October 18, 2012
The High Point
Regional Association of Realtors (HPRAR) has come out against proposals by Clarion Associates for High Point
's rewrite of its zoning ordinance that the HPRAR considers overly restrictive.
The High Point
City Council has ordered the rewrite of the entire zoning ordinance, saying it needs to be modernized to match Greensboro and Guilford County ordinances. High Point
applied for and received a $200,000 federal grant to pay for a large part of the zoning ordinance rewrite, which is estimated to cost $320,000. The City Council in May 2012 hired the Chapel Hill office of Denver-based Clarion Associates to lead the effort.
In an Oct. 10 letter to its members, HPRAR President Cindy Martin and immediate past president Amy Hedgecock said that applying for the grant and rewriting the zoning ordinance makes sense, because developers shouldn't have to deal with divergent zoning ordinances in High Point
, Greensboro and Guilford County. But they said they weren't happy with the way the rewrite is going under Clarion Associates.
"Now we are seeing what seems to be plans-in-the-making for a different permitting process, a longer process, and a far more restrictive process, with fewer alternatives for cost effective development," Martin and Hedgecock wrote. "When so much work has been done to create a good plan for our region, why has High Point
chosen to spend more money to start over, and create a system that is likely to be more restrictive and more costly for our community?"
The idea, when the City Council hired Clarion Associates, was that the zoning rewrite would be guided by an Update 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.
The advisory committee appears to be more development friendly than Clarion Associates, or at least less willing to try to achieve grand changes in High Point
through restrictive zoning. The advisory committee is also less favorable to giving more authority to city planners and inspectors – something Clarion Associates recommends, because they claim it will speed development by allowing minor variances to be handled by the High Point
Planning and Development Department, rather than having to go to the City Council.
City planners on the committee, of course, agree with Clarion and think giving them more power is a great idea.
Some hard-headed developers with experience with the planning department say that will merely allow city inspectors to play favorites or hold up developments over minor things.
In other words, the question is whether or not the process the City Council is planning with Clarion Associates 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. The HPRAR argues that the former is more likely if the advisory committee is given as much power as planning department staff in the planning of the zoning ordinance rewrite.
City Council should empower the Update Advisory Committee (UAC) to have equal voice with city staff on developing the updated UDO [Unified Development Ordinance]," Martin and Hedgecock wrote. "A great Update Advisory Committee (UAC) has been established and includes representatives from the City's Planning and Zoning Commission, the City Project, the real estate and building industry and neighborhood leaders.
"However, input from the UAC carries no weight. In a recent meeting with staff and consultants, only abbreviated discussions on selected topics were allowed. UAC members were directed to submit all other comments in writing. Those comments were compiled, but were never discussed with the UAC and may not be incorporated in the plan."
The real question in all this is whether Clarion Associates will listen to people who know High Point
or write a zoning ordinance based on past work they have done in other cities.
Craig Richardson, the vice president of Clarion Associates and the director of its Chapel Hill office, and Clarion Senior Associate Chad Meadows have run the meetings on the rewrite so far and claim they want to do both. They nod at suggestions from developers and planning and zoning commissioners and compliment the suggestions, but also spend much of the meeting touting the work they have done for other cities, including Portsmouth, Virginia, and Fayetteville and Currituck County, North Carolina.High Point
has large brownfield areas formerly occupied by factories and mills, particularly in southwest High Point
. The City Project, created by the City Council, is supposed to revitalize eight old High Point
neighborhoods. In both cases, suburban-style zoning restrictions make development difficult.
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, under pressure from the City Council and as a result of comments by the advisory board members, 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 but still minor level of variation that could be changed by a review board.
Fewer restrictions are good for developers, but most of the changes are phrased in a way that would give the planning department more power.
According to the HPRAR, the advisory committee is scheduled to meet only four times in the two- to two-and-a-half years Clarion Associates plans to take to rewrite the zoning ordinance.
Clarion Associates doesn't know what it is dealing with in High Point
. In High Point
, almost anybody who can make or break a City Council candidate has something to do with development, property management or showroom ownership – except in Wards 1 and 2, the majority black wards. The City Council is unlikely to pass anything that will enrage that constituency.
The City Project learned that lesson in January 2010, when the City Council put a spike through the heart of a City Project-proposed High Point
Market Overlay District, which would have confined furniture showrooms to a specified area of downtown in an effort to encourage shops and restaurants outside the district. The City Council killed it on an 8-to-0 vote.
That vote showed the power of property owners and managers in High Point
. Before the 2009 Christmas break, support for the Market Overlay District was about evenly split among the councilmembers who had taken stands on it. But on Jan. 4, 2010, after a massive backlash from showroom owners and would-be showroom owners, not a single councilmember came down in favor of the market district....continued on page 2