December 22, 2023: City Council drops gross area cap, approves new zoning after two more hours of debate
Plus: Councilors take big step forward for city's future, urge more work is needed
On Monday, December 18, the Charlottesville City Council approved a landmark overhaul of the city’s rules for where buildings can be constructed intended to make it easier for developers to build more units. The adoption of the Development Code is the third of three legs of the Cville Plans Together initiative intended to encourage and incentivize places for people to live that are guaranteed to be affordable. How will it turn out?
A major purpose of Charlottesville Community Engagement is to follow up as much as possible in the weeks, months, and years to come. I’m Sean Tubbs, with one last deep dive into the development of the new land use rules. This is not even close to the end of the story but hopefully the last of these ridiculously long versions.
In this edition:
Charlottesville City Council had adopted a new Development Code intended to allow more residential unit across the city
Members of the public had one last chance to argue for amendments to the proposed rules
Charlottesville Mayor Lloyd Snook withdrew his request for a cap on the total amount of building area in Residential-A districts
The podcast version of this edition will come out at a later time for reasons explained at the bottom of the newsletter
You will have to click through to the website to see the whole thing
First shout-out: Rivanna Conservation Alliance
This has been a busy year for the Rivanna Conservation Alliance and the staff at the nonprofit are hoping to build on successes to protect local waterways in 2024. Here are some of the highlights:
RCA participated in the Starr Hill Pathways program where students learned to look more closely at nature including a trip to Moores Creek to survey fish and other aquatic life
RCA worked with the Rivanna River Company to hold a kayaking trip for students attending the Charlottesville Food Justice Camp, with many participants getting on the water for the first time in their lives!
RCA held monthly trash clean-ups on popular stretches of the Rivanna and had a record turnout
To help prepare for 2024, the Rivanna Conservation Alliance is looking for end of year donations. Go take a look at their website to learn more at rivannariver.org!
Looking back before looking ahead
What will Charlottesville look like in seven years as we approach the beginning of 2031? I pick that hypothetical vantage point to mark the seven years since the last time Charlottesville kicked off a review of the Comprehensive Plan. I wrote about it at the time.
This edition is not going to go over all of that again but to refresh my memory, I will place this list of articles I’ve written to remind myself of how we got here from that time. If you want the background, take a look at all of the articles on this topic I’ve written this year in an attempt to provide full coverage. I did not always get it right but I made an attempt.
Realtor group seeks greater awareness of Charlottesville zoning rewrite, January 30, 2023
Release of Charlottesville’s second zoning module delayed, March 18, 2023
Second set of draft zoning rules released, March 29, 2023
Sanders weighs in on Dairy Market Phase 3, August 8, 2023
Council officially refers zoning updates to Planning Commission, August 10, 2023
Charlottesville’s future affordable housing manual published, August 27, 2023
Homestay provisions will not be eliminated as part of zoning code update, September 2, 2023
Development Code public hearing attracts dozens of speakers, September 20, 2023
City Council briefed on population figures, November 3, 2023
Council sets December 5 date for Development Code public hearing, November 9, 2023
A brief update on Dairy Market Phase 3, Development Code, November 19, 2023
Council concludes Development Code review with four-hour work session, December 3, 2023
Dozens speak at City Council public hearing on the Development Code, December 17, 2023
Charlottesville City Council scheduled for final vote on new zoning code, December 18, 2023
Now this edition can really begin. The podcast version will come out tomorrow but I’m on holiday and this has introduced logistical issues. I really dislike holidays.
Community members get one last chance to comment on Charlottesville’s new zoning
Council approved the Development Code at the end of the December 18, 2023 meeting which had begun with budget work sessions at 4 p.m. My last newsletter dealt with several items they discussed before final deliberations before their final vote.
There were sixteen slots for Community Matters, and the first eight people who signed up were guaranteed a slot. The other eight people who had one last chance to lobby Council were chosen b lot lottery.
