressing a theme familiar to the planners and neighborhood leaders in attendance: the ongoing Streets that Work initiative, which is intended to make the city safer for cyclists and pedestrians.
Millar said many communities are asking whether all residents have transportation choices.
“Do you want over time to create the walkable community that makes it easy for seniors to remain vital parts of your community, or do you want to create a community where you have to climb into the car?” Millar asked.
A member of the group Advocates for a Sustainable Albemarle Population said smart-growth policies are not the answer to building a sustainable community.
“[We] believe that part of the problem is the scale and rate of growth,” said Rich Collins, an ASAP member. His group has called for both Albemarle County and Charlottesville to identify an optimal population size.
Collins asked the pair if they knew of other communities that have established such policies.
“Out West there are many number of communities, particularly resort communities like Aspen, where they have growth rate restrictions,” Duerksen said. “Your growth rate is about 1 to 2 percent, which is pretty easy to handle, to be honest with you.”
Duerksen said successful communities respond to population growth by controlling the design and scale of growth rather than the rate.
Millar said he lived in Aspen for a while, and at the time, it had a system that limited growth to no more than 1.8 percent a year.
However, Millar said that can have unintended consequences.
“Everybody who works in the community comes in from someplace else, and [Aspen] can’t control the pace and growth of what happens outside,” Millar said.
One attendee of the public event said it was a useful experience.
“The presentation helped to drive home the huge impact that our local land development decisions can have on our community’s natural resources, the amount of energy we use and our overall health,” said Travis Pietila, an attorney with the Charlottesville-based Southern Environmental Law Center.
However, Pietila said Charlottesville is currently under pressure from development and he is hopeful changes to the zoning codes can be made to protect the city.
“New buildings and redevelopment can complement and enhance Charlottesville’s special character as long as they don’t overwhelm their surroundings or overshadow the city’s historic context,” Pietila said. “Unfortunately, some recent, out-of-scale approvals have done just that, and we need to fix the rules and processes that are allowing that to happen.”
Representatives from Smart Growth America plan to issue a report with their findings on Charlottesville’s code later this spring.