August 30, 2012
High Point on Monday, August 27 began a two-year process to rewrite its zoning ordinance.
The zoning ordinance rewrite will be spearheaded by the Chapel Hill office of Denver-based Clarion Associates LLC, a consultant the High Point
City Council hired in May. It will also be guided by an advisory committee of developers, redevelopers, High Point
Planning and Zoning Commission members, architects, city planners and members of the High Point
City Project, which the City Council created in an effort to redevelop High Point
's traditional neighborhoods.
On May 10, the City Council met with Craig Richardson, the vice president of Clarion Associates and the director of its Chapel Hill office. Monday's meeting was led by Richardson and Clarion Senior Associate Chad Meadows.High Point
has received a grant from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development to do the development code rewrite.
The May discussions between the City Council and Clarion made clear one thing –the City Council was more interested in removing restrictions on development than merely rewriting the ordinance. Over the years, many High Point
councilmembers are, or have been, involved in development, either as developers or, like Councilmember Latimer Alexander, through owning businesses that have had to build in High Point
under the current zoning ordinance.
That message seems to have at least partly gotten through to Clarion Associates. The consultant and the committee are working from an August 7, 2012 draft assessment of High Point
's development ordinance – and in some cases the draft actually gets rid of restrictions on development.
Clarion argues that the rewrite will simplify the application and permit process for developers, and make it easier to get flood plain development permits, watershed variances and right-of-way encroachments, such as placing signs or trees in public rights-of-way. Those now require separate encroachment agreements and under Clarion's proposal would be in the development code.
Clarion proposes eliminating tree removal permits. It proposes allowing splitting modification to dimensional and development standards into two types – a minor one that staff could approve, and a more substantive bit still minor level of variation that could be changed by a review board.
"We have found that has worked quite well in allowing for redevelopment in older, mature contexts like the core city," Richardson said. "A number of cities in North Carolina are doing that today."
Richardson and Meadows harped on the "user friendliness" of their proposal, which is expected to be heavily, if not completely, modified by the advisory committee. One major change would be a switch to "land use compliance clearance" type permits. Such permits would, ideally, quickly confirm that a proposed use is consistent with High Point
's development ordinance and give the developer a flow chart of the steps needed to get the necessary permits.
One question about the proposed rewrite is whether or not the Clarion Associates proposal is going to make redevelopment easier and attract investment – or, by complicating development restrictions and giving city planners more power, make it harder and discourage investment.
Another question is the extent to which there is actual City Council buy-in. At Monday's meeting, At-large Councilmember Britt Moore was the only councilmember present. If the City Council keeps a hands-off relationship with the rewrite, it will increase the likelihood that it will be a repeat of one recently done by Greensboro.
Greensboro's two-year rewrite was eventually approved, but was such a political disaster that the Greensboro City Council considered throwing it out in its entirety and the Greensboro planning director was later given the opportunity to resign.High Point
Mayor Becky Smothers, who didn't attend the meeting, said there is a dispute between Clarion Associates and the Triad Real Estate and Building Industry Coalition (TREBIC) over the model to be used for High Point
's development ordinance rewrite. She said that Clarion Associates wants to use as a model a rewrite the company did for Portsmouth, Virginia, and TREBIC wants to model High Point
's rewrite on Greensboro's, into which TREBIC had considerable input and on which it spent considerable time.
"They're not saying you have to do everything like Greensboro, but you still need to have some consistency in the greater county area in development regulations," Smothers said. "That's reasonable. We know there are going to be some differences. But why go to Portsmouth, Virginia, just because the consultant did work there?"
One reason might be that High Point
has as much in common with Portsmouth as with Greensboro. Both are traditionally one-industry cities (High Point
, furniture; Portsmouth, shipbuilding), both have similar populations (High Point
, 107,000; Portsmouth, 95,000) and both are desperate to renew industrial areas, diversify their economies and broaden their tax bases.
Or maybe Clarion Associates is just lazy and wants to reuse its earlier work.
Smothers said the City Council supports rewriting the development ordinance ("We will eventually have to approve something, whether it has their binder on it or not.") but acknowledged that the process could produce a document the City Council couldn't accept.
She said, for example, that the argument over using the Greensboro or Portsmouth models arose after the City Council hired Clarion Associates. She also acknowledged the political fracas the process caused in Greensboro.
"Maybe that's why Clarion doesn't want to use the Greensboro model," she said. "It might be the kiss of death."
Richardson said one critical part of his company's process will be testing new code – that is, comparing what a developer can now do on a given site with what it could do under the revised code. He said a key goal is to remove regulatory obstacles to redevelopment in High Point
, and that comparative testing is a way to ensure that.
The new development code would go through a series of public drafts, public hearings and hearings before the Planning and Zoning Commission as well as the City Council.
"It's not something that's going to happen quickly," Richardson said. "It's time consuming."
The big difference between Greensboro and High Point
when it comes to rewriting a city development code is the High Point
City Project, a public-private organization created by the City Council to redevelop High Point
's old mixed commercial-residential and industrial neighborhoods.
Richardson said the Core City Plan was the catalyst for the entire High Point
development code rewrite, because High Point
's current, suburban-based development code was preventing redevelopment in older neighborhoods, particularly industrial ones. He said the current code has many requirements, such as setbacks, parking and trees and shrubs, that prevent development on lots in the Core City Plan neighborhoods.
One of the biggest unanswered questions about the code rewrite is how much it will attempt to create an ideal city and how much it will simply attempt to attract development....continued on page 2