Claire Denton Spaulding is opposed to the cap of 5,000 square feet of gross area in Residential-A areas. Three Councilors had supported this idea at the December 14 work session.
"Imposing this limit will hinder the city's ability to achieve the dense affordable housing we so desperately need in our community," Spaulding said.
Stephen Levin of the Woolen Mills was also opposed to the cap because he said there would be unintended consequences.
"I don't think we should be undermining years worth of work by the community and experts who put themselves into this work with these last minute changes," Levine said.
Kirk Bowers of Albemarle County appeared before Council to ask them to delay the vote for three years and encouraged better cohesion with Albemarle County's Comprehensive Plan.
"Overall my impression of the draft update is that it increases density in specific areas of central Charlottesville which significantly impacts neighborhood cultures and the feel of a small town," Bowers said. "And it's this feel that is what attracts people to move here in the first place."
Bowers said he moved to this community to escape urban life.
Peter Gray of the Lewis Mountain neighborhood called for the lowest-intensity zoning district to be applied across the entire city. That’s the Residential Neighborhood A District which only allow a base of only one dwelling unit per lot in order to discourage displacement.
"Please consider designating all residential neighborhoods [Residential Neighborhood District A]," Gray said. "This will help the affordable housing providers build across the city and further limit for-profit developers from building luxury units that will not help affordability."
Former City Councilor Kevin Lynch said he did not think many in the community had any idea what was being voted on and the changes that will come.
"In the last four years of COVID, there's been a lot of people talking but unfortunately not too many people listening," Lynch said.
Lynch reminded Councilors of how the city resisted plans from the Virginia Department of Transportation to build what is now known as the John Warner Parkway and would only offer support once Councilor’s conditions were in place such as limiting it to two lanes.
"Four lanes right through the city and an at-grade intersection," Lynch said. "And the Council at the time was under a lot of pressure to hurry up and get it done, just do something so we could move on and get it done. But we're Charlottesville and we were better than that and we did take a lot of time and it did take a lot of time to get something that I think when I walk on those trails and I talk to the people even who live in the tents on those trails, I'm proud of what that Council did and I hope I can be proud of what this Council does. I ask you to please slow down and take the time to get this right."
Planning Commissioner Phil d'Oronzio cited his recent reappointment to the Personnel Appeals Board as a reason why Council should listen to him. He made what is perhaps the most striking call-out an appointed official has made against elected officials that I've seen in my career, rivaling the en masse resignation of the Village of Rivanna Advisory Committee in April 2022.
"At the very last 11th hour last week, for reasons that are absolutely mysterious to me in a secret closed meeting under the guise of legal advice, the manner of determining the terms of affordability was determined to be unacceptable for mysterious reasons that I'm apparently not allowed to learn and rather than use the methods that were developed by the people with over a hundred years of experience in this matter and proper expertise was substituted by a hacked together substitution that came from God knows where," d'Oronzio said.
d'Oronzio said he would no longer support the Development Code unless the HAC recommendation was restored.
Did any of these last minute campaigns make a difference? Find out after the break.
Sponsored message: Buy Local
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Snook withdraws request for cap on gross area square footage
Charlottesville City Council spent a lot of time going through the Development Code leading up to the approval with several informal straw polls at work sessions to indicate support for various changes.
“Although we have had informal discussions along the way, we haven’t voted on anything yet,” said Charlottesville Mayor Lloyd Snook.
And Council would not vote for another two hours or so after that statement. There was one last chance to amend the future rules. To assist the discussion, Council went through a list of changes they have made during their work session. You can review that list here.
The first change put in an adoption date for the ordinance, which is different from the date the new rules would take hold.
“It would become effective on February 19, 2024,” Snook said. “That’s basically two months away.”
Council would vote later in the evening on a resolution to determine how applications already in the process should be handled. We’ll come back to that later.
On December 14, at least three Councilors had said they could support a proposal from Snook to put a cap on building space allowed in the Residential-A district at 5,000 gross square feet. Councilor Michael Payne said he continued to have the same concerns he had at the final work session.
