Update of Charlottesville’s zoning ordinances and comprehensive plan could take up to 3 years

City yet to bring in an outside consultant, hire a new long range planner to assist with the project

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A draft of the City's comprehensive plan proposed by the planning commission in December called for major increases in density throughout Charlottesville, although it has since been scrapped after the commission received feedback from the City Council. 

Courtesy City of Charlottesville

The City of Charlottesville began the process of updating its comprehensive plan for the first time in five years and the zoning codes for the City for the first time in 15 years in fall 2018. Although the process of revising the City’s comprehensive plan is legally controlled by the City’s Planning Commission, which is made up of seven voting members, the City has decided to bring in an outside consultant to help with the project as well. 

According to Alex Ikefuna — the director of Charlottesville Neighborhood Development Services — the processes of updating the City’s comprehensive plan and zoning ordinances should take between 24 to 36 months. However, because the City has not yet hired a manager of long range planning and the request for proposal for outside consulting services is still pending approval, it is estimated to be 2 to 3 months before the process fully begins to get off the ground. 

Ikefuna said this is the first “major update” that has been made to the zoning ordinances since their last revision 15 years ago. These revisions included strategic changes to density that increased the number of students who could live close to University Grounds. The city has made other small amendments throughout the years, but never anything that significantly solved the issues within the codes. One of these being a majority of land in the city being zoned for single-family housing, which in turn prevents the development of higher-density affordable housing units. 

Kathy Galvin has been a city councillor for eight years and has worked throughout her term to modify the long-held zoning ordinances. In 2013, she started a resolution to update the zoning codes to solve some of Charlottesville’s affordable housing issues, but the City did not move forward with this plan. 

According to Galvin, the main focus of the upcoming rewrites will be to combat Charlottesville’s affordable housing crisis. The regional crisis has risen in recent years, with the city needing nearly 4,000 affordable units by 2040 in order to satisfy the existing demand for low-income housing in Charlottesville. 

According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, an “affordable” unit is one that a three-member family can purchase or rent for 30 percent or less of the area’s median income. In the City of Charlottesville, the area median income is $44,284 and $60,047 in the encompassing metropolitan area, which includes Albemarle County as well as nearby Fluvanna, Greene and Nelson Counties. 

“Now we have the opportunity, with the growing awareness of our acute housing crisis, to do a whole-sale rewrite of our city zoning in light of a new comprehensive plan that will be informed by a new affordable housing strategy,” Galvin said. “I’m looking at it now as an opportunity instead of being frustrated that it’s taken us so long.” 

Galvin also said that another goal is to better align the provisions made in both zoning ordinances and the comprehensive plan. The goal of modifying the zoning ordinances to align directly with the comprehensive plan has not been the case in the past, with Galvin saying that this modification will help Charlottesville move forward in the direction of becoming a more sustainable urban area.

“[The update] is an opportunity for us to look at what kind of city we want to be,” said Galvin. “How can we be more equitable, more sustainable and remain a viable city as well as remain a beautiful city at the same time, and that’s what the comprehensive vision is all about. The zoning is the fundamental tool to implement that vision.” 

In their Feb. 4 meeting, the City Council pushed through plans to begin this updating process. The first step for the City will be to continue the efforts made by the Planning Commission thus far to update the comprehensive plan so zoning ordinances can reflect the concepts decided upon in the plan.

Missy Creasy, the assistant director of Neighborhood Development Services, said City Council has decided to allocate money to a request a proposal in order to streamline the completion of the process. The request for proposal, or RFP, would be how City Council finalizes the addition of an outside consultant and streamlines multiple procedures involved in the update. 

“City Council has decided to provide funding for an RFP to complete the comprehensive plan, a Housing Strategy and the Zoning Ordinance rewrite as a single process,” Creasy said in an email. “It is anticipated it will be linear as the Comp Plan needs completion prior to the zoning ordinance changes and the housing aspects need to be addressed in both.”

The Feb. 4 City Council meeting also allocated $720,000 for this process to begin. However, according to Galvin, “there wasn’t a need for new funding,” even with the hiring of an outside consulting source as all of the money needed came from reserves or reallocating City funds. The outside consulting source will be formally named if the request for outside consulting services is approved.

“It’s not possible for any locality to do that sweeping a reform without outside expertise helping,” Galvin said. “At this point, our staff within our Neighborhood Development Services is overwhelmed with basic development review applications that they don’t have the bandwidth to do the reform work that needs to be done.”

The NDS department has been hurt by the current zoning ordinances, with Ikefuna describing the City’s current zoning ordinances as a “wastebasket of errors” during an Oct. 2018 City Council work session. The statement came after the results of an external evaluation of NDS by Novak Consulting Group were provided to the City, describing NDS to be inefficient in its operations on multiple levels. The protocols in place for NDS — such as the fact that city attorney must sign off on all zoning letters — play a large role in this inefficiency.

Although the Planning Commission holds the legal authority in creating the comprehensive plan and the zoning ordinances, other groups will be heavily involved in the process, notably the Housing Advisory Committee. Since a main focus of these updates is to increase Charlottesville’s affordable housing supply, the HAC — a 22-person committee that researches affordable housing and recommends policy change solutions to the City Council — will be providing input, and the final proposals will be presented to the City Council as a recommendation. 

According to Galvin, this effort is “one that should involve the entire community.” Referring to it as a “public process,” she spoke to how she has heard the complaints of community members firsthand and wants to ensure that their voice is included in the rewrite process.

“Having very engaged conversations without community, getting down to the nitty gritty of how can this zoning actually get us what we want — mainly affordable housing and building in scale with the physical character that we love,” Galvin said.

Charlottesville residents are able to comment publicly during City Council and Planning Commission meetings. The Planning Commission holds meetings in City Council chambers on the second Tuesday evening of every month, with City Council meeting every Tuesday evening. 

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