Point of View | June 21, 2011 | newsobserver.com
A new model for Raleigh neighborhoods
BY PHILIP LETSINGER
Tags: news | opinion - editorial | point of view
RALEIGH -- The Unified Development Ordinance (UDO) currently under review is the proposed tool to implement goals and policies of the 2030 Comprehensive Plan for the City of Raleigh. As a resident of one of Raleigh's longer established neighborhoods, my focus in reviewing the UDO is identifying issues most directly impacting established neighborhoods such as mine.
One major Comprehensive Plan objective is accommodation of the inevitable growth within Raleigh's limited resources while avoiding the well-documented negative aspects of urban sprawl. Another objective that must be addressed through the UDO is maintenance and preservation of Raleigh's established neighborhoods. These two frequently conflicting objectives - maintenance of established neighborhoods and increased density - present serious challenges to neighborhoods.
The draft UDO is considered "zoning district neutral" for residential neighborhoods. Residential districts R-2 (two units per acre) through R-10 (10 units per acre) are to be brought forward as currently zoned without changes in the zoning map, with some exceptions, and the UDO will apply upon adoption. In the UDO, residential uses, yards, building heights and minimum lot sizes are generally the same as or similar to the present ordinance.
However densities increase in several ways. Minimum lot sizes would be reduced by 8 percent in R-4 districts (10,890 square feet to 10,000 sf), by 17 percent in R-6 districts (7,260 sf to 6,000 sf) and by 20 percent in R-10 districts (5,000 sf to 4,000 sf). These reductions in minimum lot sizes would not have a great impact on established neighborhoods except where built-out lot sizes are much larger than the zoning district minimum. For example, many areas inside the Beltline are zoned R-6 and even R-10 but developed at R-4 standards.
In neighborhoods built out at a density lower than currently zoned, there is economic incentive to recombine lots and subdivide to the zoning district minimum lot size, possibly resulting in development out of character with the established neighborhood. The proposed reduction of minimum lot sizes renews and provides increased incentive in all neighborhoods to recombine and subdivide. Residents and city officials must carefully evaluate whether current residential zoning is congruent with actual development and, if not, is it in the best, long-term interests of the neighborhood and the city.
Raleigh's current policies generally support preservation of sound existing residential neighborhoods with changes limited to compatible infill, but this has the potential to change with the UDO as drafted.
The UDO effectively doubles the potential density of R-2 through R-10 districts for single-family detached dwellings by permitting either "accessory dwellings" or "backyard cottages" as-of-right (no conditions) for each detached dwelling. Currently "utility apartments" are permitted as a conditional use in single-family detached dwellings and are limited to one-fourth of the area of the total dwelling and occupation by no more than two people. When there is a utility apartment, the primary dwelling must be owner-occupied.
The UDO includes neither the owner-occupancy requirement nor an occupancy limit for accessory dwellings and backyard cottages. These omissions could encourage speculative development of rental units without the on-site supervision that an owner-occupant would typically provide. Accessory apartments and backyard cottages provide possible diversity of dwelling types, but there must be adequate standards to maintain neighborhood character.
The UDO includes a new housing type for R-10 and R-mixed-use districts. The Cottage Court is a group of small detached or attached houses centered around a common open space. A minimum site of 18,000 sf allows five dwellings, an effective lot size of 3,600 sf per dwelling.
Some established neighborhoods are already zoned R-10 but developed with large lots, and as few as two lots could be combined for a Cottage Court. While providing diverse housing types, this proposed configuration is an incentive to change the character of a neighborhood through teardowns, recombinations and establishment of a new housing pattern.
The UDO includes compatibility standards providing some protection for established residential neighborhoods through contextual design standards regulating front setbacks, height and side wall length. The UDO carries forward the Neighborhood Conservation Overlay District and the Historic Overlay District and adds the Limited Historic Overlay District as resources for neighborhood preservation.
In recent years first two types of overlay districts have often been challenging, expensive and sometimes impossible for neighborhoods to bring to completion. The Limited HOD, while intended to provide a lower level of protection and to be less difficult to implement, does not yet appear to be any more workable.
The UDO attempts to address some of the current zoning problems while also looking toward the future as expressed in the Comprehensive Plan. Citizens and elected officials need to carefully examine and evaluate the potential effects of changes in the UDO and related zoning map changes. Individuals and neighborhood groups would be well advised to review existing zoning and determine how proposed standards in the UDO will impact their specific neighborhood - positively or negatively. How would increased density affect an area - property values, stormwater, street parking, traffic, noise and demands for public services such as schools and parks? Where would increases in density be most appropriate?
The initial comment period for the public review draft of the UDO closed June 6. Fortunately, opportunities to comment on a revised draft continue. The website at www.RaleighUDO.com offers an opportunity to view others' comments and respond concerning Raleigh's proposed Unified Development Ordinance.
Philip Letsinger a member of the American Institute of Certified Planners. Now retired, he worked as both an architect and planner in the Triangle area.