“I have very serious concerns about it both from a process and policy perspective,” Payne said. “I still don’t fully understand all the implications myself and for a change like that to have been made at the last minute, I feel like I have not had the opportunity to here as much information and feedback about the full implications as I would like to feel confident on what I’m voting on.”
Payne suggested a 5,000 square footage cap could incentivize developers to build large single family houses in Residential-A rather than smaller units. He also said it would be difficult to administer and was concerned developers would game the system.
Councilor Brian Pinkston said he had received emails detailing what some thought the implications might be. He withdrew his tentative support from December 14 because he said he had not quite understood what Snook was proposing.
“We were moving so quickly the other night and I didn’t put two and two together and I think that a person in the audience who helped me on the phone today as we were talking through this,” Pinkston said.
The person was not identified but there were plenty of people in the audience who had been lobbying Council since December 14. One of them was Planning Commissioner Rory Stolzenberg who had sent his research to Councilors.
Since February, each zoning district has anticipated a maximum building footprint which is not the same as gross area. For Residential-A, that figure is 3,000 square feet.
“One of the things that folks have said is, if we’re talking about a 3,000 square foot footprint, Rory found 216 examples among the 9,000 in the city of a house of that size,” Snook said. “Which basically means that 97.7 percent of the houses in Charlottesville, the single family residences in Charlottesville, would be smaller than that.”
Snook argued that 3,000 square feet is not house-sized.
Vice Mayor Juandiego Wade said he did not support the limit because he had heard from nonprofit developers who said the gross area cap would hinder their ability to build new units in Residential-A. There could be as many as six units on a lot if three of them were designated as affordable.
Snook said many of the emails he’d received argued that a type of housing known as a “cottage court” would be prevented by the new gross area cap. He said the footprint limit alone would likely stop those from getting built.
“You’re not going to be able to have very many cottage courts in an R-A zone because of the 3,000 square feet,” Snook said. “If you want to talk about six cottages in the so-called cottage court which is typical, you’d then be limited to 500 square feet per cottage.”
However, Pinkston said he had been told the 3,000 square foot footprint limit was per building.
“That’s what someone helped me see today,” Pinkston said.
James Freas, the director of Neighborhood Development Services, pointed out that there is also an additional standard of how much building space can be on a given lot. This is known as “coverage.” In Residential-A, 55 percent of the total acreage could be given over to buildings if there are two units. Three to four units would allow 60 percent. More than four units would allow 65 percent of the lot.
“And then we have the building footprint which is measured for each individual building or structure and includes all covered or enclosed areas,” Freas said.
“Oh wow!” Snook exclaimed.
However these buildings could not exceed the lot coverage.
Vice Mayor Wade wanted to be certain and sought a clarification.
“Ten years from now, 15 years from now, when none of us maybe won’t be here but particularly staff, that they will have to be able to comprehend the language there,” Wade said. “And these things will come up in the next year or so as you encounter them that there are many some conflict or interpretation there.”
This exchange illustrates that Councilors did not have a firm grasp on many of the fundamentals.
“I’m very surprised because I’ve been proceeding for six months under the opposite assumptions,” Snook said.
Pinkston then suggested dropping the maximum footprint for each building to 2,500 square feet to assuage Snook’s concerns. Payne weighed in.
“I don’t support this but if we’re uncomfortable with that, I feel like we shouldn’t be using a roundabout way to artificially restrict the amount of units that are allowed to be built within [Residential-A],” Payne said. “If that’s the ultimate goal, to do it this way is just so clunky. Even just thinking administratively. For one district, you’ve got a completely different system than all of the other districts.”
After another round of explanations, Snook had this comment.
“I guess it would be just easiest to withdraw that suggestion because now it’s clear that I don’t understand it either,” Snook said.
With a new understanding, Snook said he thought the potential for the future built environment could be much worse than he had anticipated but he realized he was in a minority.
Continuing to seek consensus, Pinkston provided a theoretical example he said explained Snook’s concern.
