Monday, April 16, 2007

Neighborhood Conservation Overlay Ordinance Goes To Council

Update (4/18): The ordinance described below was adopted. Hats off to city staff in the HCD and Planning departments, members of GNC and TREBIC who worked in good faith to work out the language, and to city council for voting for it.

The city council Tuesday will have a public hearing, and probably a vote, on an ordinance to allow the creation of Neighborhood Conservation Overlays (NCO) in Greensboro. City staff and various citizen groups, including the Greensboro Neighborhood Congress and TREBIC, have been working through compromise language on this ordinance for many months.

The ordinance, if passed, would allow older neighborhoods to develop their own infill development standards regarding things like building height, roof forms, and setbacks, but not the underlying zoning category. The aim of the standards is to prevent new construction that is out of harmony with the traditional character of the neighborhood. In that respect, they would function much like the restrictive covenants that are built into most new developments.

Once the neighborhoods developed these standards, any new construction would be reviewed by city staff to make sure it meets them before any permits are issued; they wouldn't involve an extra layer of review such as the architectural review committees active in most new developments, or such as the Historic Preservation Commission in Greensboro's historic districts.

TREBIC representatives have fought hard both to weaken the kinds of restrictions that can be allowed in NCOs and to make it difficult for neighborhoods to initiate the process and bring a new NCO to a public hearing. The Greensboro Neighborhood Congress has fought hard to give neighborhoods wider powers in the kinds of regulations they can enact and to make it easier for neighborhoods to get a public hearing.

Some distressed neighborhoods have expressed interest in drafting NCOs, notably Glenwood and the Cedar Street area. Cedar Street is under development pressure because it's so near downtown.

But I hear secondhand that the ordinance also has considerable support from people in Greensboro's most prestigious neighborhood, Irving Park, which has experienced some tear-downs recently. What gets rebuilt in neighborhoods like that is often is out of scale with the surrounding streetscape, as the socially ambitious buy small lots, tear down the small houses on them, and put up houses that are out of synch in terms of architectural style and scale (read: big mcmansions on small lots).

[I recently heard two well-connected folks talking about one of these; one described a new "piece of crap" that had been built in Irving Park. The other said, "how can you call a $2 million house a piece of crap"? The reply: "it's $2 million worth of crap."]

However, if the ordinance passes as written, it will be very difficult for Glenwood and Cedar Street, and neighborhoods like them, to use it. TREBIC has lobbied successfully to make sure that no NCO proposal can even get a public hearing unless more than 50% of property owners sign a petition in favor of this.

Since most of the property owners in such neighborhoods are often absentee landlords who usually have no interest in restricting their property rights, it's highly unlikely that these neighborhoods will be able to gather enough signatures ever to get an NCO developed and passed.

That means if the ordinance passes as proposed, it will probably help the people in Irving Park, but not the people in Glenwood or Cedar Street.

I think council should pass an amended ordinance that allows a public hearing on a proposed NCO without the petition; if after the hearing the majority of property owners don't want it, then turn it down. But give the middle and working classes a chance to have the same neighborhood protections that most better-off people have.


Anonymous said...

David, the problem is determining if you have a majority. The Council still painfully remembers the problems we had in Westerwood. That is why the proposed ordinance requires the petition first, not TREBIC.

David Wharton said...

Thanks for clarifying council's thinking, Tom. I wasn't able to attend the council briefing and hear your discussion, but I did attend one meeting with TREBIC in which they were pushing for the majority petition.