C-ville PC Sliding Down a “Critical” Slope


By. Neil Williamson, President

Despite months of intelligent discussion regarding objective, scientific information for determination of “critical” slopes, as well as detailed analysis of the goals of the “critical” slopes ordinance, Charlottesville’s Planning Commission now seems poised to take a new ordinance to public hearing that is worse than the bad ordinance on the books today.

Please, let me explain.

Regular readers may recall when this discussion first came up in March, staff report highlighted:

Staff has uncovered no evidence that any other city in Virginia with a population over 20,000 has a steep slope ordinance.

Prior to the March 9th Planning Commission meeting,  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 time the Free Enterprise Forum was intrigued by a science based ADMINISTRATIVE steep slopes waiver.  While we had reservations we clearly thought this concept was worthy of exploration.

The exploration continued with a August field trip to examine steep slopes.  The trip exposed some of the goals of some of the commissioners as the Free Enterprise Forum blog reported:

100_0325 On October 13, 2009,   The Planning Commission approved the critical slopes waiver for this parcel [for the Fontaine Fire Station]. In discussion on the site, I asked the rational for approving this site had to do with the proposed use as a Fire Station.  One Planning Commissioner indicated public purpose was certainly a factor in their consideration.

I pressed to see if a new residential complex would get the same consideration.  The Commissioner indicated if the applicant made a significant contribution to affordable housing that might be applicable.  He also said there were some on the Commission that felt public purpose was the only reason to grant “critical” slopes waivers but that was a part of the overall discussion to see how the entire Commission (and ultimately City Council) felt about this issue.

Culminating last month with a workshop featuring Morgan Butler of Southern Environmental Law Center presenting.  Mr. Butler earned this privilege based on his organization’s trumpeting of the need to stop development on steep slopes. 

Charlottesville Tomorrow reported on the meeting:

The Charlottesville Planning Commission spent three hours last week further refining a revision of the city’s critical slopes ordinance. Members of the environmental community have sought key amendments to the law in order to protect sites on which development would harm area water quality.

“We want to promote compact development and density in the city because of the environmental and social goals that kind of development offers,” said Morgan Butler of the Southern Environmental Law Center during the commission’s work session last week. “But at the same time we also want to preserve the environment and the environmental features that define Charlottesville.”

After three hours of Planning Commission linguistic noodling, the newly proposed ordinance is not scientifically based nor does it contain administrative waivers. 

The Commission (with two dissenting voices) felt Commission review of Critical slopes was most appropriate.  They also felt they should have broad authority.  Thus the new language reads:

(1) Definition of critical slope. A critical slope is any slope whose grade is more than 25% and which meets the following conditions:

a. Its run is greater than 20 feet; AND its total area is greater than 2,000 square feet; OR

b. It is within 200 feet of a stream as identified in the City’s Comprehensive Plan; OR

It contains significant and unique natural or topographic features [emphasis added-nw]

Could this language be more subjective?  The proposed language will make approvals completely arbitrary.  There is no definition of “significant, natural or topographical features.” 

Most, if not all, the developable (and redevelopable) land in Charlottesville contains critical slopes.  Taken to its logical extreme, this ordinance removes development rights from any parcel of land with critical slopes.

In Albemarle County, the current staff discussion is about how to tightly regulate the critical slopes to create a predictable outcome that meets the goals of the ordinance and can be approved administratively.  In March, it seemed the city had the same idea, but somehow the concept was turned on its head and The City of Charlottesville seems to be taking a different path.

How might this new critical slopes ordinance will impact development (and redevelopment) of affordable housing in the City?

Could these have a chilling impact on economic development?

Why have we not heard from Council on this issue? 

Once again we have more questions than answers.  Stay tuned.

Respectfully submitted,

Neil Williamson, President


20070731williamson 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


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