“Say you have three buildings on a lot,” Pinkston said. “Once this is saying on paper, and I don’t know how it would figure with lot coverage and all the other stuff, but you could technically have three volumes of 9,000 square feet times whatever height that is. That’s a lot if you think about it. Now, would anyone ever build that? No they wouldn’t. But that’s the concern.”
Snook again relented.
“I’m throwing in the white flag here,” Snook said to a smattering of applause. “But warning that the result is actually worse than I was anticipating.”
Time will tell.
Council confirmed that they did not accept a Planning Commission request to allow a total of three units as a base in the RN-A if the existing structure is kept. Now these areas will only allow two units as a base if that’s kept, and only one if the structure is torn down. There could still be six units if they’re affordable. Snook expressed a legal concern about how this would be interpreted and a small language change was agreed upon.
Council confirmed the removal of allowing several small-scale commercial uses in Residential-A, Residential-B, and Residential-C districts. The Planning Commission had recommended allowing these but it appeared at least three Councilors were skeptical. Councilor Payne said he felt they should be allowed via a special use permit. Snook said it may make more sense in ten years or so but that creating new uses may direct traffic to areas where there is not enough infrastructure yet.
Council made clear that “research laboratory” is an allowed use under “General Office.”
Council reduced the intensity allowed in several areas from Residential-B to Residential-A. These can be seen beginning on page 294 of Council’s packet and take a look at the final zoning map when it is published.
Council finalizes affordability provisions
Remember that comment from Planning Commission Phil d’Oronzio? That came up, too.
To recap, the original proposal for the affordable dwelling unit ordinance was to have rental units provided at a price point for households and individuals at 60 percent of the area median income (AMI) for a period of 99 years. For-sale units would have been targeted at 80 percent of AMI with affordability only guaranteed for the first owner with a right of first refusal to the city or non-profit developers. This was a consensus proposal supported by the Housing Advisory Committee.
However, Council was asked to vote on a final draft where there would be no distinction between rental and sales units under the inclusionary zoning. Another new detail is that units in residential districts built under the bonus provisions for affordability would be at 80 percent of AMI for a period of 30 years.
“Obviously this is the second area where we’ve gotten the most input over the weekend,” Payne said. “Would you be able to walk through how this addresses the concern raised in terms of affordable home-ownership not being able to be constructed in the city?”
Freas said there are legal concerns about making this distinction in the zoning code.
“And so we had to square that circle to figure out how do we address concerns that were raised around providing ownership units,” Freas said.
Freas said that under the new code, projects could seek something called a zoning determination letter where he or his successors could approve other arrangements if needed.
Many remaining items related to affordability will be in a manual that will come before Council in the near future.
“The zoning ordinance establishes what the rules are and the [Affordable Dwelling Unit] ordinance is just providing you with basically how those rules are implemented so the sense is that the term of affordability and the actual AMI are both kind of core aspects of what the rules are that shouldn’t live in a manual.”
Pinkston supported the approach due to the need to be sensitive to the legal realities at determined by City Attorney Jacob Froman and outside counsel Sharon Pandak.
Payne said he was not comfortable with the language.
“I understand that at this point there may be a belief that there’s not time to get to a better compromise but I’m not sure where we are provides the maximum clarity and confidence in terms of where we want to end up,” Payne said. “But I certainly understand the time crunch.”
With all of the final pieces in place, it was time for Council to make final comments.
Vice Mayor Juandiego Wade said he has been asking himself a series of questions.
“Do I have enough information to make the decision?” he asked. “Have we done as a Council our due diligence in understanding the information and understanding the community? Have we asked all of the questions? Have we heard from everyone and that’s really important. I believe that we have on all of those accounts.”
Councilor Pinkston thanked everyone involved including his fellow Councilors.
“We may not always agree on everything but I feel like every point of disagreement we’ve ended up mostly with a better solution than if we had not had a disagreement,” Pinkston said. “Even though I know all of us are not happy with every bit of this perhaps, but I think that on the whole this a step change and a really good thing for the city.”
