Editorial: Critical zoning changes ahead

The Observer editorial board

A rezoning protest at a 2013 Charlotte City Council meeting.
A rezoning protest at a 2013 Charlotte City Council meeting. rlahser@charlotteobserver.com

Want to get eyes rolling across our city? Here’s one quick and sure way: Bring up rezoning.

Charlotte’s zoning ordinance, adopted in 1992, has long been the source of groaning, both official and unofficial.

Developers say it’s a cumbersome, confusing process. Residents complain that it’s tainted by politics. City Council members say it’s among the most important issues they address, but it’s also the most tedious, often taking meetings well past everyone’s bedtime.

Even worse, all that time spent on rezoning isn’t getting things done. Only 53 percent of rezoning petitions make it through the process in four months or less, which is the city’s goal.

To help quicken things and shorten meetings, city staff is proposing changes that involve having zoning petitions more equipped with information and ready for action when they’re introduced to council members. But those tweaks won’t help nearly as much as a rewrite of the entire zoning ordinance, which is scheduled to begin next year.

It’s overdue. Back in 2013, city-hired consultants delivered a pair of reports suggesting ways the city could better tailor its zoning ordinance to its land-use goals. Planners hoped then to have the ordinance redone by 2018. Now, the Observer’s Ely Portillo reports that the process could take until 2019 or 2020.

Certainly, there are a lot of issues to confront. Chief among them is consolidating the city’s varied ordinances – such as the Floodplain Ordinance, the Tree Ordinance, and the Sediment and Erosion Control Ordinance – into one document called a Unified Development Ordinance. Doing so would simplify the rezoning process for both the user and the city, according to the 2013 consultant’s report. A UDO also would bring consistency to language and rules.

[Weddington Road low-income apartments don’t receive tax credits]

Another, even more significant, issue: Which approach to zoning will the new rules follow? Will Charlotte stick to a conventional zoning model, which emphasizes how buildings are used, or will it transition to a more form-based approach that emphasizes the relationship of the structure to the physical environment around it?

Portillo reports that the new code will likely be a “hybrid” of approaches that can better accommodate where the rezonings occur. Conventional zoning, for example, works well in stable residential neighborhoods like those in Charlotte’s southern wedge. Form-based zoning, which emphasizes walkability and high-quality design, is the hot thing in many urban areas.

Hundreds of cities, including Raleigh, are opting for some form of hybrid approach. Charlotte should, too, but a hybrid code should be clear about which approach governs decisions in different communities. Otherwise, the new ordinance could seem as randomly applied as the old – a common complaint among city residents and developers.

New rules won’t cure all zoning ills. Politics has a way of outmaneuvering the best of ordinances. But Charlotte’s growth is revving up again. It needs zoning regulations that can keep up.

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