By. Neil Williamson, President
Late last night, (3/9) the Charlottesville Planning Commission had a very intelligent discussion regarding the potential for steep slope ordinance revisions. Included in the discussion, was a question of a need for such an ordinance.
In the staff report:
Staff has uncovered no evidence that any other city in Virginia with a population over 20,000 has a steep slope ordinance.
When questioned about this revelation Charlottesville Planner Brian Haluska replied that the topography of the majority of the state east of Charlottesville really would not require a steep slopes ordinance citing the largest steep slope in the city of Virginia Beach is man made, Mt. Trashmore.
In addition, he suggested perhaps Charlottesville is just that far ahead of the curve and the other cities just need to catch up. He did also allow that some cities may believe their existence as a city is to build out and the “preservation of steep slopes” would be a lower priority than potential economic development of new construction or brownfield reclamation.
Planning Commission Chairman Jason Pearson asked his fellow members what the true purpose and intent of the ordinance is. He said he could argue that there is no inherent value in the steep slopes, but perhaps there is tangible value in the services they provide. If the commission’s intent is to preserve those ecological services, a well engineered site may be able to do this. An applicant could pipe all streams and use a series of retaining walls along with other sound engineering practices to mitigate the impact of the steep slope disturbance.
If however, Pearson continued to press his fellow members, if our real goal is to mandate the sunlighting of streams, preserve open hillsides and conserve vegetative stream buffers, he would rather see that explicitly stated in the purpose and intent rather than suggesting we want to save steep slopes and “wink, wink” you know what I really mean.
While there was not a vote, there seemed to be consensus of the members present that such intent transparency was a good idea but there was not unanimity regarding exactly what the stated purpose should either protect or preserve regarding natural assets or ecological contributions of those assets.
Much earlier in the day, during the Planning Commission “Pre-meeting”, Commissioner Kurt Keesecker presented a concept plan for a scoring system that would result in a tiered approach to steep slope approvals. At the public meeting, Keesecker presented his idea and copies were shared with the public.
The proposed graduated scoring plan (which still needs significant work) would be dramatically better than the current process where each and every steep slope waiver must go to the commission but the Free Enterprise Forum is concerned with what level of mitigation might be required at the administrative waiver level.
In addition, the Free Enterprise Forum is troubled that the Keesecker proposal included an applicant penalty if the applicant’s scoring did not agree with staff’s objective scoring. Such a penalty just adds to unnecessary conflict between applicant and staff. The highest and best use of the land should be the city’s goal and the staff should be in a position to assist applicants rather than be in conflict.
Further, we believe some designs are exceedingly well suited to steep slopes (ie. walkout basements). Such design sensitivity to the topography is critical in any development. In a tight city of 10 square miles it becomes even more pronounced.
The Free Enterprise Forum is very encouraged by the frank, direct dialog at the City Planning Commission regarding the purposes and intent of their steep slopes ordinance. We also appreciate the performance based standards that are at the heart of the Keesecker proposal.
Given the proper time and examination, we believe the criteria for scoring the elements of the steep slopes (on a weighted basis) as well as the mitigation (on a weighted basis) may assist in creating an objective evaluation metric of plans that could then be approved as a by right use.
Before going through the slopes definition and mitigation exercise, the Charlottesville Planning Commission must identify what exactly they are seeking to achieve with the steep slopes ordinance. It may be already existing regulations coupled with strong engineering guidelines (perhaps with elements of the Keesecker proposal) could eliminate the need for an ordinance.
The Planning Commission may find no legislative action is the proper action to achieve their stated goals.
Wouldn’t that be refreshing.
Neil Williamson is the President of The Free Enterprise Forum, a privately funded public policy organization covering the City of Charlottesville as well as Albemarle, Greene, Fluvanna and Nelson County. For more information visit the website www.freeenterpriseforum.org