Learning About Your Community Through Civic Literacy

For many people who move to a new city, learning all about their new city government is not high up on the to-do list, or it’s not on the list at all. But there is value in understanding how decisions are made in your community and knowing who the decision makers are.

If you’re gently protesting that you don’t have time to figure out how all of that works, we propose a different approach to the learning process. Familiarize yourself with your local government little by little, focusing first on one area of government that you think you’ll find interesting. Soon after, you’ll gain insight that will help you to really thrive in your new community. In this post, we’ll

  • make a modest case for the usefulness of civic literacy;

  • show you some tools that make civic literacy easy;

  • highlight some topics from a recent Charlotte City Council meeting; and

  • introduce you to the Charlotte Unified Development Ordinance, a document expected to change the way the city manages its zoning as of June 1, 2023.

The Usefulness of a Civic Mindset

Paying attention to what local government does can shed unexpected light on why your community is the way it is. Charlotte City Council and the city’s Zoning Committee, for example, have obvious authority over cases like whether or not a restaurant can be built directly next to a residence; but they can also affect seemingly minute characteristics of an area, like whether or not outdoor lighting needs to be capped or shielded and whether or not a building’s HVAC system needs to be covered with screens.

How often do you think about those kinds of specs? Do you really need to care about them? Shielding (or lack thereof) on outdoor lights impacts the visibility of starlight and other natural beauty in your night sky. HVAC screens add an additional layer of filtration for pollen and other airborne allergens, keeping indoor air pure for a longer time. If you’re the landlord of a building, you might see screen installation as an easy cost to cut. As a building occupant, though, you might appreciate screens.

Beyond what it does, your local government is also important because it’s inextricably linked to stakeholders, like neighbors, developers, and employers, whom you likely want to get to know. City council meetings--and especially the public hearings for those meetings--can reveal what your neighbors care about and what kinds of conversations are happening in your community. If you’re new to Charlotte or considering moving to the city, your civic literacy can be a tool for connecting with the city’s people and organizations.

Watch a Charlotte City Council Meeting

North Carolina’s open meetings laws requirements, combined with the convenience of the web, make council meetings more accessible now than ever before. Meetings are live-streamed and archived online, allowing for low-commitment watching that you can pause and resume at any time. Agendas and other meeting materials are also virtually accessible to the public. While we’re thinking about zoning and its impacts on a city, we challenge you to watch the stream from the most recent Charlotte City Council zoning meeting on May 15, 2023.

Charlotte City Council is the government body that sets policies and approves the budget for the city. The council consists of members representing the various districts of the city, and council members attend meetings for various committees throughout the year to make decisions related to policies of various categories.

At zoning meetings, the Zoning Committee of the Charlotte Planning, Design, and Development Department reports to Charlotte City Council, and the council makes decisions related to zoning and development. As the outdoor lighting and HVAC examples illustrate, approval to rezone a parcel of land depends on all kinds of factors not immediately considered by ordinary residents who don’t work as developers or city planners. Thus Charlotte’s zoning meetings can spark wide-ranging conversations about life in the city. They’re (in our opinion) sufficiently engaging for first-time council meeting watchers. After just one of these, you might be able to talk like a developer! If not, you might at least feel confident when talking to one.

Single-family vs. multifamily, affordability, and neighborhood density were some of the topics that generated the most conversation at the last meeting. Also, UDO, the acronym for the Charlotte Unified Development Ordinance, is the current buzzword at zoning meetings. For better or worse, the UDO significantly changes what developers can do in zoning districts, and the changes are in effect as of June 1, 2023. Before you watch the meeting, review the following important terms and tips that will help you to follow along. The list of terms is a reference material; you don’t have to memorize it all.

Important and Frequently Used Terms:

  • Ordinance: An ordinance is a law adopted by a local government entity such as a city.

  • Decision: A decision is a case for which a public hearing was previously held. A decision has its own dedicated agenda item during a city council meeting. A rezoning petition and a proposal to amend the text of an ordinance are both examples of events to which decisions pertain.

  • Public hearing: A public hearing is an allotted time period for members of the public to provide feedback on events or proposed changes in their communities. Different cities conduct their public hearing sessions in their own different formats, but, for Charlotte City Council zoning meetings, each case requiring a public hearing session has its own dedicated agenda item.

