Residents will have less of a say about changes to their neighborhood under the new Unified Development Ordinance.
With the city’s new zoning code comes a new review process for rezoning requests and site plan approvals. The UDO also changes the public hearing process and in some cases, eliminates it altogether.
Most city residents don’t know or care about either process — until they get a notice from the city that informs them that a piece of property in their neighborhood is getting a new drug store or apartment building.
The new code will eliminate the public hearing process for most site plans, switching to an administrative approval process instead of sending site plans to Planning Commission and City Council for a vote.
The UDO, a complete rewrite of Raleigh’s zoning code, has been in the works for almost three years and could be approved as soon as Feb. 11. City Councilors have a self-imposed deadline of March 1 for adoption.
A Breakdown of the Changes: Site Plans
Site plans are detailed plans of a particular development or project that outlines where, among other things, buildings, parking, stormwater devices and landscaping will go on the project site. City officials also review building design and materials.
Today, these plans are either approved administratively by city planning staff or by the Raleigh Planning Commission.
There are a number of reasons why a site plan might be reviewed by the Planning Commission, but senior city planner Christine Darges told the Record most of the cases are projects that are near residential zoning districts or plans for large retail.
When the Planning Commission reviews site plans, residents can comment during a public hearing. No public hearing occurs when site plans are reviewed by staff.
Under the new code, city staff will approve site plans with no public hearing.
Projects larger than 25,000 square feet and within 100 feet of a residential zoning district will require a posted sign on the property providing more information. Property owners within 100 feet of the project will also receive notification by mail.
Darges said this will cover most grocery and drug stores and office buildings.
A Breakdown of the Changes: Appeals
The appeals process is also changing.
Anyone can appeal a site plan decision. The body hearing the appeal depends on which approved the plan. For example, planning staff decisions are appealed to the Board of Adjustment. Planning Commission decisions — or site plans that fail to get a majority two thirds vote — are appealed to the City Council for a quasi-judicial hearing.
Quasi-judicial hearings are evidentiary hearings and require sworn expert testimony. Unlike a public hearing, neighbors must present facts, not opinions.
In the current draft of the new UDO, all decisions will be appealed to the Board of Adjustment. The Planning Commission and City Council will no longer be part of the process.
Darges said these changes were made because the UDO will have stronger zoning, building and design standards than today’s code. Developers and residents will have a better idea of what is allowed on a site.
Still, not everyone is thrilled with the proposed changes.
An ad hoc group of stakeholders call the Technical Review Group has submitted comments on different aspects of the UDO, including the review process.
The Technical Review Group is made up of developers, land-use attorneys, architects and other people involved in development.
Attorneys Eric Braun, Mack Paul, Lacy Reaves, Tom Worth and David York, submitted a memo Jan. 23 to City Council on behalf of the group.
According to the memo, TRG has concerns about taking the Planning Commission and City Council out of the process and appeals being sent to the Board of Adjustment, which they say had no direct input crafting the UDO.
The TRG suggests site plans should instead be reviewed by staff, then referred to Planning Commission for a final decision. The Planning Commission can refer it back to staff for more changes or schedule a quasi-judicial hearing.
Braun, speaking on behalf of members, said they are not speaking to media about the UDO, and offered instead the group’s submitted comments.
The City Council didn’t discuss the memo at its weekly UDO workshop Monday.
A Breakdown of the Changes: Rezoning
Under the UDO, the public hearing process for rezonings will also change, but they aren’t going away.
Today, rezoning applications can be submitted four times a year. Those applications are heard during a quarterly evening public hearing before both City Council and Planning Commission.
The applications are then reviewed by the Planning Commission, followed by another review by City Council for a final decision.
The City Council can also approve an application be filed outside one of those four windows.
Senior planner Travis Crane said that happens at least once a quarter.
“This tells me that the system we have isn’t working,” Crane said.
Under the UDO, applications will be filed on a rolling basis. Planning Commissioners will make the first review and then make a recommendation to the City Council for approval or denial. The public hearing will take place once the application got to the City Council.
There will be a public notice informing residents of the review and public hearing.
The reason for this new process: Sometimes an application has changed multiple times from the time it is heard at the public hearing to the final City Council approval. Holding the public hearing at the end gives everyone a more complete view of the project.