City looks to have comprehensive plan draft completed by end of the year

City Council, planning commission will also conduct further community engagement on the plan’s development

2013 Cville Comp Plan Land Use Map

A land use map of the City of Charlottesville from the 2013 comprehensive plan showing the different areas of proposed development types in the City. 

Courtesy City of Charlottesville | Courtesy City of Charlottesville

The Charlottesville City Council and the city Planning Commission have recently agreed to draft an updated Comprehensive Plan by the end of 2018. Council is expected to review the draft at its second meeting in December to provide feedback to the commission. 

In Virginia, a locality’s planning commission is required by state law to “review” its comprehensive plan — a general outline for growth and development of the community — every five years. Charlottesville’s plan was last reviewed in 2013. There are seven chapters in the Comprehensive Plan: land use, community facilities, economic sustainability, urban environmental sustainability, housing, transportation and historic preservation & urban design.

Hosea Mitchell, a member of the seven-person Planning Commission, said at a work session with Council last week — which included members of City Council, Planning Commission and Interim City Manager Mike Murphy — that the plan should be submitted to Council sooner rather than later to allow the City to initiate the process of rewriting its zoning laws. 

“This should be a living, breathing document that can be revised as needed,” Mitchell said. “The reason I feel a sense of urgency is that we won’t get to the zoning piece until we give you [Council] something. The zoning piece is the one that’s going to address a lot of the difficulties that we've been dealing with [and] … affordable housing.” 

While the Comprehensive Plan serves to generally guide the development of the City, it is not a legally-binding document and does not necessarily need to be adhered to by the Council. Rather, Council must create and pass zoning rules — which determine what types of buildings can be built in any one area — to regulate the development of the community.

Planning Commission Chair Lisa Green said even if the finalized version of the plan is reflected through zoning laws, it would still be up to the Council to consistently enforce those laws. For example, the Council can approves requests from developers to rezone certain properties or grant special use permits to bypass zoning laws, as it did earlier this year for a now-cancelled luxury condominium development on Water Street. 

While measures such as special use permits require developers to contribute a certain amount of money to the Charlottesville Affordable Housing Fund — a monetary endowment dedicated to subsidizing or building new affordable units —  or maintain a minimum number of affordable units as part of a project, Emily Dreyfus of the Legal Aid Justice Center said during public comment last week that they are ineffective in addressing the broader issue of affordable housing locally. 

“The more I've looked at potential solutions, the more I realize that incentives to developers are really a drop in the bucket compared to what we need,” Dreyfus said. “We need U.Va. at the table, we need to be pushing them to develop workforce housing, and we need broader solutions so we are not chipping away at the problem a dozen units at the time.” 

According to Murphy, the City has already met its state-mandated requirement of reviewing its Comprehensive Plan for 2018, but the Commission has continued to conduct public engagement with the aim of incorporating an affordable housing strategy into the plan. 

The plan was originally scheduled to come before the Council in June, but the Planning Commission was granted a six month extension to conduct additional public engagement for the review of the plan. 

In particular, the land use and housing chapters of the plan have undergone extensive review in recent months through a series of public engagement sessions including workshops and meetings with community groups such as the Public Housing Association of Residents and the Charlottesville-Albemarle chapter of the NAACP. 

Green said that the Commission changed its style of public engagement after the Unite the Right rally last August, when racial justice became a focal point of local politics. Activists have stepped up calls for a greater emphasis on affordable housing — which is intimately related to race in Charlottesville — in the updated comprehensive plan. 

Last October, activists of the Charlottesville chapter of Showing Up for Racial Justice shut down a Commission meeting to protest the lack of affordable housing in the City during a public hearing for a proposed special use permit for a development on Water Street. 

At the work session, the Council and Commission agreed to a timeline in which a comprehensive housing strategy would be finalized by June 2019 in conjunction with an externally-led analysis and rewrite of the City’s zoning laws by professional consultants, which is expected to begin next March. The final comprehensive plan is expected to be adopted by Council sometime during the second half of 2019. 

While the details of a housing strategy remain unclear, the Council will meet for a work session with the City’s Housing Advisory Committee Thursday to further discuss the matter. According to Murphy, the strategy development process is expected to cost between $200,000 to $300,000. 

Councilor Wes Bellamy said the public engagement strategy needed to be more organic and focused on building relationships with the least-involved communities in Charlottesville. 

Mayor Nikuyah Walker said the proposed the development of a new community engagement survey should ask of residents what they don’t like about living in Charlottesville, what areas of the City they avoid and where would they like to see housing developments. 

“If you're talking about community engagement, one of the main things … you're going to have to figure out how is to make sure that people understand what they are looking at,” Walker said.  “There has to be a method that you still can show people what you are talking about and talk to them about it wherever they are.” 

The Commission and the Council agreed to develop a new survey to elicit feedback from underrepresented communities in the City to be conducted between Sept. 11 and Oct. 5 which is to be incorporated into the comprehensive draft plan.

According to Green, the data collected from public engagement earlier this year lacks the perspectives of low-income community members, persons of color and younger demographics. 

“We need to go to the people, but people don’t trust government,” Green said. “There's a lot of distrust, and so we need to do different things than regular old meetings … We need to use all of the social media outlets to reach our young folks, and … we need to find a better way to communicate with more common terms than just planning lingo.”

Currently, the Council has allocated a total of $20 million to the affordable housing fund and is also considering the creation of an independently owned land bank for the purpose of acquiring property in the city for the development of affordable housing.  The City also recently commissioned a Housing Needs Assessment which detailed the extensive scope of the affordable housing crisis in the City, including that 1,750 Charlottesville households spend more than half of their income on housing. 

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