September 27, 2012What was billed as a joint meeting of the High Point City Council and the High Point Planning and Zoning Commission on the two or more year process for consultants to rewrite the city zoning ordinance was light on city councilmembers, which doesn't bode well for the code rewrite.
Only Councilmember Latimer Alexander, Councilmember Chris Whitley, who is running for mayor and seems to be everywhere these days, and Councilmember Britt Moore, who is running for reelection to his at-large City Council seat, were present to represent the council.
The development code rewrite is partially funded by a grant from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development. Asked after the meeting whether the zoning code rewrite had any importance, Whitley said, "We have to come up with something. We took the grant."
A lengthy meeting that begins with the announcement that the consultants, the Chapel Hill office of Denver-based Clarion Associates, had figured out how to use pictures – actual pictures – in Microsoft Word zoning documents, and ends with a consultants saying, "See you in a few months. Thank you," isn't something to which you sell tickets. It also suggests that the two to two-and-a-half year process could be done in two to two-and-a-half months with a little pressure on the accelerator.
The High Point City Council hired Clarion in May. Since then, Clarion has been assigned 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. The advisory committee met for the first time on August 27.
The August 27 meeting generated many comments – mostly criticisms – from the members of the advisory committee, and a flood of 62 written suggestions – mostly complaints – after the meeting.
At Tuesday's meeting, Planning and Zoning Commissioner Cynthia Davis complained that advisory board members – she is one – submitted individual comments after the August 27 meeting, and said she thought that all comments should be considered and submitted by the full advisory board. Goodbye two years, hello five years.
Craig Richardson, the vice president of Clarion and the director of its Chapel Hill office, and Clarion Senior Associate Chad Meadows, assured Davis that individual comments were okey-dokey.
Greensboro recently finished a similar rewrite. 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.
Ironically, Whitley and others have suggested merely taking the Greensboro zoning ordinance, filing off the serial numbers, deleting sections that don't apply to High Point and adding ones that do, just to speed things up, save money, and make life easier for developers that work in both towns.
The Triad Real Estate and Building Industry Coalition (TREBIC) has suggested using Greensboro as a model. TREBIC Regulatory Affairs Director Judy Stalder, who was present at both meetings, said she supported the rewrite because High Point's code needs to be modernized and clarified. TREBIC had considerable influence on Greensboro's new ordinance.
Clarion wants to use as a model a rewrite the company did for Portsmouth, Virginia, and Richardson and Meadows touted elements of codes the company did for Fayetteville and Currituck County, North Carolina.
Richardson tried to steer the High Point rewrite away from using Greensboro as a model. He said the Greensboro rewrite was Greensboro-specific and that the High Point City Council wants to take the lead in the High Point rewrite.
Whitley replied, "That's not true." He said the City Council has discussed the issue and wants to stay out of the line of fire. In any case, on the advertised schedule, the City Council will have gone through its 2012 and 2014 elections before the new code comes up for a vote, and will likely be a very different City Council.
It's easy to make fun of the proposed zoning ordinance rewrite, especially with Greensboro's fresh in memory.
But High Point has miles and miles of brownfields that used to house the city's furniture factories and mills, and which can, according to some proponents of rewriting the development code, hardly be redeveloped under the current code, which they say applies suburban restrictions to urban neighborhoods.
Alexander, who built up a fabric company, has said he found it easier to buy expensive land in north High Point than to wrestle with the development code and the Planning and Development Department over redeveloping a building in south High Point, which desperately needs redevelopment.
Also, the High Point City Project is encouraging redeveloping traditional High Point commercial/residential mixed-use neighborhoods, which will require some neighborhood-specific code changes.
Basic issues will determine whether or not the High Point rewrite gets support. One is the extent to which the City Council and local developers will accept the idea – pushed by Clarion – that the Planning and Development Department should be given more authority to grant variances, give exemptions or grant code-based incentives that now require action by the City Council or the Board of Adjustment.
Some city councilmembers, and many developers, want power based anywhere but in the Planning and Development Department. They say stories of city inspectors placing unreasonable restrictions, delays and requirements on projects are legion. One councilmember said an owner was pressured to provide the architectural drawings for a 50-year-old house – the architect of which was probably long out of business, and possibly dead.
The argument for giving city staff more authority is to allow them to make administrative adjustments that provide more flexibility to property owners and developers. The argument against doing so is that it creates a system based on favoritism and petty disputes.
Richardson said, "Probably, in the communities we have worked on, there hasn't been a community that hasn't embraced that concept."