Divided Charlottesville Planning Commission Recommends Approval of Single Room Occupancy Facilities

By: Justin West, Charlottesville Field Officer Intern

             In meeting that boiled over into heated debate on more than one occasion the Charlottesville Planning Commission narrowly recommended a change in the City’s zoning ordinance which would allow for Single Room Occupancy (SRO) Facilities, by a 3-2 vote on June 9th. SRO’s are seen by many as an inexpensive, partially government subsidized housing option for the homeless, those with very low income, or special needs; however, beyond this point the Commissioners were unable to reach a consensus on what these dwellings should look like in Charlottesville.

            The Commission debated how many individuals should be permitted to rent these facilities, what amenities they should have, and where they should be located among other issues on Tuesday. The most hotly contested aspect of the ordinance and the factor that led to the close vote was whether or not the units should be required to have bathrooms and kitchens. Commissioners Cheri Lewis and Michael Osteen represented the two dissenting votes and argued that SRO’s should not be required to have bathrooms and kitchens in each unit.  As Osteen argued they wanted “more flexibility in unit type” in order to allow for the SRO’s to be more affordable, appropriate for those than cannot maintain their own facilities, and to create more incentive for private companies to construct them in a profitable manner.

           On the other side of the issue Commissioners William Emory, Mike Farruggio, and Genevieve Keller, argued that Kitchens and Bathrooms are necessary for the dignity of the tenant and to establish the practice of self sufficiency. In the end, majority rules and the recommended ordinance will require kitchens and baths.

            Aside from the central tension over unit type the Commissioners were able to broker a series of more agreeable compromises. A couple of these compromise provisions in the approved ordinance are that SRO’s must be within a quarter of a mile from transit options and a maximum of 15% of the units may allow for two residents (with the reasoning being that 30% of the homeless are married and they should be accommodated). Despite a fair effort to reach a consensus the Commissioners still ended up quite divided on the ordinance, as Commissioner Lewis aptly and exhaustedly summed up by declaring “I’m disappointed I can’t vote for this ordinance, but I can’t at this time”.

Other Items on the Agenda

             There were three other items unanimously recommended for approval during the June 9th meeting. A preliminary site plan for a Whole Foods that would sit on the intersection of Hydraulic Road and the future Hillsdale Drive extended was approved and contained considerable changes from the original plan that was presented on July 22nd 2008. The project is still very much in its infancy and remains contingent on continued review, however the Commission seemed pleased with how the project has evolved but still sees it as a work in progress, a view best summarized by Commissioner Osteen when he told the representative for the applicant “I appreciate the effort, but for me its not there yet”.

            The Commission settled on a set of requirements it would recommend for Accessory Dwelling Units as well. The requirements go as follows; the accessory unit cannot be higher than 25 feet, the eve of the accessory can’t be higher than the eve of its principle structure, the high point of the accessory cannot be higher than the high point of its principle, and the footprint of the accessory cannot exceed 40% of that of its principle.

            The final item on the agenda was the passage of a new sign ordinance for the Downtown mall in the wake of the old signage not meeting Americans with Disabilities Act and being removed. Café’s on the mall will now be allowed to have signs 5 feet in height with a face of 3 square feet. The ordinance also provides for establishments to use sandwich boards that are a maximum of 4 feet in height and 2 feet wide. One or the other, but not both, may be used be used by downtown businesses if the ordinance is passed by Council. Although the revised signage plan was approved unanimously, both Commissioners and local business owners were critical of the City for not appropriately taking side street businesses into account during the rebricking and with this new sign ordinance. Director of Neighborhood Services Jim Tolbert assured all parties that City staff will soon meet with downtown businesses to find a more agreeable way to solve the signage problem for the side streets.

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