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November 16, 2010

Critical slopes discussion in Charlottesville continues

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By Sean Tubbs
Charlottesville Tomorrow
Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Morgan Butler offers his comments to the planning commission

The Charlottesville Planning Commission spent three hours last week further refining a revision of the city's critical slopes ordinance. Members of the environmental community have sought key amendments to the law in order to protect sites on which development would harm area water quality.

“We want to promote compact development and density in the city because of the environmental and social goals that kind of development offers,” said Morgan Butler of the Southern Environmental Law Center during the commission’s work session last week. “But at the same time we also want to preserve the environment and the environmental features that define Charlottesville.”

Commissioners went line by line through the language of the proposed ordinance reviewing its proposed scope and impacts. Commission Chair Jason Pearson asked each commissioner to vote up or down on each aspect of the ordinance. After the balloting, the commission spent another hour modifying the ordinance’s language.

Download Download "ballot" version of draft ordinance revision

Pearson said the long period of review was essentially to getting the public policy correct.

“Because Charlottesville is a city that has developed over a period of time and over time certain sites get left undeveloped because they’re harder to develop. As you get to full build-out, what you’re left with is scraps of land that haven’t yet been developed because they were technically too difficult to develop,” Pearson said.

Listen using player above or download the podcast:  Download 20101109-CPC-Critical-Slopes


A majority of the group appeared to favor a broad interpretation of the ordinance, which would increase the number of slopes that would be protected from development.

However, commissioners Dan Rosensweig and Kurt Keesecker expressed concern that doing so could place undue burdens on developers.

“It all but makes most sites undevelopable unless you propose an economically unfeasible plan of development,” said Rosensweig. He was also opposed to the use of the words “natural beauty” and “aesthetics” in the purpose and intent section of the ordinance because they would allow for subjective decisions based on taste.

“I think that’s so incredibly broad that our commission, or future commissions or future city councils could look at that and cherry-pick pretty much anything they want on a site [to justify denying a waiver],” Rosensweig said.

However, commissioner Genevieve Keller said the ordinance revision would not stop new developments, especially if applicants could still apply for a waiver on the grounds that the development serves a public purpose.

“I don’t see that as precluding development, I just see it as… raising the bar on the kind of development that we get,” Keller said.

Butler said the ordinance needed to balance environmental interests with the city’s need for land to grow.

“Where you have a close case in the balancing of the public interest versus the purposes of the ordinance, I think the tie should go to protecting the critical slopes,” Butler said. “There should be a presumption against the granting of modification of waivers.”

The positions of individual commissioners will be incorporated into the ordinance, and further discussion will be held at the commission’s next meeting in December.


  • 00:01:30 – Introduction of item from Chair Jason Pearson
  • 00:04:00 – Staff report from Brian Haluska
  • 00:09:50 – Comments from Morgan Butler of the Southern Environmental Law Center
  • 00:23:30 – Former planning commissioner Bill Emory asked to comment
  • 00:24:30 – Pearson describes the ballot
  • 00:28:30 – New commissioner Lisa Green addresses “broad vs. narrow”
  • 00:29:30 – Commission begins going line by line through ordinance
  • 00:57:30 – Commissioner Dan Rosensweig takes issue with bonding requirement
  • 01:12:20 – Pearson reconvenes commission after brief recess, beginning discussion period
  • 01:23:00 – Public comment from city resident Bill Niebuhl
  • 01:59:20 – Keesecker gives an example of how provision for “backstop” could harm landowners
  • 02:03:00 – Commission further discusses “backstop” measures
  • 02:08:00 – Discussion of the definition of critical slopes
  • 02:17:45 – Pearson expresses concern about restoring the word “steep” into ordinance


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