Charlottesville officials have nearly finalized regulations to move forward development proposals amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
At its meeting earlier this week, the City Council reviewed potential guidelines for community meetings and notifying landowners.
Development applications that weren’t submitted before the coronavirus pandemic started moving through the review process earlier this summer. City officials recently started accepting other applications, but weren’t allowed to schedule public hearings or community meetings until parameters for those meetings were approved.
The Department of Neighborhood Development Services has proposed several regulations to govern how the meetings must be held.
For rezonings and special-use permits, applicants must hold a virtual community meeting and allow people to provide comments electronically or by mail. Mail-in comments must be accepted for a minimum of 45 days from when neighbors were notified of the project.
Virtual meetings must be recorded and available free of charge for video or telephone participation and the software must allow applicants to share site plans, illustrations and other documents.
Participants will be given at least three minutes to ask questions or provide comments during the meeting.
The proposed regulations also require that meetings are scheduled outside of business hours, preferably between 5:30 and 8 p.m.
For site plan conferences, applicants must hold a similar level of public meeting, but only have to accept written comments for 30 days.
The main point of discussion at the council meeting focused on just how much information developers must provide neighboring landowners.
The proposal called for a full application packet to be mailed to neighboring property owners, including a cover letter, complete application, supplementary material and site and conceptual plans.
Councilor Heather Hill said that amount of information was “excessive” and a “tremendous amount of waste.” She said that neighbors should instead be allowed to request more information.
“I can’t imagine all those recipients wanting that kind of robust paper being delivered to their house,” she said. “I think it’s kind of wasteful and also just not necessary as long as we can provide a mechanism that if they want that information in its entirety, they can request it.”
Mayor Nikuyah Walker pushed back and said the onus shouldn’t be on neighbors to seek out information, especially during a pandemic.
“To ask the public to be responsible for requesting something when we are already saying that we’re having this conversation because it’s a challenge for people to be engaged in this time, I don’t think that’s fair,” she said. “If people get the documents and they don’t need them, hopefully everybody has access to the recycling bin and they will recycle them.”
Walker said developers are “leading the conversations,” to which Hill said she would “respectfully disagree.”
“To put that on the individual citizen to request something that they might not even know exists … I don’t think that’s something we can say is a fair process,” Walker said.
Councilor Sena Magill proposed a robust description of the proposal in conjunction with a visual representation that would be approved by city staff. The mailing already requires contact information for the developer, so neighbors would be able to request information in a variety of ways.
“We need to make sure that there’s some sort of synopsis or abstract or outline because a lot of the land-use stuff can get very confusing and the part of community engagement where people are introduced to this, they have staff and other people there to answer questions,” Magill said.
The council gave overall approval to the guidelines for community meetings and directed staff to come up with parameters for neighbor notification. Those regulations will not require a second vote and will be drafted administratively.
To view the guidelines, visit tinyurl.com/NDSguidelines.
In other business, the council signed off on continuing electronic meetings for certain boards and commissions in August.
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