Zoning: Why It Matters to You
While it is possible to live in blissful ignorance of the often yawn-inducing intricacies of Charlotte’s zoning ordinance, residents of MoRA (and indeed, anyone who lives within Charlotte or the unincorporated areas of Mecklenburg County) will want to keep an eye on the city’s ambitious four-year re-write of the zoning ordinance. Over the next four years, the city’s planning office will work with a team of consultants to completely re-write Charlotte’s zoning ordinance. They will ultimately present their recommendations to the City Council for a review and vote. Few city policies are as important to Charlotte’s quality of life as the zoning ordinance. Good zoning results in bright, open, walkable boulevards with attractive landscaping that complements a community’s existing character. Bad zoning can result in cramped, congested thoroughfares that run by soul-crushing strip malls where you spend hours circling the parking lot like a vulture looking for a place to park. Zoning can make or break a community and all residents are ultimately invested in the outcome.
Charlotte’s existing zoning ordinance has some significant shortcomings. The last major update of the ordinance was in 1992. Charlotte has experienced a significant amount of change since that time; in terms of raw growth, but also the types of development that are now sprouting up all over the city. The current code emphasizes segregation of different zones (i.e. residential, commercial, industrial). However, new development trends promote a blending of residential and retail-oriented buildings. These trends promote greater walkability and are more concerned with the physical appearance of buildings rather than their actual use. The zoning ordinance has not kept up with these changes.
This creates another problem: a longer and less predictable permitting and approval process. Because new developments do not fit into the existing zoning districts very well, developers and the city have come to rely on the conditional zoning process. The conditional zoning process affords developers (and the city) more flexibility in applying zoning standards to a particular project by allowing the city to develop site-specific standards for a particular project. However, it also requires additional scrutiny from the city and generally takes much longer. Charlotte’s goal is to have all development projects clear the approval process in four months or less. Currently, only 53 percent of all projects meet this goal. A whopping 20 percent require seven months or more to receive final approval. This is likely because over 95 percent of all re-zoning requests in Charlotte are currently being handled through the conditional zoning process.
Additionally, the current ordinance isn’t very user-friendly. The sheer size of the document is about the same as that of the Affordable Care Act and. It has an organization that is confusing, contradictory, and seemingly random. Indeed, it might be an improvement to take the 830-page document, toss it off the top of the Bank of America building, and organize it by whatever pages happen to land on top. As it currently stands, the ordinance is a hodgepodge of nearly 30 years’ worth of inconsistent changes, alterations, and modifications that are all contained in 18 separate Microsoft Word documents that you must manually download from the Planning Office’s website. In the face of such a bulky and unwieldy document, it takes nothing less than a heroic dedication to see these projects through by the city staff and developers who use it every day.
While zoning changes are not among the most headline-grabbing policies of local government, they are among the most important. As Charlotte works to re-write its zoning ordinance, all city residents should be engaged and aware of the changes. A good way to do this is to take advantage of one of the many informational workshops that will explain the changes in greater detail and give residents a chance to ask questions and provide suggestions. These zoning changes will determine how (or even if) areas like the Monroe Road Corridor develop. The current zoning ordinance has many short-comings that make development in Charlotte unnecessarily difficult, both for the developers and the community being developed. A new, updated code whould allow Charlotte to continue to grow as a vibrant, dynamic community that continues to attract diverse families and business from around the world.
You can find more information about the project or sign up for updates at http://charlotteudo.org/.
You can find out more information about Charlotte’s planning office at http://charmeck.org/city/charlotte/planning/Pages/Home.aspx