Charlottesville Planning Commissions’ “Housekeeping” Results in Meaningful Discussion

By. Justin West, Charlottesville Field Officer Intern

In their Tuesday March 10th meeting the Charlottesville Planning Commission dealt with a hodgepodge of different items, termed “housekeeping” by Chairman Jason Pearson. For housekeeping the March meetings agenda generated quite a few spirited debates on issues including, the standards for City Councils review of Board of Architectural Review appeals, driveway entrance width minimums, and the future of the Woolen Mills neighborhood.

 The bulk of the, nearly five hour long meeting, was spent discussing seven proposed zoning ordinance changes. Of the seven three received considerable discussion, while the other four were passed unanimously with little to no dialogue.

New Standard for Councils Review of BAR Appeals Shot Down

 Perhaps the most contentious item of the day was the first of the zoning ordinance changes, regarding City Councils review standard for Board of Architectural Review (BAR) appeals. The proposed change, as noted on the agenda would “limit City Council review of BAR appeals to determining whether the BAR correctly applied the criteria, standards, and guidelines for approval”. As of now City Council follows the “de novo” standard of appeals which compels Council to hear appeals as if they “came before them in the first instance”, a standard which allows the body more freedom in how it wishes to review appeals.

 As was to be expected the appeal review changes were not well received by Councils advisory body, with the issue being pushed most aggressively by Commissioner Cheri Lewis. Lewis’, most vocal complaint was having the issue before the Commission at all. “If the system is not broken and there aren’t a huge amount of appeals, then what is the policy reason for this” she pushed city staff. City preservation and design planner Mary Joy Scala claimed that de novo reviews are burdensome and time consuming for Council as they forced it to start anew. Scala’s rationale held little weight for Lewis who sharply questioned “what members of Council find a de novo review to be burdensome”.

Despite clear fatigue and frustration the conversation on this last item discussed of the evening, pushed even deeper into the night often veering off point. Finally after about 10 p.m. votes were mercifully cast for Lewis’ motion to recommend denial of this ordinance change and the motion passed 6-1, with only Chairman Pearson voting against the motion. The result could hardly be considered a surprise, as it is exceedingly rare that Council or the Planning Commission would advocate a change that would in effect limit the powers of City Council, in fact most of the struggles of the conversation were between the Commission and staff, not Commission members themselves. Even with his dissent Chairman Pearson was not outspoken against de novo appeals, however he seemed to suggest that a more pragmatic and balanced approach could be taken for reviews that would lead to the technical standard and practical process of review that match better.

Commission Defers Decision on Unrelated Occupants Allowed in R2-U Units
 
 Also among the heavily discussed zoning ordinance changes was the proposal to change the by right occupancy of units in the R2-U district from 4 unrelated persons to 3. If passed this change would affect the 356 properties and parcels zoned R2-U which are clustered around the Fontaine Avenue area near the University. Of those properties nearly 95 % are currently rentals. From the beginning both city staff, Planning Commission members, and a property owner in the area expressed concern about essentially downzoning the are. Property owner Keith Lancaster spoke during the public hearing and questioned why the city would downzone this area to 3 unrelated occupants when the less dense R-1 and R-1S zones allow for 4 unrelated occupants and also argued that the area was great for high density residences as the area has the qualities of a walkable neighborhood, due to its proximity to the University, businesses, and restaurants.
 Commissioner Dan Rosensweig also expressed concern that as far as he knew most of the existing structures would not comply with this amended zoning ordinance and claimed that “it doesn’t seem like good zoning practice to make everything nonconforming”. After brief discussion the Commission sided with staff’s recommendation and deferred the item to a later date to allow for more research, resident notification and input on the topic. The motion to defer was initiated by Commissioner Michael Farruggio and passed unanimously, 7-0.

Driveway Entrance Width Sparks Dissention, Eventually Passes

 The third item among the zoning ordinance changes to receive considerable discussion was concerning driveway standards in the city. The item was brought forth to “consolidate and amend code sections concerning the required location, orientation, dimension, and area of driveways, parking spaces, and garages”. The challenge to the item came about regarding the proposed driveway minimum of 20 feet. Leading the argument against the minimum were Commissioners Genevieve Keller and Michael Osteen. Keller questioned if the city needed a minimum if they are trying to limit impervious surfaces and Osteen simply thought 20 feet was way too wide and wanted to see discussion of a narrower alternative.
 Commissioner Farruggio clarified the intent behind the wide entrances allowing for gently sloping portions of the curb cut measuring 5 feet long on each side of the 10 foot wide portioned designed for car travel. The sloping sides are present to make the grade of the sidewalk more walkable and acceptable for those with disabilities. Discussion closed with Commissioner Farruggio’s motion to recommend the item for approval, which passed 6-1 with the only dissent coming from Commissioner Osteen.

Other Zoning Ordinance Changes Pass Unanimously

 The other items up for change passed unanimously without discussion by a motion from Commissioner Farruggio. The items are listed below as they were on the agenda.
• “Require only the Director of NDS [Neighborhood Development Services] to sign off on final site plans”
• “Revise language to direct compliance with the requirements and specifications for street and pedestrian access in the Standards and Design Manual”
• “Increase the minimum parking garage driveway width to 20 feet for one lane or traffic and increase the driveway width at the street line to be not greater than 36 feet”
• “Amend the definitions of “building height” and “grade””

Commission Expresses Concern of Zoning of Woolen Mills Neighborhood and Removes “editorial” Sentence from Comprehensive Plan

 The President of the Woolen Mills Neighborhood Association Victoria Dunham came before the Commission to take exception to a passage in the city’s comprehensive plan and the zoning of sections of her neighborhood as industrial. Dunham believes that Woolen Mills has been ignored for many years and does not think the area is the industrial neighborhood that it is treated as now. Additionally on behalf of the Woolen Mills residents she sees the passage in the city’s comprehensive plan referring to her neighborhood that reads “the challenge with Industrial land is finding somewhere to place it; no one wants to have it in their backyard” to be unnecessary.

On both accounts the Commission seemed to sympathize with Dunham and the Woolen Mills residents. The sentence in question was unanimously voted to be stricken from the plan as Commissioners like Cheri Lewis saw it as “editorial in nature” and found it to serve no purpose in the comprehensive plan. However, the Commission couldn’t go as far as to address her primary concern, the industrial zoning in the neighborhood. Commissioners agreed with the claim made by neighborhood planner Brian Haluska who recommended that the amendment be considered along with consideration of the whole comprehensive plan. Haluska claimed “there is an appropriate process for dealing with this and it needs to be wide in scope”. Staff claims that if the commission wants to make the rezoning of Woolen Mills a priority it needs to do so as a part of an assessment of the entire comprehensive plan as a whole, a process Haluska believes would supplant at least two other priorities the Commission has already established for this year. Dunham agreed that city staff made the process sound daunting but she asks “if not now then when” as she claims the neighborhood has been fighting to be understood as more than an industrial community for 21 years. The Commission committed to place an exploration into the zoning of  Woolen Mills and other neighborhoods in similar situations in the March 24th Work Session as nearly all members expressed concern over the intermingling of residential and industrial zones without appropriate buffers.

CDBG and HOME Block Grants Praised and Passes

 The first item of business on the agenda was the unanimous approval of Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) and HOME fund allocation. The funds are designed to “conduct housing rehabilitation, assist low and moderate income homebuyers, and improve access and housing for persons with disabilities” according to staff reports. Between the two programs nearly $800,000 has been made available for the 2009-2010 program year. The Commission had kind words for the programs before quickly voting in favor of Commissioner Lewis’ recommendation for adoption.

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