Here's a column I wrote for today's News & Record:
The quickest way to make someone's eyes glaze over is to say, "Let's talk about land use." But you sure can wake them up by saying, "Hey, the city's rezoning your property!"
John Hammer in the Rhino Times has been using the latter approach in writing about Greensboro's proposed new Land Development Ordinance, which is now under public review. He's got people talking, which is good. But a lot of important information has been left out of the reporting so far.
The ordinance rewrite got rolling after the City Council unanimously adopted the Connections 2025 Comprehensive Plan for Greensboro in 2003. The plan's land-use section says, "New challenges are emerging which necessitate a comprehensive review of land use and development policy. ... Significant revisions to zoning regulations will be required to implement these land use policies."
Responding to this council mandate, then-City Manager Ed Kitchen and the council appointed a Citizens Advisory Team to work with consultants and staff on revising the existing ordinance. The CAT (of which I'm a member) was made up of neighborhood representatives, engineers, builders, real estate professionals and lawyers with expertise in land-use and environmental issues.
The city posted an explanation of the rewrite, along with the CAT's contact information, on the city's Web site throughout the process. Two City Council liaisons served on the CAT: first Tom Phillips, then Goldie Wells. Phillips gave explicit direction from the council at the beginning of our work, and Wells stepped in when Phillips left the council. City staff kept each successive council updated, and drafts were posted on the city's Web site.
After 31/2 years of painstaking work, we produced a draft ordinance that retained the best of the existing ordinance, but also included needed updates and neighborhood protections. City staff held public hearings on the rewrite, both at the very beginning, and after the first draft was released in October. Not many people showed up, and the City Council rightly directed staff to send letters to individual property owners alerting them to changes and to hold more public hearings. Many people came to them expressing disapproval of a few provisions in the proposed ordinance.
The most unpopular provision was the inclusion of twin homes at limited locations in some single-family residential districts. Other people were worried that the new ordinance would make their properties "non-conforming." Political consultant Bill Burckley also criticized the proposed LDO because it is not unified with other Guilford County municipalities the way its predecessor, the Unified Development Ordinance, was.
Since the last public hearing, members of the CAT and city staff have met with neighborhood and industry groups to incorporate this input into a revised draft. The latest proposal removes twin homes from single-family districts and specifies that owners of properties made non-conforming by the ordinance have the right to maintain and rebuild their properties just as they are.
As to the Unified Development Ordinance, the City Council charted Greensboro's path away from that in 2003 when it ratified the Comprehensive Plan. The city of High Point also officially abandoned the UDO concept in 2007.
While the local media have focused on some controversial aspects of the new ordinance, they have not emphasized its real advantages. Here are some that I believe in strongly:
-- The proposed ordinance is friendlier to neighborhoods. One provision requires developers who ask for conditional rezonings to report to the Zoning Commission the efforts they made to contact neighbors, and to describe any changes they incorporated into their plans as a result of neighborhood input. The aim is to improve communication between developers and neighbors before showdowns at the Zoning Commission.
-- Another provision allows infill development in older neighborhoods to conform to prevailing setbacks and lot sizes instead of taking the one-size-fits-all approach of the current law. This will help neighborhoods built before 1960 retain their traditional character.
-- The new ordinance includes new mixed-use zoning categories which encourage commercial development to be more pedestrian-friendly and oriented to neighborhoods than the strip-style development that currently prevails in Greensboro. The pioneering Southside development is an excellent example of a mixed-use development where residents can easily walk to services, stores and restaurants.
-- The new ordinance clarifies and improves many technical provisions that business owners had found difficult to understand and use.
-- The ordinance is simply easier for the average person to read, access and understand. Its final online version will include hyperlinked cross-references to definitions and diagrams that make it very user-friendly. That is a tremendous help to average property owners, who are now often at a disadvantage in zoning disputes because they don't know the law as well as they might.
Think of the proposed new ordinance as a much-needed infrastructure upgrade. Many competitor cities have already adopted up-to-date zoning practices that attract solid economic development. In these hard economic times, Greensboro cannot afford to fall behind them.