By Sean Tubbs


Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Many members of Charlottesville’s environmental protection community are calling on

City Council

and the

Planning Commission

to strengthen the city’s rules related to building on steep slopes.

Last week,

Kay Slaughter

of the

Southern Environmental Law Center

(SELC) asked both bodies to swiftly amend the zoning ordinance.

“What the citizens want is to protect and conserve steep hillsides, green buffers and flood plain areas so that they will absorb rainwater and prevent excessive stormwater runoff,” Slaughter told the Planning Commission at its June 8, 2010 meeting.

Listen using player above or download the podcast:

Download 20100608-CPC-Steep-Slopes

The Brookwood subdivision required multiple waivers in order to be construct on a steep hill on Fifth Street.

Currently any project that disturbs slopes that exceed a 25% grade must receive a waiver before it can proceed. The Planning Commission can approve one for a variety of reasons, but Slaughter says they are almost always granted. She claimed that waivers for developments such as


on Fifth Street had led to increased runoff into

Moores Creek

and other area streams. “In all of these instances, people have espoused concerns regarding pollution runoff, the loss of green space and buffers. Yet, each individual project moves forward,” Slaughter said.

Both the SELC and the

Piedmont Group of the Sierra Club

are calling for a total ban on building slopes near rivers and streams, plus a total ban on building on slopes greater than 40%, and that the Planning Commission create a system that would require mitigation for disturbance of slopes when waivers are granted.

The city’s critical slopes requirements are described in section 34-1120 of Charlottesville’s Zoning code:

Purpose and intent


The provisions of this subsection (hereinafter, “critical slopes provisions”) are enacted to protect and conserve steep hillsides and flood plain areas, and to recognize the increased potential for soil erosion, sedimentation, water pollution and septic disposal problems associated with the development of critical-slope areas. It is hereby recognized that development of critical slopes may result in rapid or large-scale movement of soil and rock; excessive stormwater runoff; siltation of natural and man-made bodies of water; and loss of aesthetic resources, all of which constitute potential dangers to the public health, safety and welfare. These provisions are intended to direct building locations to terrain more suitable to development and to discourage development on critical slopes, and to supplement other regulations regarding protection of public water supplies and encroachment of development into floodplains.”:

Slaughter has been putting pressure on the Commission since at least last October, when

they approved two waivers for projects on city-owned land

. After a

discussion of the ordinance in March

, the Planning Commission took another hour at their meeting on May to debate the ordinance. Slaughter said she was not impressed by that discussion, which dealt with whether the purposes of the ordinance should be expanded.

“At least three of you would prefer not to include natural beauty as one of the purposes of the ordinance,” Slaughter said. “We hope that you will stop debating and really adopt some purposes consistent with the [comprehensive] plan’s long-standing natural resources section,” Slaughter said.

In March, Chair

Jason Pearson

raised several philosophical questions about the trade-off between protecting slopes and building a community with more compact housing.

“My concern about a strict critical slope ordinance, that [assumes] a critical slope is in and of itself valuable, is that you ignore the opportunity cost of a high density, very lucrative development on that site that provides tax dollars to invest elsewhere on other sites in the city,” Pearson said at the time.

Several citizens supported Slaughter’s request at the June 8, 2010 Planning Commission meeting.

Colette Hall of the

North Downtown Residents Association

said she is opposed to increased housing density in Charlottesville.

“If I wanted to live in Manhattan, I would be living in Manhattan,” Hall said.

Robin Haynes recently moved to Charlottesville from Asheville.

“I can see that the east coast is stuck with density increasingly, but it is your job… to help preserve the green space,” Hayne said. “Some of the main green space in this city [is on] the steep slopes.”

A view from the back of the Brookwood subdivision


Satyendra Huja

was in attendance at the Commission’s meeting. He also spoke during the public comment period to say he shared many of the concerns raised by those who seek to tighten the ordinance.

“I don’t think all pieces of property are developable,” Huja said. “Some things should be left alone maybe. I would think we need to take a balanced approach.”

At the conclusion of the public comment period, Chair Jason Pearson defended the time the commission has taken to amend the ordinance.

“We do have critical slopes provisions. We are frustrated as a commission with how they are working, and we feel they should be improved but we don’t want to make changes without being sure we have heard voices from the community before we do that,” Pearson said.

The same night the comments were made, the Commission granted a steep slopes waiver for the redevelopment of the

Jefferson School

. The site plan for that project calls for the disturbance of about 0.18 acres of critical slopes to make way for a parking structure, a play zone and open space.

Download May 11, 2010 staff report on steep slopes

Download Kay Slaughter’s January 12, 2010 memo to Planning Commission

Download Kay Slaughter’s March 8, 2010 memo to Planning Commission

Download Kay Slaughter’s April 5, 2010 memo to Planning Commission



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