By Yustin Riopko
WAXHAW – Local government can be confusing. That’s why Town Planner Elisa Neal spent some time at Waxhaw’s latest planning board meeting to explain the basics.
Neal’s presentation came as the planning board welcomed three new members – Deepa Limaye, Charles Thomas and Teri Nolan-Range.
There are three major governing boards in Waxhaw. One is the board of commissioners, which gets its authority from NC general statutes.
“The [BOC] focuses on legislation policy,” Neal said, “and they set the direction… and tone for the town by creating mission, by creating a vision for the town and by creating values for the town. They also adopt budgets and levy property taxes.”
BOC appoints town staff and advisory boards too, like manager, attorney and planning board members.
A second governing board, called the board of adjustment, is also appointed by commissioners. The BOA is quasi-judicial, meaning its members hear appeals about decisions the other boards make.
The third and final governing board in Waxhaw is the planning board, commonly composed of seven regular members and two alternate members, all serving staggered 3-year terms.
“The main role of the planning board is to be an advisory board to the [BOC],” Neal said, “and provide recommendations for approval or denial in accordance with the comprehensive plan, small area plans, rezonings, conditional special use permits, text amendments, and major subdivisions.”
Whereas these governing boards navigate legislative and quasi-judicial decisions, town staff members keep up with day-to-day administrative work like permits, vested rights claims, minor and exempt subdivision reviews and approvals.
According to Neal, documents and decisions made by planners, such as the Future Land Use Plan, respond to the community’s vision for the town.
“It addresses how the community will achieve that vision, what the steps are, and also acts as a guidance for community leaders, planners and developers,” she explained. “Within the Land Use Plan, it discusses zoning districts, and these promote the health, safety and general welfare of the community.”
Board chairman Scott Shelton pointed out new members are signing on right as planning staff finalizes Waxhaw’s new Land Development Code, a document that aims to replace the Unified Development Ordinance, which has only been tweaked here and there since 2004. The new plan drops the number of zoning districts from 17 to just eight.
“This is a great time that you guys are coming in at this juncture with the LDC being developed,” Shelton told new planning board members. “[Staff was] kind enough to ask the board members of the past to weigh in, review chapters and elicit our input, which was really appreciated, and I think the final product will be a result of that.”
“The Unified Development Ordinance,” Neal said, “is a local policy instrument that combines multiple sets of regulations such as traditional zoning, subdivision, regulations, design guidelines, and sign regulations. By combining all these regulations, it helps to streamline and coordinate the development process.”
Senior planner Mattison Miller said, “Our Unified Development Ordinance is very outdated. It’s been a long time coming … This would be pretty much the Holy Grail for planning, as far as it comes to Waxhaw.”
The new LDC brings a lot of changes to town policy. The conditional use zoning will no longer be allowed in Waxhaw’s development code, and the code will be directly linked to adopted plans. There’s a content-neutral sign ordinance, chapters have been reduced from 23 to 13, the table of uses has been updated from 2004 to current, and there will be more uses by right with more supplemental regulations.
The most common users for these documents are developers. When someone comes to Waxhaw with the idea to build a new restaurant, shop or subdivision, currently the first thing they look at is the Unified Development Ordinance. If the project fits zoning and land use expectations, they move forward. If not, they work with planning staff to develop a detailed scheme that the planning board reviews and maybe even recommends to commissioners, who get the final say.
Town staff has been sharpening the document for over a year, collecting public input before and during COVID-19. Right now, planners are talking with commissioners, after which a public hearing will be organized to receive more public input from residents.
Senior planner Blair Israel said the new LDC could be done by March – something he thinks is good news for antsy developers.
“We do expect with the adoption of the Land Development Code to see an upturn in the number of applicants and interested developers,” Israel said, “We believe they judged that it would be to their advantage to wait until the new code is out there.”