Charlotte leaders look for better information to help make decisions about growth

When Charlotte City Council members decide how to vote on a rezoning request, they rely on planning staff estimates about the impacts to schools, roads and traffic to help them decide whether to allow a new development.

Now, planning staff and City Council are working to improve the quality of that information. Interim Planning Director Ed McKinney outlined some of those efforts at the council’s meeting on Monday.

“We started back in April, really as an open get on the table all of the issues,” said McKinney. Staff has held several “offline” discussions with council members to identify shortcomings.

The purpose of the discussions is to clarify the expectations for planning staff and developers, and “ensure Council has the right information to make decisions.” That includes figuring out how City Council can better judge the cumulative impact of growth, how council should work with Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools to define the impact of growth and how to analyze the impacts of traffic.

Rezoning is the process through which developers ask City Council to change the allowed land use for a piece of property, such as changing a site from a warehouse to apartments. It can seem excruciatingly dry, technical and boring – until you find out someone wants to build a 24-hour fast food restaurant with a drive-thru window where that charming little house is down the street from you.

Planning staff produces estimates of the impact from each proposed new development that requires a rezoning. For example, transit staff will estimate how many daily vehicle trips a new development will generate, while CMS staff will estimate how many students will live in a new development and how that could impact nearby schools.

But McKinney said some of those estimates might be too formulaic and general. The schools, for example, use a generic apartment formula to figure out how many students might come from a proposed new building.

“Not every multifamily project is the same,” said McKinney. For example, a light rail-adjacent apartment building targeting millennial renters with one-bedroom and studio units probably won’t have nearly as many students as a more suburban, garden-style apartment community with numerous two- and three-bedroom units.

“Those things really dramatically effect the schools generation,” said McKinney.

McKinney said staff will also work to provide better ways for council members to understand where transportation infrastructure is lacking and roads might be overburdened by new developments.

The city also took steps earlier this year to speed up the actual cornerstone of the rezoning process: The public meetings themselves. Problems increased as development cranked back up following the economic crash in 2008 and the ensuing recession. With an increasing number of rezoning requests – there were 154 filed in 2016, vs. 80 in 2010 – meetings lengthened and the burden on planning staff swelled.

Rezoning meetings, held the third Monday of each month, pushed past midnight, making it even more difficult for citizens to attend and have their voices heard (not to mention city staff, developers, land use attorneys and council members themselves). In response, City Council voted to start their rezoning meetings half an hour earlier, at 5:30 p.m., and end them by 10 p.m.

They also moved to answer more council questions beforehand and put the rezoning requests that drew the most interest at the beginning of meetings, to make it easier for people in the public to attend.

Ely Portillo: 704-358-5041, @ESPortillo