UDO Day 9: Reducing the political role

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The Raleigh planning department released its draft Unified Development Ordinance April 6. The public has until June 6 to make comments before a public hearing June 7. In order to understand what’s in this new zoning code, the Record is reading it cover to cover and will be writing about what we find six days a week.

Thursday we began a conversation with Greg Hallam from the Planning Department about what is changing in the approval process for site plans, special use permits, rezonings and all that other fun stuff that goes through the planning department and city boards for an official yes or no.

In a nut shell, the new zoning code aims to “take the politics out of it,” Hallam said.

Hallam said the two big items up for a change are site plans and special use permits. For anyone who has spent a little time following city politics and development issues, you’ll know that site plan approvals can be a pretty big deal. Developers currently have to go through the Planning Commission and ultimately City Council for approval.

Hallam said the current process for site plans relies on “subjective criteria” to get something passed, and the Planning Commission ends up acting as an arbitrator between developers and neighbors to get a project approved. That would come to an end with the new code.

“The whole key to the [Unified Development Ordinance] is making sure we have the right rules in the right place,” Hallam said. With the objective standards proposed by the new code, the vast majority of site plans that would now go to planning commission would be approved administratively by Planning Department staff.

Hallam said the current process creates “uncertainty for neighbors and the development community.”

He said meeting the subjective criteria now required puts a huge burden on both developers and neighbors during the approval process and puts a lot of uncertainty into the process for all involved.

The only time site plans will go to the Planning Commission under the new code is when a developer appeals an administrative decision, or, Hallam said, developers “want to do something really outside of the box.”

Having site plans out of the Planning Commission will free up a lot of time for the council-appointed body. Hallam said that when the new rules go into effect the Planning Commission will turn its focus to working on longer-term, bigger-picture thinking on small area plans and corridor plans. That, Hallam said, is where they should be focusing their energies.

“We feel it’s best to have a non-political body making those decisions,” Hallam said, adding, “Not that City Council can’t make a non-political decision.”

But the point is to take the politics out of it. “Having the right rules in the right place” has been the mantra through this process of creating a zoning code.

But that means that the rules the City Council passes when it approves the Unified Development Ordinance — possibly within the year — will be the rules to guide what could be built on that lot next door or down the street.

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