Big changes coming to Charlotte’s zoning process, code

Charlotte’s zoning code and process are about to get a major overhaul, one which City Council and staff members hope will make the process clearer and shorten meetings.

Zoning – a dense, technical and sometimes confusing world – is one of the city’s most fundamental regulations, determining whether an apartment, drive-through restaurant, gas station, single-family house or nothing is built next door to you. Charlotte City Council heard Monday about ways to change both the rezoning process to change land uses and the underlying codes about what can be built where.

There are plenty of complaints about the process. Routine zoning meetings have been going late, even past midnight, and the whole process can be slow. Only 53 percent of rezoning petitions make it through the process in the city’s goal of four months.

City staff laid out those complaints in a slide Monday: Meetings are too long, council members don’t get all the information they need, neighbors don’t know about rezoning requests early enough, and staff themselves think the process is inefficient.

“Nothing good happens after midnight,” said council member Vi Lyles of the long meetings.

The main reason the meetings have been getting longer, staff said, is that there are more rezoning requests now than a few years ago, when development all but stopped during the recession. There were 78 rezoning requests in fiscal 2011, compared with 138 in fiscal 2015. That’s a 77 percent increase.

To help move the rezoning process along, city staff are planning tweaks such as making sure rezoning petitions are ready for a decision before bringing them to council, identifying big problems with rezoning petitions earlier in the process and including more details about the impact of changes, such as more traffic, instead of just including statistics like daily number of car trips.

City Council could also consider measures such as starting meetings earlier, capping the number of rezoning hearings at a given meeting or voting on unopposed decisions in a single block instead of individually.

“Clear as mud,” quipped council member John Autry during a staff member’s presentation.

“It’s zoning, after all,” replied Mayor Dan Clodfelter.

Changing the whole zoning ordinance

The bigger change will be rewriting the city’s entire zoning ordinance. That’s a process staff said could take four years, and will hopefully result in a simpler, clearer, more consistent set of zoning rules.

The overhaul is set to officially kick off early next year, which means it will likely be 2019 or 2020 before the whole process is complete.

“We need to create clearer, more user-friendly documents,” said Alysia Osborne, a land use coordinator with the city.

City staff have selected a team of consultants to help lead the process. Camiros, a Chicago-based planning and development firm, will join local firms including Parker Poe, Gantt Huberman Architects, and Wray Ward.

The new code will likely be a “hybrid,” combining some elements of conventional and form-based zoning codes, City Manager Ron Carlee said. Form-based zoning, a newer concept in urban planning, regulates physical standards such as the appearance, massing, size and placement of buildings. Form-based codes worry much less about the specific uses for those buildings. Conventional zoning focuses more on the use of a given piece of land (residential vs. commercial, for example), the separation of those uses and the intensity of development.

It’s pretty wonky stuff, but as Charlotte keeps growing, the new zoning ordinance and related codes will set the tone for decades.

“There is a feeling that development is running out of control,” said council member Ed Driggs, who represents parts of fast-growing southeast Charlotte.

Ely Portillo: 704-358-5041, @ESPortillo