  • Planning staff: The staff of the Charlotte Planning, Design, and Development Department reviews incoming petitions for rezoning and recommends whether or not petitions should be approved.

  • Consent agenda: A consent agenda is a kind of agenda used by boards, councils, or other deliberative bodies during meetings to group certain agenda items together, allowing for a single motion to vote on all items at once. Consent agendas differ from regular agendas, which list items for one-by-one votes. Grouping items together in a consent agenda is meant to save time. Documenters, a nonprofit-run journalism lab that trains citizen journalists throughout the United States, provides a video explanation about the kinds of items typically placed in consent agendas.

  • Defer: Council members can defer agenda items, meaning they can postpone action on items for a later date.

  • Withdraw: Parties presenting rezoning petitions to Charlotte City Council sometimes withdraw their petitions. As explained in a research article by UNC Charlotte Urban Institute, a withdrawal is typically requested when a developer suspects that their petition will be denied. They do this to spare themselves the two-year wait to refile.

  • Charlotte Future 2040 Comprehensive Plan: The Charlotte Future 2040 Comprehensive Plan is a plan adopted by Charlotte City Council on June 21, 2021, to navigate the city’s growth for the next 20 years. The plan provides guidance for investment, infrastructure, development, and general policymaking for the city.

  • Charlotte Unified Development Ordinance (UDO): The Charlotte Unified Development Ordinance combines regulations and standards from eight different development ordinances into a single document that goes into effect as of June 1, 2023. The UDO is meant to implement the Charlotte Future 2040 Comprehensive Plan’s vision for the city’s development. The UDO’s features include updated zoning districts, use of plain language throughout the document, increased use of graphics and tables throughout the document, consistent definitions for terms, and new standards for by-right development.

  • Text amendment: A text amendment is a change to the text of any guidance or governance document such as a plan or a policy. The kinds of text amendments discussed in the most recent zoning meetings were text amendments to the UDO.

  • Charlotte Tree Ordinance: The city of Charlotte takes great pride in its trees and tree canopy. The Charlotte Tree Ordinance, adopted in 1978 to protect the city’s trees, outlines policy that protects trees located in the public right of way as well as trees on private property. The ordinance is one of the eight that will be incorporated into the UDO.

  • Charlotte Land Development Standards Manual (CLDSM): The Charlotte Land Development Standards Manual is a guiding document that can be used to ensure that developments comply with the city’s development ordinances.

  • Zoning District: A zoning district is a demarcated parcel of land to which specific development regulations apply. A parcel’s zoning district determines the land uses allowed within it.

  • Place Type: Place Type is a term used in the Charlotte Future 2040 Comprehensive Plan to categorize areas such as neighborhoods, commercial centers, and public spaces within the city of Charlotte. Place Types help policymakers to look beyond the zoning of a parcel and consider factors such as consistent building design and mobility for the larger surrounding area.

  • By-right: By-right means that, for a particular zoning district, particular land uses and construction specifications are inherently allowed. Zoning districts with allowances provided by-right differ from conditional zoning districts whose development and uses require approval from Charlotte City Council.

  • Character: Character describes the collective characteristics that make a demarcated area distinct, such as building style, lot size, and layout within the area. 

  • Bonus (development): A development bonus is an incentive that allows for more intense development when a project meets certain conditions. The UDO explains how bonuses can be earned when residential developments are designed to be more affordable. The kinds of bonuses discussed during the most recent zoning meetings were increases to maximum building heights. Another kind of bonus described in the UDO is an increase in the maximum number of residential units that can be constructed for a project.

Tips:

  • It might be helpful to review the names and districts of current Charlotte City Council members (found on the council’s page of the city’s website) before attending or watching a council meeting.

  • The City of Charlotte offers a mail list subscription for UDO updates, including updates about new opportunities for the public to provide feedback on the UDO.

  • Look at the UDO’s zoning translation page to see how zoning districts will change as a result of the UDO. Review the new zoning district fact sheets for an explanation of exactly what is allowed in each new zoning district.

  • The City of Charlotte’s website provides council meeting resources, including a schedule of upcoming meetings; agendas, videos, and audio from past meetings; and instructions for signing up for public hearings. Additionally, many local governments use Legistar to manage all things related to meetings. Charlotte City Council’s Legistar system includes helpful attachments that supplement agenda items, like petition summaries, graphics, and the actual text of text amendments.

