By Sean Tubbs

Charlottesville Tomorrow

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

What is the purpose and intent of an ordinance designed to control development on hillsides within city limits? The answer to that question could affect how Charlottesville grows in coming years.


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Currently, new construction that would disturb an area with slopes of more than 25% is not permitted unless the planning commission grants a waiver. Waivers can be granted for several reasons, including a provision which allows exemptions in case the commission determines the public good generated by the development outweighs the impact on the environment.

The

Southern Environmental Law Center

has been following the issue for several years, and sent a letter to the Commission in January claiming that too many waivers have been granted.

“The language of the current criteria [for waivers] is vague,” wrote SELC staff attorney

Kay Slaughter

in a letter dated January 6, 2010. She suggested several ways to tighten up the language in order to ensure development does not lead to soil erosion.

In October,

the Commission granted waivers

allowing for a new fire station on Fontaine Avenue and the

new YMCA in McIntire Park

. They based their decision on a criteria in the ordinance that allows waivers to be granted for projects that serve “a public purpose of greater import than would be served by a strict application of the requirements.”

“Taken to its extreme, any project with worthy public goals would be allowed without regard for the purpose of the critical slopes ordinance,” Slaughter wrote .

With Slaughter’s comments in mind, the planning commission explored the purpose of the ordinance at a work session on March 9, 2010.

Staff researched how other cities in Virginia protect slopes, and found that Charlottesville is the only city in Virginia with a population over 20,000 that has a steep slopes ordinance. City Planner Brian Haluska said most of the state’s larger cities are largely flat.

“Those cities haven’t found the need [to create an ordinance] and are interested in developing as much as they can,” Haluska said.  “Another [reason] is that Charlottesville is in a more progressive spot and has moved ahead on this emerging issue faster than any other cities in the Commonwealth.”

Chairman

Jason Pearson

began the discussion by questioning whether the ordinance protects steep slopes because they are a public good unto themselves, or whether conserving them addresses a greater environmental purpose.

“Are we saying that slopes that are steep are really wonderful just because they’re steep, or do we protect them because they’re doing other things that we care about?” Pearson asked. He said one view of the city’s future would be to develop on as much land as possible, but that the slopes ordinance could hinder that possibility.

“My concern about a strict critical slope ordinance, that [assumes] a critical slope is in and of itself valuable, is that you ignore the opportunity cost of a high density, very lucrative development on that site that provides tax dollars to invest elsewhere on other sites in the city,” Pearson said.

Commissioner

Bill Emory

said he doubted whether increased density was the most sustainable approach for the city to take.

“I think we have a lot more progress to make in terms of actually identifying the benefits that we get from green infrastructure,” Emory said. He said without stopping runoff, Charlottesville would have a hard time meeting federal Environmental Protection Agency targets for reducing siltation in the Chesapeake Bay watershed.

Commissioner

John Santoski

said he had a soft spot for the aesthetic value of slopes, but agreed with a comment from Commissioner

Michael Osteen

that building on steep slopes should be okay as long as all impacts are mitigated.

“I’m having a tough time wrestling with how to minimize that impact in a way that makes sense,” Santoski said.

Commissioner

Kurt Keesecker

said he wanted to find ways to build better on slopes. He said he sided with those who encouraged greater density in Charlottesville and suggested amending the ordinance accordingly.

“In principle, the idea is to just be able to give staff a tool to work through these situations that are relatively minor in their impact,” Keesecker said. Plans for development sites that would have more of an impact on the watershed would receive more scrutiny.

Keesecker presented a rough draft of a proposal that would create a tiered system for review of critical slope waivers. Only those with the greatest impact on the watershed would come before the Planning Commission for their review. The rest would be administered by staff.

“The applicants would know in a relatively easy way up on the front end where they stand in this tiered system and [could] make decisions on their site plan even at the concept decision,” Keesecker said.

Emory said he felt the purpose of the ordinance was to protect water quality by ensuring that the watershed provided a conduit for runoff to flow naturally.

“These slopes are associated with a system of tributaries throughout the city that essentially provide a network,” Emory said. “Not only do they directly address the quality of Virginia’s state waters… but they also provide a network for the hundreds of other species we share the city with.”

Pearson lauded that goal, but questioned whether city planners were using the right mechanism.

“Are we using a critical slope waiver to try to keep our streams daylighted and try to keep green infrastructure connected in our city? If so, I think we’re using the wrong tool,” Pearson said.

Staff are now reviewing feedback from the commission, and the item will come back before the Commission in a public hearing later this year.

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