Neighbors deliver earful on zoning ordinance

You'd expect a room full of developers, developer consultants and lobbyists invited specifically to bellyache Tuesday afternoon about Charlotte's zoning ordinance would have had plenty to say. And they did have comments. But it was the group who followed them, about two dozen neighborhood activists and non-developers at a later public comment session, who all but scorched the paint off the walls.

“My concern is that this whole process will turn the zoning ordinance over to the developers,” said Bea Nance of the College Downs neighborhood in northeast Charlotte.

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“We’re no match for the developers with money,” said John Wall of the Hidden Valley and North Tryon Street neighborhood.

“The problem is, there are no teeth in plans. They mean nothing,” said Susan Lindsay of east Charlotte.

“My community has a bulls eye on it,” for undesirable facilities, said John Wall of Hidden Valley and the North Tryon Street corridor, which he characterized as one of the most neglected in the city. “We’re no match for the developers with money.”

“Quite honestly, the staff doesn’t support their own plans,” said Cindy Schwartz of Dilworth. “We never see them oppose anything.”

The two forums were held Tuesday to solicit comments from the public about a zoning ordinance assessment. The city Planning Department has hired Clarion Associates of Chapel Hill and Denver to look at the city’s zoning ordinance assess whether it helps or hurts in implementing city policies and plans, and then offer ideas for reorganizing, restructuring and updating the ordinance. A 4-6 p.m. public comment session Tuesday was aimed at developers and other regular users of the ordinance. A 7-9 p.m. session was aimed at other members of the public.

As consultant Matt Goebel of Denver repeated several times, the consultants aren’t writing a new zoning ordinance as part of the project. It’s an assessment, not a rewrite, he said.

Nevertheless, participants at both sessions questioned why more public input wasn't included in the project. At the night meeting, even the consultants’ intent to get city planning staff to edit a draft of the assessment report they'll write raised suspicions and complaints among several people in the audience.

“You’re getting paid out of public dollars,” Susan Lindsay said. “I'd like to see what you have to say without the staff editing it.”

Not all the participants in both sessions agreed with each other. Bea Nance said plenty of residents enjoy grass and trees and aren’t necessarily interested in more public transit service. “ ‘Suburban’ is not a bad word, people,” she said. Others spoke up for the importance of transit service in creating a healthier lifestyle and in preserving open space.

It's not that the earlier session with more developers was filled with linked arms and “Kumbaya.” At both sessions, the political nature of rezoning decisions was cited as a source of frustration.

Developers don’t like investing time and money in a decision that can, in the end, seem random, sometimes based on how many protesters get the ear of elected officials. Neighborhood activists had a different vantage point. They said they feel so powerless overall that they have to make major and visible protests simply to get anyone to pay attention to their concerns over proposed development. “We shouldn’t have to go through this level of difficulty for every rezoning,” said Cindy Schwartz of Dilworth.

Among the many other issues raised:

From developer David Furman: A suggestion that, especially in more well-developed areas, measuring development intensity by counting units per acre isn't particularly effective. A better measure, he said, would be to use what planners call “floor area ratio,” which measures the square footage of the building compared to the size of the site.

From developer and consultant Karla Knotts: It’s difficult to look things up in the ordinance the way it’s presented on the city's website. Also, she said, “Unless you know you're in an overlay district there’s no way to know you're in an overlay district.”

From lobbyist Joe Padilla of the Real Estate and Building Industry Coalition: Some broad-brush restrictions, such as height limits, would be more effective if they were tailored to different parts of the city instead of imposed in a one-size-fit-all manner.