City panelists address 2040 plan, development regulations, tree canopy
By Susan Shackleford
When Canopy Realtor® Association President David Kennedy opened the latest Realtor® Hot Topic on Jan. 22, he noted: “Despite a turbulent and unprecedented year in 2020, people are still flocking to the Queen City of Charlotte.”
That fact about regional growth set the stage for four City of Charlotte panelists to address the topic of the day, “Looking Toward Charlotte’s Future — The 2040 Plan and More.”
In a Zoom presentation of more than an hour, the panelists zeroed in on the Charlotte 2040 Comprehensive Plan, the regulatory update that will bring the plan’s vision to life (the Unified Development Ordinance), and the state of the city’s beloved tree canopy.
The 2040 plan is a development vision for the city that is currently being crafted. “This plan will be the guiding light, the living document on how we connect to initiatives in the city,” said Alysia Osborne, the plan’s project manager and the city’s division manager for long range and strategic planning.
The scale and ambition of the plan is formidable, coming after many decades of not having such a far-ranging and detailed vision. The last such plan was done in 1975, when Charlotte was a slip of its current self. “We have not embarked on something like this in close to 50 years,” Osborne said. “We want this to be an inclusive process that listens to all Charlotteans … and is innovative on how we grow and develop.”
Work on the comprehensive plan began in the winter of 2018 “with a robust public engagement process,” Osborne recounted. Last October city officials released a draft plan of more than 300 pages and are currently gathering feedback on it. You can see the proposed plan at cltfuture2040plan.com by clicking on “Print” at the top of the page. To comment, here is the direct link: https://www.cltfuture2040plan.com/sites/all/themes/custom/smoky_hollow/docs/Comments-One-Pager_Web.pdf.
The process to develop the plan is expected to wrap up by April, when the Charlotte City Council votes on a final document that month.
Since Osborne was speaking primarily to residential brokers at the Realtor® Hot Topic, she spent most of her time on home and neighborhood themes. That involved four of the plan’s 10 goals and the concept of “Place Types” as a way to create what the plan calls “complete communities.”
The “10-Minute Neighborhoods” goal embodies the concept of living close to what one needs for a good quality of life. “It speaks to access to essential goods and services — jobs, housing, parks, libraries, etc. — and how one can connect in 10 minutes by walking, biking, or transit,” Osborne said. “There are also issues today around food security and accessibility, and we want to create an action plan to address that.”
“Neighborhood Diversity and Inclusion” is another goal, and it speaks to more housing choices. “Many neighborhoods are missing middle-density housing,” she said. “We have heard a lot from residents about being intentional about more options.” To that end, the plan calls for more duplexes, triplexes, fourplexes, townhomes, accessory dwelling units, and other small-lot housing types in single-family neighborhoods.
The goal of “Housing Access for All” addresses the current lack of affordability in housing for low and moderate income residents. The draft plan says: “Charlotte will ensure opportunities for residents of all incomes to access affordable housing through the preservation of naturally occurring affordable and workforce housing and (by) increasing the number of affordable and workforce housing units through new construction.”
“It’s a bold idea,” Osborne said. “In the next 20 years we need to address how to think about inclusionary zoning; this is a pretty lofty goal.” Inclusionary zoning is the planning concept of requiring that housing developments set aside a certain percentage of homes for low- and moderate-income residents.
The fourth goal Osborne noted, “Transit- and Trail-Oriented Development,” promotes “high-intensity, compact, mixed-use urban development” along transit lines and near separated, shared-use trails, the plan says. A key aspect to this, she stressed, is “displacement (of residents) in light-rail corridors … caused by gentrification.”
New Neighborhood Concept
“Place Types” are a new concept to Charlotte and an effort to support “complete” communities where residents can live, play, and work, Osborne said.
She spoke to the two “Place Types” related to residential communities. The other eight Place Types focus on areas such as parks and preserves, employment centers, neighborhood centers, manufacturing, and logistics, commercial, etc.
