Report: Charlotte ordinance confusing, lacks modern tools

Charlotte’s current zoning ordinance sometimes gets in the way of carrying out the city’s adopted plans, a consultant’s report concludes. It also can be a Byzantine set of confusing and sometimes contradictory requirements.

The ordinance “does not include many modern zoning tools that would help ensure effective implementation of Charlotte’s land use policy goals,” says an assessment report from Clarion Associates. The city hired the group in 2012 to study the city’s zoning ordinance and recommend whether it needs changes.

“In many cases the Zoning Ordinance includes some but not all of the tools needed to achieve the plan goals,” the 51-page Assessment Report concludes. It’s paired with with a 59-page “Approach Report” outlining possible ways the city might proceed.

Public meetings Thursday on zoning ordinance report

  • Noon: The City Council’s Transportation and Planning Committee is scheduled to hear a presentation on the report: 12-1:30 p.m. in room 280 of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Government Center. The agenda is available online here.
  • 4:30 p.m.: Charlotte-Mecklenburg Planning Commission scheduled to hear a presentation on the report. Room 267 of the government center.
  • 6:30 p.m.: Public meeting, Room 267 of the government center.

The last major revision of the city-county zoning ordinance was adopted in 1992, after a process that lasted at least six years and was, by most accounts, a difficult process. In an April 2012 PlanCharlotte.org article, “Charlotte to take a new look at its aging code,” former planning commission member Tim Mead recalled it as “a very contentious process.” Mead, a retired UNC Charlotte political science professor, said, “There were people in the development community who believed that they had not been appropriately consulted, and so they decided to stop it in its tracks.”

This time, the process has moved slowly. The reports released this week don’t propose any revised ordinance, only assessing strengths and weaknesses of the existing one. Planning Director Debra Campbell said last year that “there’s a huge cavern of disconnect, between their visions set out in city plans, and in the zoning ordinance which sets legal requirements for development, and that disconnect can sometimes make it difficult to implement plans and policies.”

Other highlights from the report:

  • “In terms of community design, the Zoning Ordinance includes some but not all of the necessary tools to implement the plans, and in particular lacks residential design standards and mixed-use design standards tailored to a range of intensity levels. Many of the Zoning Ordinance’s design standards apply to specific districts rather than citywide, and thus the effectiveness of the ordinance in implementing plan goals depends on the actual districts applied to a particular site. There are some good design standards in place, like the urban design standards for pedestrian-oriented districts, yet they could be strengthened.”
  • “The Zoning Ordinance itself is challenging to use, lacks a clear and understandable organization, and does not contain sufficient illustrations, tables, and other simple tools to effectively communicate the intent of the regulations.”

  • “In many cases the ordinance includes some but not all of the tools needed to achieve the goals set forth in the plans. However, finding those tools can be challenging.”
  • “When good zoning tools do exist, like the urban design standards for the pedestrian-oriented districts, they are located in disparate parts of the code, often repeated in a confusing manner, and generally hard to find in a document that is challenging to use, lacks a clear and understandable organization, and does not include many modern zoning tools that would help ensure effective implementation of Charlotte’s land use policy goals.”
  • “In limited cases, there are direct inconsistencies between the plans and the ordinance. In particular, many of the districts allow greater building heights than called for in the area plans, especially in edge areas where transitions occur between established single-family neighborhoods and new, adjacent nonresidential development.”

The approach report says, ““Having development regulations scattered among multiple ordinances presents a challenge to anyone trying to develop in Charlotte.” It recommends the city consider consolidating zoning and other regulations.

It offers this hypothetical example of the problems of having multiple ordinances that apply to development:

A property owner wishing to develop residentially-zoned land for a multiple-lot commercial use must review procedures and standards for rezonings and site plan approval in the Zoning Ordinance, and procedures and standards for division of the property and provision of public improvements in the Subdivision Ordinance, standards for protecting trees in the Tree Ordinance, and standards for stormwater management in the Sediment and Erosion Control Ordinance.

“If the property abuts a waterway or lies in a floodplain, the owner must also consult the Floodplain Ordinance.

“The property owner must be able to find all the applicable regulatory provisions from among the separate ordinances, determine how they interrelate (i.e., which approvals come first), and resolve any conflicts and ambiguities created where different ordinances address the same or similar aspect of development or development review.”