The City of Charlotte is currently undertaking a multi-year rewrite of the city zoning ordinance. Perhaps the biggest change that is likely to come out of this undertaking is a shift in emphasis from land use to building form or appearance. While this simply sounds like semantics, the magnitude of this change cannot be understated. It will have profound effects on how Charlotteans live, work, and play every day.
The current code reflects a land-use approach to zoning. Under a land-use ordinance, the law is primarily concerned with how individual plots of land are used. The three major land uses are residential (houses and apartment buildings), commercial (malls, shopping centers, business offices, etc.), and industrial (factories, plants, airports, etc.). Each city then comes up with a list of zoning districts that fall under each of these major types (Charlotte currently has 109 – which in case you were wondering, is a lot). Each zoning district will specify regulations for things like building size, setbacks (the distance between a building and the street or another building), and density (the number of buildings allowed on a single parcel), among other things.
Land-use zoning can be a little inflexible at times and typically works best when development projects fit neatly inside one of the existing zoning districts. This is especially true in Charlotte, where many of the zoning districts have either very vague or very strict requirements and there are not very well-defined rules that guide such transitions as those between areas with lots of apartments to areas filled with single-family neighborhoods.
The alternative is what is referred to as form-based zoning. Form-based zoning emphasizes the physical appearance (or form) of a building, rather than its actual use. So, as long as a building fits in with the general look and feel of the surrounding neighborhood, the zoning code would allow it to be used for anything from apartments to retail shopping. Naturally, this type of code allows for better transitions between different neighborhoods, as the emphasis is on creating a consistent look in each area. Form-based zoning also makes it much easier to design and implement mixed-use developments (developments that contain a mix of both residential and commercial activities). While a land-use-based code typically allows for mixed-use development, it is often a cumbersome process that involves exempting or overriding the existing development standards for an area in a process that is as unpredictable as it is time-consuming.
In addition to being faster and more efficient, a form-based code allows people living in a community greater predictability about what the development standards are for their neighborhood and how they will be applied. The code itself is more flexible, so there is less need to change the standards mid-stream. There is also less need for public hearings in the approval process, as the development standards for a given district are clearly spelled out in the code. This allows the development process to move more quickly while avoiding some of the acrimony that can result from a zoning hearing.
In all likelihood, the Charlotte Uniform Development Ordinance (UDO) will be a hybrid of form and land-use codes. While the details are still to be hammered out, a UDO that places greater emphasis on form should provide developers, the City, and neighborhoods greater predictability regarding future development while also ensuring that any new projects fit within the existing Area Plans that have been developed by local stakeholders.
– Marc Seelinger
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