A North Raleigh Publix continues to be the focal point of an ongoing debate about the city’s zoning code and how it should be applied.
City staff and area residents seem to have different interpretations of the code, or Unified Development Ordinance. The UDO’s purposefully vague language has led to a slew of controversial new developments since its implementation last September.
The two groups were pitted against each other during Tuesday’s Comprehensive Planning Committee meeting. The language and effects are confusing, so much so that even Council members Tuesday agreed they could not make any final decisions.
The Publix application calls for a new, 50,000-square-foot store in a North Raleigh shopping center off Falls of Neuse Road.
The land is designated under the new code as Neighborhood Mixed-Use, abbreviated as NX under the UDO.
NX is defined as an area that is “intended to provide for a variety of residential, retail, service and commercial uses all within walking distance of residential neighborhoods.”
The UDO does not specify a maximum square-footage for stores within the NX designation; the only prohibited retail use is a pawnshop.
Raleigh’s Comprehensive Plan, on which the UDO is based, is more specific about the intent of the NX district. Notably, it states in part that “typical uses would include corner stores or convenience stores, restaurants, bakeries, supermarkets (other than super-stores/centers).”
It is this final phrasing – “other than super-stores” upon which North Raleigh neighbors have based their argument against the Publix.
David Cox, who leads the Grow Raleigh Great coalition, was on hand Tuesday to make the case, once again, about why a 50,000-square-foot grocery store has no place within a NX district.
“The Comprehensive Plan disallowed super-stores from Neighborhood Mixed-Use, which the industry defines as 30,000 square feet or greater,” Cox said.
“Staff has effectively turned all supermarkets into one entity, when the comprehensive plan distinguishes between them.”
Interim Planning Director Ken Bowers said nearly all the grocery stores in Raleigh are greater than 30,000 square feet.
Cox began ticking off a number of counter-examples – Trader Joe’s, Aldi – before Bowers cut him off.
“I said almost every one, not all of them,” Bowers said, sounding slightly exasperated.
Russ Stephenson, chair of the Comprehensive Planning Committee, noted that on this and other issues “both sides gave great reasons for why their interpretation is right.”
“It seems like if two experts in interpreting data got together and looked at each other’s notes, they’d both end up with a better understanding of the data,” he said.
Although the Publix and its NX label was just one of four items reviewed by the committee Tuesday, the key issue at play – inconsistencies between the city’s Comprehensive Plan and future development – was a common theme throughout the meeting.
For example, North Carolina state statutes require that all rezoning requests – such as the one for the Publix – be consistent with an adopted Comprehensive Plan or, if not, to be both “reasonable” and “in the public interest.”
In a report prepared for Tuesday’s meeting, city staff analyzed whether the process of determining whether fits those criteria is inadequate, as some have suggested.
The guidelines for how to make this determination are laid out in the Comprehensive Plan itself, and city staff follows these guidelines. Therefore, staff says a change in methodology is unnecessary.
Although staff reports can influence the decisions of the Planning Commission or the City Council when it comes to new development, these two bodies can and have disagreed with their conclusions, allowing inconsistent projects to move forward and consistent ones to be reworked or scrapped altogether.
Travis Crane, a planning and zoning administrator with the city, said recent changes to state law regarding development review procedures affected the way the city handles the site plan approval process.
The new law provides only two options for development review: one that uses objective standards and another that uses more subjective, generalized ones.
The city chose to go with the former, meaning that the generalized standards found in the Comprehensive Plan can only be considered when there is a Special Use Permit required.
The matter is somewhat confusing, even for Council members; Chairperson Stephenson said he had difficulty understanding the edge transitions.
“I ultimately want clarity,” he said. “I would like to have staff go back and look at case studies.”
In fact, staff had already conducted a good deal of research on all the items brought before committee this month.
The detailed report they prepared identified nine issues arising from the four planning items the committee was reviewing.
For each of these issues, staff made a recommendation. To deal with the NX issue regarding grocery stores, for example, it suggested an amendment to the comprehensive plan that would limit retail stores within this designation to 50,000 square feet.
In a few cases, the recommendation was to change nothing, but more often than not, the staff offered up a multitude of suggestions on how to deal with issues arising from Comprehensive Plan inconsistencies.
The committee, however, took no action on any of these recommendations.
Councilman and committee member Eugene Weeks noted that while the committee had gone over “each sentence and every word” of what the staff reported, it didn’t opt to go along at this point with a single recommendation.
Stephenson countered that the complexity of these issues, combined with the fact that not everyone is going to reach the same conclusions, meant more time was needed to go over the staff reports.
“Given the complexity and long-range complications of what we’re talking about, we shouldn’t be rushing to conclusions on these items. These are not simple issues that you can put out one omnibus memo and then let’s all go home,” he said.
“I’m very pleased with effort put forth, but that doesn’t mean that they’ve found the perfect solution the first time out.”