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June 15, 2010

Environmental community demands strengthening of City’s slopes ordinance

Reader comments (1) By Sean Tubbs
Charlottesville Tomorrow
Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Many members of Charlottesville’s environmental protection community are calling on City Council and the Planning Commission to strengthen the city’s rules related to building on steep slopes.

Last week, Kay Slaughter of the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC) asked both bodies to swiftly amend the zoning ordinance.

“What the citizens want is to protect and conserve steep hillsides, green buffers and flood plain areas so that they will absorb rainwater and prevent excessive stormwater runoff,” Slaughter told the Planning Commission at its June 8, 2010 meeting.

Listen using player above or download the podcast: Download 20100608-CPC-Steep-Slopes

The Brookwood subdivision required multiple waivers in order to be construct on a steep hill on Fifth Street.
Currently any project that disturbs slopes that exceed a 25% grade must receive a waiver before it can proceed. The Planning Commission can approve one for a variety of reasons, but Slaughter says they are almost always granted. She claimed that waivers for developments such as Brookwood on Fifth Street had led to increased runoff into Moores Creek and other area streams. “In all of these instances, people have espoused concerns regarding pollution runoff, the loss of green space and buffers. Yet, each individual project moves forward,” Slaughter said. 

Both the SELC and the Piedmont Group of the Sierra Club are calling for a total ban on building slopes near rivers and streams, plus a total ban on building on slopes greater than 40%, and that the Planning Commission create a system that would require mitigation for disturbance of slopes when waivers are granted.

The city's critical slopes requirements are described in section 34-1120 of Charlottesville's Zoning code: Purpose and intent. The provisions of this subsection (hereinafter, "critical slopes provisions") are enacted to protect and conserve steep hillsides and flood plain areas, and to recognize the increased potential for soil erosion, sedimentation, water pollution and septic disposal problems associated with the development of critical-slope areas. It is hereby recognized that development of critical slopes may result in rapid or large-scale movement of soil and rock; excessive stormwater runoff; siltation of natural and man-made bodies of water; and loss of aesthetic resources, all of which constitute potential dangers to the public health, safety and welfare. These provisions are intended to direct building locations to terrain more suitable to development and to discourage development on critical slopes, and to supplement other regulations regarding protection of public water supplies and encroachment of development into floodplains.”:
Slaughter has been putting pressure on the Commission since at least last October, when they approved two waivers for projects on city-owned land. After a discussion of the ordinance in March , the Planning Commission took another hour at their meeting on May to debate the ordinance. Slaughter said she was not impressed by that discussion, which dealt with whether the purposes  of the ordinance should be expanded.

 “At least three of you would prefer not to include natural beauty as one of the purposes of the ordinance,” Slaughter said.  “We hope that you will stop debating and really adopt some purposes consistent with the [comprehensive] plan’s long-standing natural resources section,” Slaughter said.

In March, Chair Jason Pearson raised several philosophical questions about the trade-off between protecting slopes and building a community with more compact housing.

“My concern about a strict critical slope ordinance, that [assumes] a critical slope is in and of itself valuable, is that you ignore the opportunity cost of a high density, very lucrative development on that site that provides tax dollars to invest elsewhere on other sites in the city,” Pearson said at the time.

Several citizens supported Slaughter’s request at the June 8, 2010 Planning Commission meeting.

Colette Hall of the North Downtown Residents Association said she is opposed to increased housing density in Charlottesville.

 “If I wanted to live in Manhattan, I would be living in Manhattan,” Hall said.

Robin Haynes recently moved to Charlottesville from Asheville.

“I can see that the east coast is stuck with density increasingly, but it is your job… to help preserve the green space,” Hayne said. “Some of the main green space in this city [is on] the steep slopes.”

A view from the back of the Brookwood subdivision
Councilor Satyendra Huja was in attendance at the Commission’s meeting. He also spoke during the public comment period to say he shared many of the concerns raised by those who seek to tighten the ordinance.

“I don’t think all pieces of property are developable,” Huja said. “Some things should be left alone maybe. I would think we need to take a balanced approach.”

At the conclusion of the public comment period, Chair Jason Pearson defended the time the commission has taken to amend the ordinance.

“We do have critical slopes provisions. We are frustrated as a commission with how they are working, and we feel they should be improved but we don’t want to make changes without being sure we have heard voices from the community before we do that,” Pearson said.

The same night the comments were made, the Commission granted a steep slopes waiver for the redevelopment of the Jefferson School. The site plan for that project calls for the disturbance of about 0.18 acres of critical slopes to make way for a parking structure, a play zone and open space.

Download Download May 11, 2010 staff report on steep slopes

Download Download Kay Slaughter's January 12, 2010 memo to Planning Commission

Download Download Kay Slaughter's March 8, 2010 memo to Planning Commission

Download Download Kay Slaughter's April 5, 2010 memo to Planning Commission


  • 01:00 - Public comment from Tom Olivier of the Piedmont Group of the Sierra Club
  • 01:44 - Public comment from Colette Hall of the North Downtown Residents Association
  • 03:40 - Public comment from Kay Slaughter of the Southern Environmental Law Center
  • 06:30 - Public comment from City resident Peter McIntosh in support of the SELC's request
  • 08:30 - Public comment fron City resident Bruce Williams in support of the SELC's request
  • 09:40 - Public comment from City resident Tim Mora in support of the SELC's request
  • 10:20 - Public comment from City resident Robin Haynes in support of the SELC's request
  • 12:20 - Public comment from City Councilor Satyendra Huja
  • 13:30 - Comments made by Chair Jason Pearson regarding the ordinance
  • 14:45 - Commission hears steep slopes waiver request for the Jefferson School
  • 21:00 - Commission's May 11, 2010 discussion of changing purpose and intent of the steep slopes ordinance


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