Charlotte nears decision in key development plan

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With an expected 400,000 new residents over the next 20 years, Charlotte is going to look very different in two decades, prompting local politicians and government planners to consider major changes in guidelines for land use.

After a couple years of discussion, the City Council is expected to vote on the Charlotte Future 2040 Comprehensive Plan in June. The general consensus is that it will pass narrowly because of support from Democrats, who have a 9-2 majority on the council. Mayor Vi Lyles, a Democrat,  and other proponents say the new rules and regulations will create a more livable, equitable city.

Critics, including a couple Democrats on the council, argue that the plan may  make housing less affordable and less available because added fees and complexities inevitably create disincentives for development.

While the debate has focused on Charlotte, Raleigh public affairs consultant Chris Sinclair says it reflects a resumption of the “growth wars” of the early 2000s in which neighborhood advocates in Cary pushed back against expansion plans. Sinclair advises the Charlotte Real Estate and Building Industry Coalition, which is running an ad campaign opposing the 2040 initiative. He notes that there is increasing anti-growth sentiment in Asheville, Wilmington and other areas.

“We’re hearing more of this tendency to demagogue developers and add impact fees and regulatory requirements as a way to deal with growth,” he says.

REBIC’s principal concerns about Charlotte’s plan include “community benefit agreements,” a phrase that Sinclair calls “just an financial extraction from a developer.” A hypothetical example would be allowing Developer X to build a downtown tower provided it set aside space for community gatherings inside the structure.

Sinclair, who formerly served on the Wake County Planning Board, doesn’t think CBAs are allowed under North Carolina law. Proponents disagree, contending that N.C. cities have worked out agreements on many projects that involve similar tradeoffs.

Plan critics also complain that it doesn’t include sufficient analysis of the expected impact on housing costs. Those details will come down the road as the council approves a distinct “Unified Development Ordinance” which will direct how the comprehensive plan is implemented, according to Assistant City Manager Taiwo Jaiyeoba, who has spearheaded the plan.

The debate has inflamed tensions in Charlotte in various ways:

  • Councilman Ed Driggs, a Republican, apologized for suggesting that some of his Democratic colleagues were dumb during a talk to a local GOP  group. He also termed the underlying theme of the plan as “Socialist,” which other council members denied.
  • The debate has spurred considerable racial tension with Councilman Braxton Winston, perhaps the plan’s most outspoken advocate, often castigating neighborhoods restricted to single-family housing as a primary source of discrimination. A vast majority of Charlotte is zoned for single-family development.
  • Jaiyeoba has been criticized by plan critics because his passion for density in Charlotte comes as he lives in a classic Union County single-family neighborhood with large lots and cul-de-sacs. Union is less diverse than Charlotte and a popular option for some families that prefer its public schools and lower taxes compared with Mecklenbiurg.

A city council vote is expected June 21.

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