It’s been more than five years since Charlotte started looking at how its outdated zoning rules need to be updated, but City Council members on Monday were still confused by basics of the process.
The rules are wonky, technical and often inscrutable, an alphabet soup of acronyms like MUDD, TOD and R-3. But overhauling regulations that date to 1992 is arguably the most significant city reform underway, because a new unified development ordinance will set the rules for what can be built in Charlotte for a generation or more.
“The implications of the UDO for Charlotte are profound. It’s huge,” said council member Ed Driggs at a hearing Monday night. “I just don’t think I know enough to say I’m on board right now.”
The effort to replace 1,000-plus pages of rules governing everything from what can be built where to stormwater, sidewalks and trees kicked into high gear in 2016. Charlotte Planning Director Taiwo Jaiyeoba hopes to complete the new rules and have council members vote to adopt them by June 2020.
Jaiyeoba, recently hired as Charlotte’s first permanent planning director in three years, said the current rules confuse and frustrate both developers and residents.
“What we have today, we get a lot of frustrations,” he said. “I’ve only been here a few weeks, and I’ve heard a lot of that.”
A public summit is scheduled for March 24, with more meetings in the future designed to gather community input. But City Council members complained that they still don’t really have a handle on what the zoning code rewrite really means.
“It’s still very muddled to me,” said LaWana Mayfield. “What is the role of council versus what is the role of staff? I don’t understand the direction we’re going in with this conversation.”
If a constituent asked her to explain the process, Mayfield said, “I don’t feel that I’m in a position to answer them.”
First-term council member Tariq Bokhari questioned the plan of overhauling the entire massive set of development ordinances at the same time. Instead, he suggested running a pilot with new rules in a fast-growing area, such as SouthPark, to see how they work.
“I don’t think there’s any way that we can approach this as a council or a city where everyone can wrap their mind around it,” he said of trying to do the whole rewrite at once.
Driggs said he was frustrated by the slow pace of the rewrite, and criticized the presentation Monday.
“It’s almost identical to one we saw possibly as much as two years ago,” said Driggs. “You’re talking about something that is pretty clear in your mind, but not in my mind.”
One reason City Council might be confused is that the body turns over every two years with new elections. Five of the 11 members are new. But even veterans, including Driggs, Mayfield and Mayor Vi Lyles are having trouble figuring out the rewrite.
Lyles said she needs more information on how the new code will define the places it seeks to create, such as vibrant, urban, walkable areas.
Monday night’s hearing wasn’t the first time council members have complained about the complex process. In October, they used similar language.
“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,” Lyles, than mayor pro-tem, said at the time.
Matt Newton, a first-term council member, said Monday that getting into zoning and land-use rules “is like reading a different language.”
He’s concerned about giving up some of City Council’s control over development. Under today’s system, most new developments are approved on a “conditional” basis, meaning developers must haggle with City Council over specific terms to win approval, such as the number of units in an apartment building or how far new houses are set back from the road.
That frustrates developers and slows the process, but it can give City Council, and residents, more leverage over what gets built. One goal of the new unified development ordinance is to simplify the development rules and eliminate most of the ad hoc haggling that dominates the rezoning process in Charlotte.
“Our current process isn’t perfect,” said Newton. But, he added, “We are the last voice for the citizens.”
Want to help rewrite the rules?
The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Planning Department is holding a half-day summit on Mar. 24 to gather public input. Called “What Can UDO” (a play on the acronym for Unified Development Ordinance, the city’s goal at the end of this process), the event is scheduled for 8:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. at UNC Charlotte’s uptown campus on Ninth Street.