  • Charlotte City Council meetings are streamed and archived on the City of Charlotte’s YouTube channel in addition to the city’s website.

  • To view or preview news articles that contain gated content, Chrome and Firefox web browser users can try Reader Mode (This is now called Reading Mode in Chrome. Access Reading Mode by clicking the side panel icon in the top-right corner of your screen.).

 

Meeting Highlights

Decision item - Rezoning Petition 2022-133 (see Text tab): The council approved a petition to rezone land adjacent to Northlake Mall for the purpose of constructing 604 upscale apartment units. During the discussion for this item, Council Member Reneé Johnson (District 4) commented that the proposed apartment complex is a “dose of what the Northlake area needs” for revitalization and preservation. The Charlotte Observer and other news outlets have reported that Northlake Mall defaulted on a $725 million loan in 2019 and that the mall has been in danger of foreclosure ever since. Paramount Development, LLC submitted this petition.

Decision item - Rezoning Petition 2023-058 (see Text tab): This is a text amendment petition submitted by Planning staff and approved by the council. The text amendment modifies text in the UDO. Modifications include changes to language, added graphics, and zoning standards changes deemed minor by Planning staff. During the discussion for this item, Council Member Jonhson raised this important question: If the public takes issue with any parts of the UDO, how can they have their concerns addressed? Alyson Craig, Charlotte Planning Director, advised that the council would have to receive the public’s concerns and advise Planning staff based on those concerns.

Public hearing - Rezoning Petition 2022-156 (see Text tab): Planning staff presented a petition to rezone several parcels near the southeast intersection of South Tryon Street and Nations Ford Road for the purpose of developing 350 multifamily residential units and 5,000 square feet of non-residential space. Staff did not recommend approval of the petition in its current state, and several speakers attended the meeting to oppose the petition. Opposition speakers included a resident of the Yorkmount neighborhood and Vilma D. Leake, Commissioner for Mecklenburg County District 2. The opposition speakers voiced concern about plans to increase population density without plans for infrastructure. Greystar Development East, LLC submitted this petition.

Public hearing - Rezoning Petition 2022-177 (see Text tab): Planning staff presented a petition to rezone a parcel at the southeast intersection of Mallard Creek Road and Galloway Road for the purpose of developing 186 multifamily residential units. Speakers opposed to this petition voiced more concerns about plans for growth without consideration for infrastructure.

Growth concerns seem to be triggered when developers seek rezoning that allows for multifamily developments in areas that previously only allowed single-family residences. It’s important to note that, per the UDO, the zoning district for the area in question automatically changes from R-3 (single family residential) to N1-A (Neighborhood 1), which permits multifamily development by-right anyway. Council Member Tariq Bokhari (District 6) directly addressed the opposition speakers and mentioned that the council sought the public’s input for two years prior to the enactment of the UDO. He insisted that, at this point, “by-right is by-right.”

Council Member Victoria Watlington (District 3) later addressed Bokhari’s statement and advised that the changes resulting from the UDO were not necessarily set in stone. She stated that the council has the authority to defer policy implementation if needed. Planning staff did not recommend approval of Rezoning Petition 2022-177 in its current state. Appaloosa Real Estate Partners submitted the petition.

 

Reflection

What we mention here doesn’t cover everything that was discussed at the zoning meeting, but what do you think so far? Is this riveting stuff or what? How do you feel about the commentary from members of Charlotte City Council? Will the March 15th zoning meeting inspire you to consume more content related to city government? If so, your next step can be watching previous zoning meetings or other committee meetings. If you want to dive deeper into zoning, Zoning Committee work sessions are also recorded and streamed. If you’re more interested in looking forward, a calendar of upcoming City Council meetings can be found on the City of Charlotte website.

Which discussions will interest you when you watch? Most importantly, what will you do with the information you get after watching? We not only hope that you embrace civic literacy; we want to see how far you’ll take it! The ideal outcome is that you eventually advance to civic engagement, but it’s understandable if you don’t get there overnight. Being at least informed and understanding city government is already so valuable in itself, and it’s definitely the start of your development into an empowered, fully conscientious resident.

 

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