DAVIDSON – In March during a session of their 2019 Strategic Retreat, town commissioners got a quick review of how officials in Chapel Hill – a college-centered community and a very popular place to live – have worked to try to balance growth with community character preservation.
It’s a subject the town board deals with on a regular basis. And while Chapel Hill is larger, former Chapel Hill planner Robert Waldon – now a senior consultant with Clarion Associates, the firm helping Davidson prepare an updated comprehensive plan – said the challenges faced by the two towns are similar.
“Chapel Hill and Davidson have a lot in common,” Waldon said during the presentation.
And in terms of zoning guidelines used to address those challenges, the similarities may be expanding.
At the town board’s July 9 work session, Planning Director Jason Burdette delivered a “for discussion only” introduction about the possibility of adding “targeted conditional zoning” as a growth management tool to the town’s statutes. The presentation was in direct response to a long-standing board request – reiterated following the retreat – for town staff to explore ways to better control the town’s pace of development.
Burdette told commissioners that targeted conditional zoning, which could give the town added layers of oversight on proposals for development and potentially enhance the prospects of compromise with developers concerning specific aspects of project plans, has emerged as a preferred tactic for growth management for many communities.
“This appears to be a viable option,” Burdette said in his presentation, which was designed to gauge commissioner interest regarding a more thorough exploration of ways to incorporate and implement the guidelines.
The board endorsed a continued evaluation of options, saying the approach appeared to be aligned with their growth management objectives, especially related to residential developments.
“We’ve been looking for a silver bullet,” Commissioner Matthew Fort said, referencing the board’s conversations about having more input on development issues. “This is as close to a silver bullet as a tool as we’ve seen.”
Mayor Rusty Knox expressed support for more research, but emphasized it’s important to recognize the item as a better way to manage growth, not necessarily fight it.
“I see it as a way to put brakes on the pace,” Knox said, “not as an obstacle to development.”
Commissioner Jim Fuller shared Knox’s perspective.
“It would be a tool to slow growth, not stop it,” Fuller said. “In this case, I see ‘managing’ and ‘slowing’ as similar.”
Other commissioners zeroed in on another aspect of the added zoning mechanism, saying they would view the guidelines as an asset in working with potential developers to secure the best possible projects.
“It would be a way to target the right projects in the right place,” Commissioner Autumn Rierson Michael said. “It would help manage growth and the ability to negotiate.”
Fort added that the zoning tool could also be a way to attract developers who share the town’s vision for growth.
“It would give us the ability to say ‘yes’ to all the really great projects,” Fort said.
A multi-faceted tool
Targeted conditional zoning can be a town’s way of asking, encouraging, convincing – or in Waldon’s words at the Chapel Hill retreat, “politely arm-twisting” – developers into meeting higher standards, sometimes in exchange for eased density or building height restrictions.
One way Chapel Hill has implemented a version of the zoning tool is by motivating developers to actually build affordable housing units instead of accessing the “payment in lieu” option in town requirements, which allows them to contribute to a town fund instead of providing the units.
Davidson has a similar affordable housing program, with a much lower ($26,500 instead of Chapel Hill’s $80,500) per unit payoff. Davidson officials have expressed frustration that many developers opt for the payment in lieu approach, resulting in a town shortage of affordable housing units and not enough money in the fund to finance a substantial affordable housing project.
In his presentation, while emphasizing more study is needed and highlighting a range of potential pros and cons about the targeted conditional zoning approach, Burdette said one possible impact of the added negotiating leverage could be getting more “affordable housing on the ground.”