Charlotte is taking the first steps towards a complete overhaul of the city’s zoning code and land-use regulations, and the city is pulling together a single portal for all the relevant information: CharlotteUDO.org.
“UDO” stands for “Unified Development Ordinance,” which is what the city hopes to have in four years or so when the zoning rewrite is complete. Zoning isn’t the coolest topic (OK, the average person probably falls asleep when they read “zoning”) but it’s key to figuring out what gets built where in this city: Apartments or a drive-thru restaurant? A hotel or storage units? Those decisions come down to what the land is zoned for and what changes to zoning a developer can win.
That’s why the zoning code rewrite Charlotte is embarking on is such a big deal. It will literally set the tone for the next decades of growth in Charlotte. At Monday’s meeting of the Planning Commission, a panel of land use experts spoke about why they think an overhaul is needed for the current code, which dates to the early 1990s.
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“Like anything that was done in 1993, it needs to be updated and modernized,” said John Carmichael, a land-use attorney who handles rezoning requests. “Things have changed....We need to add uses and clarify definitions.”
For example, he said, there’s no category for continuing care retirement facilities in Charlotte’s zoning code, which means building such facilities can be difficult, and requires conditional permission for each project. And Charlotte’s zoning code defines climate-controlled mini-storage as an industrial use, which limits where it can be built, while more modern codes categorize such facilities as service businesses.
The current code is also cumbersome, with hundreds of pages and complex categories. That frustrates both developers, who want more flexibility, and community members, who often want more clarity and transparency than the code provides.
At CharlotteUDO.org, city staff will include a timeline, information about meetings where the public can give input, frequently asked questions and information about where the city is in the process. The website is still under construction, but some of the information is already online.
The issues the zoning rewrite touches – affordable housing, development, the shape of growth, environmental protection, the transportation network we use to get around – guarantees that the rewrite process will be closely watched by everyone from developers to community activists.
“It’s dated, let’s be frank,” Joe Padilla, executive director of the Real Estate & Building Industry Coalition, told the Planning Commission. “There are land uses coming online that are making it more and more outdated every year.”
But he stressed that the development community is concerned about more than the code. There isn’t enough coordination between the city, which oversees zoning, and the county, which employs building inspectors and oversees construction, Padilla said, another issue developers want addressed.
“There is a chasm, sometimes, of disconnect,” Padilla said.
And rewriting the zoning code could have a downside for developers. Jim Merrifield, a managing partner at MPV Properties, voiced developers’ concern that the rewrite could lead to more regulations.
“I don’t think it’s broken ... I don’t think we want to use this process to layer on more regulations that don’t add value,” said Merrifield. “It is a really big risk to go into.”