Lame Ducks Driving Charlottesville’s Form Based Code? [and other important FBC Questions]

By. Neil Williamson, President

Government moves slowly and generally that’s a good thing.  In recent discussions with Charlottesville City staff there seems to be an uncharacteristic sense of urgency around the draft Form Based Code (FBC) for the Strategic Investment Area (SIA) (which the consultants call Charlottesville South Downtown).

Tuesday night, Charlottesville’s Planning Commission and City Council will hold a public hearing on the proposed FBC and a separate hearing for defining the SIA.lame-duck

So what’s the hurry?

Could the urgency be driven by a lame duck majority of Council that desire this as their legacy?

After spending the better part of last week reading the 72 pages of code, the Free Enterprise Forum has more questions than answers.

1. Why is this proposed as the only way to develop in the SIA rather than an optional overlay?


Using an overlay rather than a mandate would provide increased flexibility and incentives could be utilized to incentivize developers to use this new (and supposedly better) zoning code.  If it is better, shouldn’t property owners be lining up to use it as an optional overlay?

2.  Understanding a Form Based Code must be somewhat prescriptive, does this code go too far?

Location and frequency of doors (7.5.2)

imageBuilding Bulk Standards (4.1)

Mandated first floor commercial (7.6.1)

Storefront entrance doors should be recessed to allow the door to swing out without obstructing pedestrian flow on the sidewalk (7.6.4)

Awnings shall be a minimum of 6 feet in depth and have a minimum of eight feet of vertical clearance (7.8.2)


Often visitors speak of the uniqueness of the architecture in Charlottesville.  Recognizing this is just one part of the city, how does the code allow Charlottesville to express itself rather than “any new urbanist town USA”

3.  How will this impact housing affordability?

The code provides an affordable housing height bonus matrix that includes the provision that the affordable units must remain affordable for a term not less than 30 years.


Based on my initial discussions with developers, the market (at this time) may not be receptive to the increased building costs associated with the increased height.

Affordable housing was paramount in the community input sessions I attended, so I have to ask if the community is prepared for 6 story buildings in the T5 zone and 9 story buildings in the T6 zone in exchange for 10-15% affordable housing stock (of the increased density).

Finally, while the code puts form over function it still includes a uses chart that delineates by right uses, conditional permits and temporary permits.  I have great difficulty understanding why outdoor stadium, golf course and golf driving range are conditional uses in T-6 the area you wish to have your greatest commercial and residential activity.  This would seem to be counter to the density desired for this part of the City.

Yes, there is a great deal to dissect in this 72 pages of code.  Yes, you have to get into the weeds to see if the mandated design could work in the real world of Charlottesville and if it is desired by the community.

  • Will the Planning Commission and City Council take the time to review all these questions?
  • Will such a review take longer than this Council has left (December 31)
  • If this moves to the new council how long will it take to get them up to speed and make sure the code reflects their values?

Once again, we find ourselves with 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 non partisan public policy organization covering the City of Charlottesville as well as Albemarle, Greene, Fluvanna, Louisa and  Nelson County.  For more information visit the website

Photo Credit: City of Charlottesville

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