City to Overhaul Zoning Regulations

For the first time in decades, the city is overhauling their zoning ordinances. These rules govern the scale, scope, and nature of development throughout the city, and this major revision will have a strong impact on Charlottesville in the coming decades. reader Ray Smith attended a presentation on the planned changes last week, and provided a write up of his experiences. Ray works at Videos, Etc. here in town, a local video store that includes a back room that sells “adult” movies and novelties, and so his interest is with regard to the proposed adult use zoning standards. (If this story seems familiar, it’s because it ran about a week ago — the recent hard drive crash on the server resulted in the loss of this story, but Ray thoughtfully resubmitted this story.) Keep reading to see Ray’s write up.

Jim Tolbert of Charlottesville’s Neighborhood Development Services answered questions Monday night about the draft of the new Zoning Ordinance. Citizens filled the dining room of the Fry Springs Beach Club and listened intently to a 30 minute PowerPoint presentation on all but one of the major changes to Charlottesville land-use regulations. I was there because of the major change that was not mentioned in the PowerPoint presentation: the Adult Use Division regulating adult entertainment. Also present for fielding questions was Kevin O’Halloran, new chair of the Planning Commission.

According to Tolbert, the current Ordinance was drafted in the 70’s and, although it has been amended over 50 times, has never been revamped in such a major way. He said that the Zoning Committee wanted to “be different” this time in their process of drafting the ordinance. No outside planning consultants, no small cadre of authors from the city staff, “but by committee. We want to involve as many people as possible in the process of drafting.” Tolbert told me before the meeting that there have been hundreds of people involved in this process over the past 2 years, and that much of the draft came out of citizen committees.

Tolbert began his presentation by explaining the Comprehensive Plan, the long-term guidelines for the vision of Charlottesville. Everything in the ordinance must comply with the goals of the “Comp Plan”.

The major changes to the zoning ordinance include: dividing the city into 23 “urban design corridors” to better provide for the different zoning needs of the city’s neighborhoods; adding new historic districts and studying the possibility of the Belmont and Locust Ave neighborhoods becoming historic districts; handicap “visitability” requirements; the ability to build a detached “accessory apartment”; eliminating heavy manufacturing zones so that businesses such as junkyards and meat-packing plants cannot establish in the city; control of spillover lighting from parking lots; and smoothing out the Board of Architectural Review’s review/appeal process.

Unmentioned in his presentation was Section 8, Division 10, the very last pages of the proposed zoning ordinance: the brand new sex entertainment section. I shot in with the first question after his presentation ended: “Why no inclusion of the adult use section in your presentation?” He responded that he just didn’t include it at this time. While I was trying to figure out if he’d just told me that he didn’t include it because he didn’t include it, he was onto the next question.

The audience had their own favorites. There were audible gasps from this JPA-heavy group when Tolbert revealed that the new ordinance would allow increased apartment density in the University district. Not only that, but it reduces the minimum required parking spaces to 1/2 per apartment. Tolbert defended these by stating that the goal was to decrease student car use by keeping them within walking distance of Central Grounds. He also noted that many apartment parking lots are currently underused. To further the goal of corralling students into the neighborhoods closer to Grounds, the ordinance creates a district around the University district wherein 1 family homes cannot be split into 2 family, and the number of unrelated people allowed to live in one residence is reduced from 4 to 3. The above-mentioned allowance of “accessory/garage apartments” would not, however, be allowed in the University district, so as to prevent drastic changes to the look of the homes in that area.

Another change to the University district would be the allowance of businesses on the first floor of buildings in the JPA neighborhood. Again, the Zoning Committee’s thinking was to provide for student needs in that neighborhood so that they would not increase traffic by driving to the shopping centers. Tolbert implied that the businesses would tend to be laundromats or convenience stores, but at the query of one citizen, Kevin O’Halloran admitted that restaurants and bars would be allowable. That citizen was very concerned that bars with live music would increase the noise pollution in the neighborhood, saying that “we have fought a 15 year battle against noise” from outdoor parties. Another citizen wondered if the JPA neighborhood was being “picked on”, and asked why there couldn’t be more residential expansion on east Emmet St or west Main. There were lots of groans and nods of approval to this.

Citizens were also concerned about Tolbert’s statement that “it only takes 3 votes” for City Council to decide to sell park land. Tolbert reassured the crowd that any sale of park land must be cohesive with the Comprehensive Plan and would have to pass public hearings before the Planning Commission and City Council.

I got to ask more questions towards the end. “What city interests are you protecting with the adult use section?” Tolbert responded that there are “proper places” for this kind of material and that he didn’t want it to be available around our children. I asked him if he thought that retailers of sexual items caused more harm to neighborhoods than vendors of alcohol. He demurred, saying “I don’t want to debate this issue now. City Council will determine whether this is of value.” I knew this was my only chance, so I cruised in with a third question, “Do you think there is a difference between stores that sell sexually explicit literature, media and paraphernalia and businesses that engage in public nudity, like strip clubs?” He replied affirmatively, saying that the zoning ordinance treats those 2 classes of business differently. I asked him if he was sure, because I’ve read it a dozen times and know that it doesn’t. He said he was certain. (Later in the meeting he said that the draft that was publicly available was out of date and that an update would be posted to the City’s website within 2 weeks.) At this point a citizen said out loud that he wouldn’t that kind of business in the Fontaine area. For a split second, I thought he was joking. Then I responded, “There has been, for 16 years, and with no negative effects on the neighborhood.” A citizen behind me muttered spookily under her breath, “How do you know?”

Many people had questions and Tolbert did not get to them all. He informed us that the Planning Commission was meeting the following night (Tuesday the 11th at 7:30) and would determine a date for a public hearing for the ordinance draft, which, if passed, would go to a public hearing before City Council.

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