“Neighborhood 1” would be a fresh take on what have been mostly single-family home neighborhoods. The plan encourages the addition of the middle-density housing types mentioned earlier. “We want more diversity of housing types,” Osborne said. “We want to introduce duplexes and triplexes on single-family lots, also fourplexes on certain locations (thoroughfares).”
“Neighborhood 2” represents “higher density housing areas that provide a variety of housing types such as townhomes and apartments alongside neighborhood-serving shops and services,” the plan says.
Osborne noted that once the plan is adopted there will be a communitywide discussion of where the greatest needs are in the community. “One component that helps establish priorities is our equitable growth framework” she said. “We will establish where our vulnerable populations are and where there is limited access to housing and employment opportunities. We’ll prioritize where our greatest needs are.”
Also, once the plan is in place, the Unified Development Ordinance (UDO) is expected to be finalized by the end of 2021 and will reflect the new plan’s vision. The UDO update will bring together eight development ordinances into one comprehensive document and be consistent with North Carolina’s recently updated 160D regulations, which are the Land Use Law or Local Planning and Development Regulations in the state statute.
“If anyone has worked with our regulations in Charlotte — there are lots of regulations in lots of different places and using slightly different terminology,” pointed out Laura Harmon, who is overseeing the UDO update and is division manager of the city’s entitlement services.
“We are bringing all those regulations together and updating the regulations at the same time — zoning, subdivisions, trees, regulations on streets and sidewalks, etc. — and pulling them all together into a single document,” she said.
Noting that the Zoning Ordinance has not been updated since the 1990s, Harmon said this revision will be more user friendly and feature more graphics. “We want you to be able to go to one document and easily find the answers you need about regulations,” she said.
Harmon said the UDO will have new names for zoning designations to help reflect the new comprehensive plan. “Place Type policy is our north star for developing zoning regulations,” she said. For example, “Neighborhood 1,” as described earlier, would allow six different zoning types, which include three kinds of overlay districts.
Zoning districts also will have new names. Familiar R3, R4, R5 zoning designations, etc., will go away in favor of names such as N1-A, N1-B, N1-C, etc. “Your zoning districts on most properties will be changing with the adoption of the UDO,” Harmon said.
She expects the UDO draft document to be ready by April and that the public comment period will continue until the adoption process ends later in 2021.
One of many aspects of the UDO is the tree ordinance. Tim Porter, chief urban forester for the city, updated the audience on the status of trees in Charlotte and noted that the Tree Canopy Action Plan is part of the 2040 comprehensive plan.
The city currently has a tree canopy of 45 percent, a figure that has declined from 49 percent in 2012, he said. The greatest loss has been in residential areas, mainly single-family neighborhoods, which account for 65 percent of the loss, Porter noted. Industrial areas account for 13 percent.
“Only 22 percent of that loss was large and small subdivisions that have to come through permitting,” Porter said. “The loss is coming through infill development, the aging canopy … where trees are aging out. There has also been an increase in storm events and severity over the last seven years, and there are general property management decisions — folks are removing trees.”
The city’s strategic goal has been to reach a 50 percent canopy by 2050, but Porter says that goal is probably unattainable given recent canopy declines and growing city density.
“It’s time to make some tough decisions as a city,” he said. “It’s hard to balance density and grow Charlotte and balance the natural resources. I hope a partnership with UNC Charlotte on a modeling project will tell us what’s feasible.
“We may need to change the way we think about tree canopy in Charlotte,” Porter added. “There is a lot of work to be done.”
While Realtors® support many of the concepts being proposed, we are concerned about the costs and the impact of unintended consequences. To that end, the Real Estate and Building Industry Coalition (REBIC) is working with Canopy Realtor® Association and the Homebuilders Association of Greater Charlotte as well as the Commercial Board of Realtors® and NAIOP to analyze the plan in detail.