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Fast-growing Charlotte runs into slow-moving rules meant to handle development

Construction workers put siding on a Ram Construction house on Magnolia Avenue on Tuesday. The house is being built to replace an older, smaller house that has been torn down.
Construction workers put siding on a Ram Construction house on Magnolia Avenue on Tuesday. The house is being built to replace an older, smaller house that has been torn down. jeason@charlotteobserver.com

Charlotte is growing at a breakneck pace, but there’s increasing concern that plans to rewrite the city’s development rulebook for the first time in a generation are falling behind.

That anxiety was on display this week at a Charlotte City Council meeting, when some council members seemed flummoxed by both the slow pace of the regulatory overhaul – which kicked off more than a year ago – and what the final product will look like.

The project, led by the city’s planning department, aims to rewrite the rules governing everything from what can be built where to what tree preservation measures developers must take, from where sidewalks must be located to what they should look like. It’s important for the city’s future, because even though the minutiae of zoning and land-use rules can be boring, those obscure codes determine whether a restaurant with a drive-thru, a huge apartment building or a new subdivision gets built in your neighborhood.

But the process of rewriting hundreds of pages of intricate, interlocking regulations is tedious. Interim planning director Ed McKinney said this week that a first draft of a new, unified development ordinance might be ready by late 2018 or early 2019, if all goes well. The years-long process is going on against the backdrop of Charlotte’s building boom. What’s more: The city is adding 44 people a day and on pace to reach 1 million residents by 2040.

Council member Julie Eiselt said she wants a more detailed timeline of what progress the city can expect to see on the new rules, and when. So far, she said she hasn’t seen enough concrete progress.

“I just don’t see it moving forward,” she said in an interview after the meeting. “I think we easily lose track of things. Then we look back and say, ‘Wow, a year’s gone by.’ 

McKinney told council that the planning department, which has been focused on rewriting all the regulations at once, will try to break off smaller pieces and bring them to council for a vote as soon as possible. For example, McKinney said new rules to require more sidewalks are built with new developments should be ready for council to review and approve in November.

“We do understand there’s a sense of urgency,” he said. “We also want to move aggressively.”

Council member Patsy Kinsey said she was upset that some measures the city has been discussing for a while, such as designing “conservation districts” to help preserve rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods, haven’t been implemented.

“I’m extremely disappointed we’re not doing some other things some of us have been talking about for a long time,” said Kinsey.

What’s a ‘place type?’

But apart from the speed of the process, there are also questions about its complexity. One goal of the rewrite is to replace zoning categories – which specify what can be built somewhere, such as “three houses per acre” or “apartment building” – with “place types.”

Those place types wouldn’t focus on what a piece of land is used for, but rather what a development looks like, what it feels like, how densely the buildings on it are laid out and how they create a street-level landscape.

“It’s not just about whether it’s residential, commercial or retail,” McKinney said. “It’s the qualities we want to put into it.”

But as planners work to develop that “palette” of places (prospective categories include “single-family suburban,” “mixed-use neighborhood” and “mixed residential urban”), it’s proving tough to describe and understand what that will ultimately look like. As inscrutable as the current zoning regulations can seem, they’re familiar to Charlotte planners, developers and city council members.

“People are struggling to get their heads around this,” said Joe Padilla, executive director of the Real Estate & Building Industry Coalition, a Charlotte-based lobbying group. “I think it’s really going to come down to seeing one of these in final form.”

When asked if he had a good idea of what the new unified development ordinance might look like, Padilla replied, “No, not really.”

Some council members said they don’t feel like they understand enough about the process and expected outcome to explain it themselves.

“We know how complex it is,” said mayor pro tem Vi Lyles. “We can’t go further if we can’t explain to our communities what this is going to do and how.

“I really struggle with this, because right now I’m not sure I’m capable of an explanation to people who expect me to have one,” said Lyles.

McKinney has been interim planning director since 2014, when Debra Campbell was promoted to assistant city manager. He didn’t respond to messages seeking more information about the unified development ordinance.

The city approved its current zoning rules in 1992. Since then, hundreds of amendments have been added to the code, causing it to balloon to more than 830 pages of text and 109 separate zoning designations.

And that’s not counting the dozen or so other ordinances that play a role in development: Design guidelines for streets, tree-save requirements, pedestrian rules, stormwater control, voluntary affordable housing inclusion and more.

Padilla said simplifying some of those regulations and eliminating overlap, as well as modifying some of them immediately rather than waiting to overhaul the whole code, is a better approach.

“We’ve got to start getting some base hits instead of swinging for the fences,” he said.

New council, new problems

And there’s one final complication: After the November elections, Charlotte will have a crop of new council members. There will be at least five newcomers on the 11-member board.

Incumbents such as Claire Fallon and Patsy Kinsey lost reelection bids, and either Lyles or Kenny Smith will be mayor – with the loser leaving the council. Smith and former member Al Austin will both be replaced by a new member from their district.

That means the regulatory rewrite will have to move forward with new members who are starting from scratch.

“There’s no training session,” said Eiselt. New members get a booklet about zoning and then dive into the blizzard of acronyms that surround development. “You’re trying to understand what’s TOD, what’s MUDD, what’s R-3.”

And if the unified development ordinance is ready for a vote in 2019, it’ll be just in time for the next election – and another new council that has to learn all the ins and outs of development regulations.

Ely Portillo: 704-358-5041, @ESPortillo

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