Charlotte balks at doing away with single-family zoning

You'd be surprised at how many people have torches & pitchforks in their garage:

Charlotte City Council members on Monday hit the brakes on the city’s ambitious 2040 Comprehensive Plan over its call to eliminate single-family-only zoning.

The city has been holding public meetings about the plan for months. But as the deadline approaches to approve it, some council members are hearing concerns from residents who are worried about the changes.

Of course they're hearing concerns from residents, because anything you try to do will result in concerns from residents. Hell, I tried to change the route of our fledgling public transportation system so it would run through a densely-populated middle-class area (because people had complained there weren't any convenient stops), but I was told, '"We don't want those types of people coming through here." That being said, both sides of this issue have valid concerns:

Across the city is Five Points near Johnson C. Smith University. It’s a historically African American area that’s rapidly gentrifying. J’Tanya Adams says developers have been allowed to build more townhomes and duplexes and triplexes through rezonings. Has that made the area more affordable?

“Oh no. Oh no, no, no,” Adams said. “They are selling for $500,000, $600,000 per side.”

Adams said she likes the flexibility that the 2040 plan would give property owners, especially the ability to build so-called backyard accessory dwelling units, which are small homes for parents or grandparents. But she said that removing single-family zoning will accelerate the redevelopment of the area, and will likely push prices higher.

“As far as getting rid of single-family and allowing anyone to build anything anywhere, I think that’s a challenge,” she said. “That needs guardrails.”

One of the biggest problems we have with rezoning is a legacy of previous planning (or not planning). Two or three decades ago, when populations were much smaller, single-family housing was the rule, and RS15-20 (15,000-20,000 sq ft lots) were common, especially in suburbs. As a general rule, towns/cities simply did not designate any areas for multi-family housing, unless and until a developer wanted to build some specific apartments or condos. And it's always a fight to get them built, in one way or another.

There are no easy answers to this. Property rights is a hella complex issue, with no "formula" that will fit every situation. But before you do something as drastic as getting rid of single-family zoning, you need to look at those guardrails like J'Tanya mentioned above.

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E-mail from Sam Spencer to City Council

Sam is a BlueNC member from way back, and he's also Chairman of the Charlotte Planning Commission:

Mayor Lyles and Members of Council -

I know you are receiving numerous form emails and calls about the comprehensive plan. I’d like to address some misinformed and frankly false talking points that are flying around.

CLAIM 1: “the current environment created by the pandemic is not conducive to educating residents on such a massive change”

This is patently false, as evidenced by the unprecedented outreach and inclusion conducted by the Planning, Design, and Development Department. Over the past two decades of being involved in Charlotte’s civic community, I’ve never seen an effort this big and a net cast this wide to involve people in the comprehensive plan process. When peer cities have done their comp plan rewrites in recent years, the level of engagement has been significantly below ours. There’s nothing about the pandemic that prevents anyone from reading the draft pdf that has been available since October, the executive summary, or the online comments.

CLAIM 2: “The plan lacks any meaningful specificity and such details will only be released after the scheduled vote or in the UDO”

This is a specific, technical document. Douglas Welton, vice chair of the zoning committee, did a computer analysis of the comp plan and found it came in at at a graduate school or post doc reading level. It is also true the UDO will be more technical in nature, but that doesn’t mean the comprehensive plan lacks specificity.

This is a plan to guide what our new zoning code looks like. We have to do this first - don’t forget that we already tried writing a UDO before a comprehensive plan. This is a process endorsed by the planning commission, city staff, and previous councils.

Finally, I agree that there are some areas where I want more specificity- I’ve asked staff for an operational definition of equity, for example. But I’m also confident that it is a small step - not a giant leap - between where we are and the final draft.

CLAIM 3: “The comp plan or UDO will give carte blanche to developers and eliminate single family zoning and allow multi family everywhere."

The document doesn’t say this. I’ve said it a hundred times, but I’ll say it again: the Comp Plan doesn’t eliminate single-family zoning, it legalizes the missing middle housing we’ve talked about for years.

More than that, the UDO presentation Laura Harmon gave last night included neighborhood conservation districts, a tool that would undoubtedly be used by some of the most vocal neighborhoods and homeowners against the comp plan to preserve their neighborhoods.

CLAIM 4: “There’s not enough time to do this. We’re going too fast. We need to pump the brakes.”

Depending on whom you ask, we’ve been putting this off for 6, 8, 10 or more years. It’s never going to be the perfect time to do anything, and any city document is never going to be perfect. However, over the past 10 years our city has become less affordable, less equitable, and has remained at the bottom of social mobility.

In the words of Norman Mailer, "There was that law of life, so cruel and so just, that one must grow or else pay more for remaining the same." There is a price for inaction.

I’ve been reviewing the comments as they come in and there are a lot of good ideas to improve the plan for final draft.

Thanks for taking the time to read this rather long email. Happy to talk with anyone further about the importance of getting Charlotte Future 2040 done.

Affordable housing is a critical issue across the state, but it is especially important in metro areas where so many people work. Something has to give, because the status quo is broken.