Councilor Payne said the process before the Cville Plans Together was going in the wrong direction and it took the events of the summer of 2017 to push the city in a different direction.
“There were periods of this project where we had not city manager, no director of [Neighborhood Development Services],” Payne said. “There was no guarantee that this project would continue at many points but it did through the work of the community as well as the intense work of staff.”
Payne said he was humble enough to know there could be unintended consequences that Council will have to deal with in the coming years.
“Even as positive as I think this will be, there will still be gentrification, there will still be affordable housing that will require solutions outside of zoning so I hope as a community we just continue to keep our focus on those issues,” Payne said.
Councilor Leah Puryear said she knew it would be a lot of work when she was appointed to a vacancy in February.
“I got the nod on the 21st of February and on February 22 I met this individual whose name was James Freas,” Puryear said.
Puryear expressed concerns that Black residents have been unrepresented throughout the process.
“Zoning is not the answer to everything but we have made a decision that we want to move forward,” Puryear said.
Puryear said Council had to continue its commitment to spending $10 million of city funds on affordable housing.
Snook said the zoning ordinance would put flesh on the Comprehensive Plan and implement the Affordable Housing Plan. Those were the first two legs of the Cville Plans Together initiative.
“We’re also talking about a commitment that is implicit in all of this to really develop a serious transit system which we do not now have,” Snook said. “The combination of transit and housing and urban design and we’ve sometimes talked about having a walkable city or a 15 minute city as an example that some people use. As I’ve said before, we are not there now and we’re not going to be there ow for at least ten years but we’ve got to get started and this is a good start.”
The motion to approved passed unanimously to applause.
What about all the existing plans?
Council then adopted a resolution to deal with existing plans that are at various stages in the process but not without another debate.
Freas said that state law provides protections to projects that have already received a significant amount of governmental review such as approval of a rezoning or a special use permit by Council or a site plan or building permit approval made by staff. This is known as “vested” rights.
“But what is not included under that protection are projects that may have submitted a site plan as a by-right project but have not yet received approval at the time the zoning ordinance changes over,” Freas said.
Freas said the resolution provides pathways for these projects. Projects submitted before August 31 would be allowed to move forward under the old zoning but projects submitted after that date would be under the new zoning. Some Councilors wanted to change that date to December 18, but others said the sooner the new rules are in place, the better. Others said this would create a burden for developers who have submitted plans since August 31. Council voted 3-2 on this motion.
The effective date of the zoning will be February 19.
For details, take a look at the image. This will be an interesting story going into 2024.
Arlington has a $10M plan to attract more bus riders. Getting off natural gas will be a pricier proposition, Jo DeVoe, ARLNow, December 20, 2023
New road feature to be built in Louisa County in the new year, Marysa Tuttle, WRIC, December 20, 2023
New ordinance on short-term rentals about to go into effect, CBS19, December 21, 2023
The end of #618
In a non-holiday week, this edition would have come out on Wednesday, but there were other things that had to happen that were not related to work. It takes a lot of time to slog through the meetings, and I will continue to resist those who suggest I employ “Artificial Intelligence” to assist me. This may indicate stupidity but I call it caution.
I am a human being in a profession that disintegrated as I came of age and in a time where technology transformed how we communicate. I don’t want an algorithm doing my thinking for me so I put the time in.
This week I’ve brought in a lot of subscriptions, a sign that people support my view. There are millions and millions of dollars at stake in the other view. I am hoping in 2024 I can begin to train people to do the work I do, and I’m grateful for the continued revenue coming in. I really appreciate it. And I appreciate Ting for matching initial Substack subscriptions.
The podcast version will come out tomorrow as a separate post. Usually I can knock out production quickly but I need to get moving on to family time this afternoon. I’ll take the opportunity to encourage people to listen to the podcast more often. I’m an audio producer first, everything else last.
If you sign up for Ting at this link and enter the promo code COMMUNITY, you’ll get:
A second month for free
A $75 gift card to the Downtown Mall