Planning commission concludes critical slopes ordinance review
The Charlottesville Planning Commission has recommended that City Council approve an amendment of the city’s critical slopes ordinance, despite concerns from some commissioners it would discourage infill development.
The commission voted 4-2 to forward the amended ordinance on to council, ending a months-long review.
“My hope is that this will make for better development and more thoughtful development and I don’t think it [will] have a chilling effect on development,” said Commissioner Genevieve Keller.
However, Commissioner Dan Rosensweig said more study was required before he could recommend approval.
“We might be moving in the right direction, but I don’t think this is fully cooked,” Rosensweig said.
The ordinance was first enacted in 2007 in order to protect waterways by decreasing erosion.
“The ordinance we have now [when] strictly interpreted does not permit any development on slopes of 25 percent or greater at all unless the applicant receives a waiver,” said city planner Brian Haluska. Waivers could be granted if applicants could meet one of four criteria.
Some environmental groups have argued too many waivers have been granted and that an amended ordinance would provide more opportunities for review.
“We believe there are certain natural features, such as steep slopes, that aren’t appropriate for intense development,” said Morgan Butler of the Southern Environmental Law Center. “It’s appropriate to allow for commission review, public input, and possible mitigation before disturbance may be approved.”
Under the amended ordinance, a “critical slope” would be defined as one that has a slope greater than 25 percent and has either a horizontal run of more than 20 feet, is within 200 feet of a city waterway, or contains “significant or unique natural topographical features.”
During the public hearing, developer Charlie Armstrong objected to that last clause.
“The new ordinance takes [an] engineering standard of review and changes it to a much more subjective and ambiguous review,” Armstrong said. “It’s hard for me to wrap my head around what may or may not be approvable with the new ordinance.”
Armstrong said that would make it less likely for firms to plan for future development because there would not be certainty that a project would be approved.
However, former planning commissioner Bill Emory said the proposed new ordinance was easier to understand and should become the city’s law.
“It’s not like the real estate market is going to collapse … with this [ordinance],” Emory said. “The topographical nature of Charlottesville matters and I think that this critical slopes ordinance certainly addresses that.”
Developer Frank Stoner suggested that a task force was necessary to further study the effects of the ordinance.
“The definition of a critical slope is still inadequate,” Stoner said. “The presumption that a 25 percent slope is dangerous somehow or environmentally unsound probably deserves further debate.”
Rosensweig, who is the executive director of the Charlottesville chapter of Habitat for Humanity, said he wanted more information about how the ordinance might restrict infill development, which he said was necessary to create more affordable living choices.
“Let people actually do a study that [investigates] if this is going to affect house prices, is this going to affect regional patterns of development, and if we come back and council is comfortable that the net effects of passing this ordinance is in line with what the comprehensive plan and the [City Council vision] says, then by all means we should pass it,” Rosensweig said.
Rosensweig made a motion to recommend approval of the amended ordinance, but only with the stipulation that such a task force be appointed. The motion failed on a 3-3 vote.
Keller objected to the notion that subjectivity should be avoided in city code.
“I don’t see this as being any more subjective than other things that we do every month, such as assessing the effects of traffic increase on a neighborhood, or whether proffers for affordable housing are adequate,” Keller said. “All of that requires human beings to make judgments based on the information they have.”
A motion to recommend approval of the amended ordinance passed 4-2 with Kurt Keesecker and Rosensweig voting against. Commissioner Lisa Green was not present. City Council will take up the ordinance amendment later this year.
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