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New zoning rules a key to city's future

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Charleston's downtown should be reshaped into five distinct neighborhoods, building on the current pattern of development, the city's Imagine Charleston planners say.

A key to creating these districts -- cultural, civic, fringe residential, regional commercial and historic core -- is an overhaul of the city's zoning codes, say the planners who drafted the new comprehensive plan and downtown redevelopment plan.

 "That's an action item, a big action item, in the comprehensive plan," said Dan Vriendt, the city's planning director.

In fact, a fresh look at the city's zoning code is long overdue, he said.

"The city has not had a comprehensive rezoning probably since 1983," Vriendt said, "so we have some zoning that doesn't match the land use.

"For instance, in Woodbridge there's a portion that's zoned single-family and a portion that's zoned multi-family, but it's all been developed as single-family homes. They have deed restrictions that keep it single-family but the city does not enforce them directly.

"There's a potential that a person could tear down a single-family house and put up multi-family -- up to four units. The city could not stop it. Zoning-wise, it's permitted. That's an example where the zoning map has not kept up with the use."

But the consultants from LSL Planning and MKSK suggest zoning-related changes far beyond updating the zoning map. In broad swaths of the city, including the entire downtown, they propose a whole new concept called form-based zoning.

In traditional zoning, cities are marked off into different zones -- block by block -- based on the use of the buildings in that area. There are residential zones (single-family or apartments), commercial (stores, restaurants, offices) and industrial, and a handful of special-purpose zones.

Along with the zoning map, there's a complicated table listing which types of businesses are allowed in each zone. The goal is to group compatible uses, and keep factories away from homes.

"You put use over everything else," Vriendt said. "Secondary goals are things like setbacks [distances between buildings and property lines], and tertiary goals are performance standards that begin to describe neighborhood character."

Form-based zoning takes the opposite approach, said Brad Strader of LSL Planning. "That's kind of the new trend for zoning in cities."

"Form-based codes place a primary emphasis on building type, dimensions, parking location and façade features, and less emphasis on uses," Strader wrote in the city's draft Comprehensive Plan. "They stress the appearance of the streetscape, or public realm, over long lists of different use types.

"Form-based codes are appropriate in districts where the purpose is to preserve or create a specific character...."

These codes would be useful throughout downtown, the planners say, which they define as from Morris Street to the Elk River, and from the interstate to the Kanawha River.

"The idea surrounding the five-district concept is to develop distinctive personalities and characteristics for each of the districts ... by carefully crafted design guidelines for storefronts, facades, lighting and signage," the downtown plan says.

Some uses -- restaurants, bars, offices and upper-story housing -- should be common throughout all the districts, the plan says.

Other parts of the city would also be good candidates for form-based zoning, the plan says -- the Washington Street commercial strips on the east and west sides, and MacCorkle Avenue in Kanawha City.

Form-based zoning can turn traditional codes upside down in other ways, Vriendt said.

"Instead of minimum setbacks, you might have a maximum setback. Instead of height limits, you might have a minimum height -- you encourage two or three stories."

Through most of the proposed downtown districts, for example, the planners set a minimum of three stories.

"My personal opinion is form-based codes are easier where you have heavy growth pressure," Vriendt said.

"We don't have that kind of pressure here. If you're wanting a four-story building downtown, you might have to wait a long time.

"I see form-based more useful in select areas, where you want to create a more pedestrian-friendly environment. Maybe the Washington Street corridor, east and west, or possibly MacCorkle Avenue in Kanawha City."

At the other end of the urban spectrum, the planners suggest adding a rural zoning classification for some of Charleston's most rugged terrain, large patches of North Charleston, Garrison Hollow and South Ruffner and South Park Road hollows. Not by coincidence, many of these areas often flood, Vriendt said.

Relaxed zoning regulations in the new rural districts might encourage home-based businesses, larger accessory buildings, roadside stands and keeping of livestock, the plan says.

"We're not sure what it would entail yet," Vriendt said. "There could be some areas that transition from an urban traditional neighborhood to the county. We might allow gravel driveways. This would have to be vetted through a public process."

You can read or download copies of the downtown redevelopment and comprehensive plans at imaginecharleston.com. Click on the Exhibits tab. Call or email comments to the city's Planning Department at 304-348-8105 or dan.vriendt@cityofcharleston.org. Reach Jim Balow at balow@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5102.


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