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November 29, 2010

Commission seeks advice from City Council before slopes hearing

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By Sean Tubbs
Charlottesville Tomorrow
Monday, November 29, 2010

The Charlottesville Planning Commission’s review of the city’s critical slopes ordinance will not proceed until City Council has a chance to weigh in on the revised ordinance’s ‘purpose and intent’ section.

“We’d like to get some feedback from them prior to giving them the draft ordinance,” said commission chairman Jason Pearson.

Listen using player above or download the podcast:  Download 20101123-CPC-Slopes

The ordinance has been under review for over a year following concerns from the Southern Environmental Law Center that waivers are granted too frequently.

“The current ordinance says any slope over 25% would be subject to a waiver request in order to disturb that slope,” Pearson said. “What we’ve done instead is to try to focus down from that very broad current ordinance.”

City planner Brian Haluska has written a revised ordinance after commissioners went through it line by line on specific provisions and definitions of when a request to disturb a critical slope.


Download Download draft critical slopes ordinance

The new purpose and intent section adds at least two criteria to what slopes would be covered. One would define a slope as critical if its disturbance would cause “loss of significant, natural, or topographic features that contribute to the natural beauty and visual quality of the community.”

 However, this language has attracted the concern of the Housing Advisory Committee, a group charged by City Council with exploring ways to increase the stock of affordable living choices within city limits.

“The [HAC] is very clear that it appreciates all the efforts to clarify, quantify and make the ordinance objective as much as possible,” said outgoing chair Charlie Armstrong, who is also with Southern Development.

However, he added that the draft ordinance does not meet that goal, and claimed that use of the language “significant and natural features” is too ambiguous and subjective.

“There [is] a predominant feeling that nobody would really feel like they had a good grasp on whether they could or could not get a waiver for any given project at any given time… It’s been the general feeling of housing providers that a waiver, as long as it’s not egregious or disrespectful to the land and engineered well, would probably get approved,” Armstrong said.

Armstrong said if the revised ordinance reduces the supply of developable land in the city, land prices and housing prices would increase.

Commissioner Lisa Green asked if there was any sense of how many undeveloped parcels the ordinance would affect.

“We don’t have an exact count,” Haluska said. “Based on the ordinance, there could be parcels out there that have critical slopes on them but [they still] have a sufficient building site to accommodate the development that needs to be there.”

Commissioner John Santoski said he favored an ordinance that gives the commission flexibility to adjust over time how it defines subjective terms.

“Community values change over time, so what may be important to us today  may not be important to us ten years from now,” Santoski said. “We should allow [future] planning commissions the flexibility to determine what those significant features should be.”

The commission’s public hearing will not be scheduled until after Council has provided its input, according to Haluska. That agenda item has not yet been scheduled before Council. 

Commissioner Genevieve Keller said that even if council decides to keep the existing ordinance in place, the experience of revising the ordinance had educated the current commission.

“I wouldn’t think that…so many waivers would be granted, because I think we’ve learned a lot about this,” Keller said.


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