If you’re like most people, the words “zoning ordinance” probably make you want to take a long nap.
But pay attention as Charlotte launches an overhaul of the decades-old regulations that govern development and building. The new rules will set the tone for Charlotte’s growth for decades to come.
And if you think these codes don’t touch your life, think again: Zoning rules are what determine whether a fast food restaurant with a drive-thru gets built on that busy corner near your house.
“It’s an ordinance that essentially touches everyone,” said Ed McKinney, Charlotte’s interim planning director.
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 over 830 pages of text and 109 separate zoning designations.
A new code, advocates and planners hope, would encourage the kind of mixed-use, walkable developments that have been exploding in popularity. Think Sharon Square in SouthPark, which includes a Whole Foods, apartments, offices, restaurants and stores, all packed into a small site at Sharon and Fairview roads.
For neighborhoods, the new code might mean development sticks more closely to area plans. Those plans are crafted by the city and citizens to guide growth in different neighborhoods – but often they’re cast aside when incompatible developments are proposed.
And those in the real estate business hope a new code would cut down on the time, cost and uncertainty of an often-contentious rezoning process.
If there’s one thing everyone seems to agree on, it’s this: The current code and rezoning process aren’t working.
“The planning ordinance we have, like many cities, is very outdated,” said Joe Padilla, executive public policy director of the Real Estate and Building Industry Coalition in Charlotte. “Zoning was created so we could keep slaughterhouses away from residential in the 1920s. That’s not the community we’re developing today.”
Zoning rules are often seen as arcane, dense and stuffy – any 830-page document describing parking ratios and the proper placement of garbage receptacles in strip malls would struggle to be a quick read. But they’re incredibly important. By dictating what can be built where, and how densely, such laws spin the invisible web that underpins the physical city.
Other fast-growing cities are also rewriting outdated zoning codes. Austin is in the middle of a process it hopes to complete in the next two years. Raleigh is rezoning about 30 percent of its land to comply with its own newly adopted zoning ordinance, which it rewrote to modernize the code and encourage more compact, walkable development.
“There’s been a market shift toward more mixed-use living, and many of the old codes just didn’t allow for that,” said Adam Lovelady, a UNC Chapel Hill professor who studies land use regulations.
Some of the improvements will likely focus on the layout and design of the code. As it is now, Charlotte’s zoning code is available online only as a 15-chapter Microsoft Word document, almost all text, with each chapter posted separately. For the average citizen trying to figure out what could be built in their neighborhood, it’s clunky at best and inscrutable at worst.
Raleigh’s new code, by contrast, is posted online as an interactive document you can flip through with a few clicks. While still full of legalese, it includes illustrations, diagrams and other visual aids to make the code easier to decipher.
It’s still very early in Charlotte’s zoning rewrite process. City staff last month recommended a consultant team to lead the first phase, which should establish a rough framework for the new ordinance. City Council will likely approve the contract with consultants this fall, and the project will officially kick off in December or January.
After that, the rewrite won’t go quickly. The whole rewrite is expected to take about four years, meaning it could be 2020 before new zoning rules are in place. Consultants are expected to gather public input next year, though an exact timetable hasn’t been set.
‘Behind the curve’
Charlotte, like many cities, has a traditional zoning code that’s built around the idea of separating property uses: This block is for houses, that block is for retail. This area should be offices, that area should be apartments.
The problem is, the trend for years has been to combine uses: Breweries near residential areas. Offices or apartments on top of stores. Houses, restaurants and grocery stores all on the same site.
“Charlotte is behind the curve,” said David Walters, a city planner and professor emeritus of urban design at UNC Charlotte. “Our zoning codes are hopeless about urban design.”
To accommodate new projects, Charlotte’s zoning code has been loaded up with amendments. Almost every rezoning request that comes up these days is handled on a “conditional” basis, with deviations from the approved code. That means the city often scrutinizes each detail and handles them on a case-by-case basis. Padilla said 95 percent of rezoning approvals in Charlotte are conditional.
That can slow the process down. Barely half of rezoning requests make it through the process in the city’s goal of four months, according to city staff, while nearly one in five takes seven months or more for a decision.
Even the rezoning meetings in front of City Council have stretched in length: The most recent, routine monthly meeting lasted more than seven hours and went past midnight. “Nothing good happens after midnight,” council member Vi Lyles said of the long meetings.
Newer zoning ordinances tend to focus more on the physical “form” of buildings – their size, shape, setback from the street, ground-floor design – than the building’s use. So, rather than fights over whether a restaurant or townhouses should be built on a block, a developer would be able to build a building for any use as long as it met the area’s design standards.
Charlotte City Manager Ron Carlee said last week that he expects Charlotte’s new code will be a hybrid, featuring some elements of both traditional and the newer, so-called “form-based codes.”
“Using form-based standards has been an increasing piece of ordinances around the country,” said Lovelady.“Form-based codes typically are used to encourage a walkable, mixed-use type of development.”
There are some good things about the way the process works now. Each proposed project gets a high level of scrutiny, and neighborhood groups can have input at meetings and hearings before City Council votes on a proposed rezoning.
Neighborhood groups already lost a big tool in fighting rezoning proposals earlier this year, when the N.C. General Assembly voted to eliminate the protest petition. Such protest petitions required a super-majority consisting of nine Charlotte City Council votes to approve proposed plans instead of a simple majority of six, if enough neighbors signed on.
“There are benefits to taking a case-by-case approach to zoning,” said Lovelady. “You get to see each project. It allows for a more careful review for each project. But that comes with a lot of time, a lot of expenses and a lot of headaches.”
A new ordinance with stronger standards for buildings upfront could be a win-win, streamlining the process and resulting in fewer zoning decisions in favor of new buildings that hurt neighborhood character and don’t contribute to an area.
For example, if there were clear standards as to what type, size and layout of new building could go into Dilworth, Plaza Midwood or Elizabeth – and if those standards were enforced – developers and neighbors wouldn’t have to fight over each project.
“You (developers) get a lot more market flexibility. In return, the code will require better urban design standards,” said Walters, describing the upfront trade-off such a code would call for.
“I think the development community wants consistency,” said Kenny Smith, a Charlotte City Council member and real estate broker. “They want to know the rules, and they can play by the rules.”
Such a code could mean more projects get approval upfront, as long as they meet the building standards for an area, and could avoid many rezoning hearings. Padilla said if Charlotte’s new ordinance was written to actually implement the city’s area plans – which now are just suggested guides for an area and lack the force of law – they could have a positive effect. As it stands, plans that are compatible with older zoning regulations but incompatible with newer area plans are frequently approved.
“It would really give teeth to the area plans,” said Padilla. “You do these great area plans, they involve people, they take months and months. Then they don’t really have an ordinance that allows you to build.”
Want to get involved?
You can find more information about the upcoming zoning code rewrite online here: http://charmeck.org/city/charlotte/planning/pages/newzoningordinance.aspx