December Downzoning of West Main Street?

By. Neil Williamson, President

While appearing to be preparing to celebrate the holidays as usual, Charlottesville has aggressively pushed forward their agendas to allow the current lame duck City Council play the role of the Grinch who stole Christmas by downzoning Hooville’s West Main Street just days before Christmas (12/21) and ten days prior to the end of their lame duck term.

Please let me explain.

Back in October (10/13) the City Council and Planning Commission held a joint public hearing regarding changes to the zoning on West Main Street.  This history of this zoning change goes back to the form based code discussions and the West Main Steering Committee.  As is often the case, many landowners were unaware of these City meetings and learned of the impactful changes for the first time when the City sent notices to all 114 property owners in the area.

Much of this ordinance is in reaction to the recent developments on West Main Street [especially The Flats complex]– that were approved by the City and the Board of Architectural Review.

The ordinance creates two new zoning districts separated by the railroad bridge (West Main Street –East and West Main Street –East) and squeezes the potential building size by increasing reducing building height.  Chris Suarez reports in The Daily Progress:

Currently, the zoning for the corridor is divided from north to south. Buildings on the southern side can reach as high as 101 feet if the council grants a special use permit. Development on the northern side has a maximum height of 60 feet but can go as high as 70 feet if a special use permit is secured.

The zoning ordinance as proposed would limit new buildings on the eastern end of West Main to be no taller than 52 feet. New structures on the western end — where developments such as The Flats are located — would be restricted to 75 feet.

While much of the allowable density has not changed, the height changes have effectively eliminated achieving high density with market sized units.  Built on community aesthetic desires, this height adjustment is clearly a “backdoor” downzoning.

As Charlottesville Tomorrow’s Sean Tubbs wrote about the Planning Commission decision:

“The proposed zoning amendments seek to alleviate the concerns revolving around development in the West Main corridor by establishing clear building envelopes, reducing allowable heights and encouraging adaptive reuse of existing buildings with reductions in parking requirements,” said Carrie Rainey, the city’s urban design planner. …

…A possible future for another site on West Main was revealed when an attorney expressed concern the changes would limit his client’s development opportunities.

“The details need more attention and there is more work to be done on this ordinance,” said Maynard Sipe, an attorney who represented a potential developer for land currently occupied by the Blue Moon Diner, a convenience store and a vacant lot.

Richard Dreyfuss, who also worked on the West Main streetscape, said the prospective property owners of that site want to build homes for up to 50 to 60 residents but was concerned that might not be possible under the rezoning.

When the issue was scheduled to go to Council (11/2), it was pulled from the agenda and kicked back to the Planning Commission for additional public input.  Now the commission is scheduled to hold an additional public hearing on December 8th.

Our concern is the speed and timing of the ordinance’s return to Council.  The City Council has put this on their December 21st meeting and despite a unanimous vote to defer the first reading on 11/2,  sources indicate that Council may waive their customary (but not legally mandated) second reading of the ordinance and act on the ordinance ten days before the new City Council is seated.

The Free Enterprise Forum believes the current rushed schedule placing the decision the week of Christmas short changes the citizens and the land owners and hopes that this Council will have the wisdom to pushing their final downzoning decision into 2016 and the new Council.

While we will likely not agree with the downzoning, perhaps, if we can agree on a proper decision date,  we can find  a happy ending [with roast beast].

Respectfully Submitted,

Neil Williamson


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, Louisa and  Nelson County.

Photo Credits: Cat in the Hat Productions


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