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December 14, 2011

City panel recommends approval of critical slopes revision

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DailyProgressBy Sean Tubbs
Charlottesville Tomorrow
Wednesday, December 14, 2011 

The Charlottesville Planning Commission voted 5-2 Tuesday to recommend approval of a revision to the city’s critical slopes ordinance.

“This is a good [amendment] because it clarifies the ordinance beyond what we have now,” said Planning Commission chairwoman Genevieve Keller.

The commission has been reviewing the critical-slopes ordinance for nearly two years. The goal has been to make the process for getting a waiver more understandable to the public, city staff and commission.

The current definition of a critical slope is one with a grade of 25 percent or more. Under the amended ordinance, additional criteria have been added.

“Those criteria are that any slope greater than 25 percent and has a horizontal run of 20 feet or a square footage of 6,000 or greater,” said Jim Tolbert, the city’s director of neighborhood development services. “Or that the slope is within 200 feet of a waterway.”


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City staff have created a map that depicts all lots that would be affected by the new criteria.

“When this is adopted by council, the map will be the map we have to determine what’s critical,” Tolbert said. “If someone comes up with an engineering survey that says there are no slopes, we’ll amend it administratively.”

Other amendments to the ordinance include clarifying its purpose and intent and reducing the number of ways that waivers that can be granted.

“The amendments are also intended to reduce the number of applications that come to the commission for review where the slopes are not significant,” wrote city planner Brian Haluska in a staff report prepared for the commission.

Neil Williamson of the Free Enterprise Forum said his group is opposed to the amendment out of a concern it will restrict the dense development called for in the city’s Comprehensive Plan.

“The waiver process should not be a presumptive ‘no’ where waivers are ‘few and far between’ but instead a presumptive ‘yes’ where engineered mitigation can restore or improve the current ecological condition and contribution of the critical slopes disturbed,” Williamson said.

However, Tolbert defended the reduction of the number of criteria for waivers that can be requested.

“This city decided several years ago it wants to protect critical slopes,” Tolbert said. “You don’t write an ordinance assuming it will be waivered all the time.”

Several city residents spoke at the public hearing to support the amendment.

“We live in a place with high inclines,” said Robin Hanes. “We need plants on critical slopes to hold back stormwater, to filter toxins in the air and to house the small amounts of wildlife we still have in our urban settings.”

Morgan Butler of the Southern Environmental Law Center fell short of endorsing the amendment, but urged the commission to find balance.

"We can’t cover the entire city in the pavement in the name of reducing sprawl and creating denser or more affordable development,” Butler said. “There are certain natural features in the city that provide important environmental and community benefits, and we end up undermining numerous city goals if we carelessly allow them to be destroyed."

Commissioner Dan Rosensweig voted against the amendment out of a concern it would lead to fewer affordable housing projects because developers would build at a less dense scale.

“There will be a lot of uncertainty for investors and it will discourage development,” Rosensweig said. “While I approve of the direction, I cannot support it at this time.”

Rosensweig said decreasing the possibility of density will result in less affordable housing. He and Commissioner Kurt Keesecker sought further debate, but were cut off.

“We need to stop talking and start acting,” said Commissioner John Santoski shortly before making a motion.

The City Council will consider the amendment in January.

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