Scoop: Memos show top city staff at odds over Comprehensive Plan

Scoop: Memos show top city staff at odds over Comprehensive Plan
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The city’s economic development director wants the planning director to change several sections of the 2040 Comprehensive Plan, according to memos obtained by Axios.

Tracy Dodson, an assistant city manager, sent a three-page memo to Taiwo Jaiyeoba, another assistant city manager, late last week to recommend that sections 2 and 3 of the plan — the parts that deal with zoning and neighborhood development — be removed.

  • Instead, Dodson proposes that sections 2 and 3 become part of the Unified Development Ordinance, which is an overhaul of the city’s zoning policies. City council will adopt the UDO later this year.
  • Jaiyeoba responded the next day with a memo asking why those concerns weren’t voiced in several meetings over the past year, and that the timing now is suspicious.

Dodson essentially wants to remove anything that could limit the city when it comes to economic development and recruitment.

  • She says her department has recruited more than 16,000 jobs to the community over the past three years.
  • Jaiyeoba responded by saying the plan does not limit the city’s ability to recruit or retain new business; rather, that it allows the city to do so in a more equitable manner. “With this Plan, Charlotte will continue to be a great place to do business while providing the diversity of housing that we need to keep employees and residents in place.”

Why it matters: Charlotte’s council-manager form of government — in which politicians set policy and the manager and his staff run the city — makes our city staff among the most powerful city staffs in the country.

  • Disputes between two assistant city managers are rare.
  • The back-and-forth memos, which were leaked to Axios, again highlight how tense things are over the Comprehensive Plan.
  • They also highlight one of the city’s constant conflicts: attracting new businesses and tax dollars while trying to implement policies that encourage companies and developers to help solve economic mobility troubles.

“Inside the government center and the community at large, there’s agreement about what we aspire for our city to be,” city councilman Larken Egleston tells Axios. “Someone coming from an economic development background is going to have different opinions (than someone with a planning background) on the most effective and efficient ways to achieve those and maximize benefits while minimizing potential negative impacts.”

Zoom out: Charlotte hasn’t had a Comprehensive Plan since 1975. The one being considered is a 320-page document full of big policy ideas that aim to guide how the city will develop over the next 20 years.

  • Making the proposals in the Comprehensive Plan binding requires a separate vote on the UDO.
  • This plan had pitted Democrats against both Republicans and fellow Democrats, developers against environmentalists, activists against neighborhood organizations. The divisions on council cross racial and political lines.

The plan has also pitted “the status quo against people who want change,” says Shannon Binns, executive director of Sustain Charlotte. “Clearly the status quo is not working for everyone.”

What’s happening: The city council is scheduled to vote on the 2040 Comprehensive Plan this month. Some elements of it have been a source of considerable contention.

  • Council took straw votes on some of the more controversial pieces of the plan on May 17, including a section that would allow more duplexes and triplexes in single-family neighborhoods.
  • That part passed 6-5, and some opponents see the division as a reason to keep fighting for their changes.

“This community is anything but unified behind this plan,” council member Tariq Bokhari posted after the vote. “And without unity – there is no chance to achieve great outcomes.”

Of note: Bokhari is the chairperson of the council’s workforce and business development committee, which works closely with Dodson, the economic development director and a former VP with developer Lincoln Harris. Dodson’s memo echoes much of what opponents like Bokhari have said publicly:

  1. The city is emerging from a pandemic in a good financial place and now’s the time hit the gas and keep bringing in companies and tax revenue.
  2. Some pieces of the plan might be concerning for investment. For one, Dodson says in her memo, a part of the plan would require anyone who wants to build a tower more than 500 feet tall — about 30 stories — to offer other community benefits such as affordable housing. “We should be encouraging ways to increase tax revenue rather than one-time extractions from developers,” Dodson writes in the memo.
  3. Dodson proposes eliminating mention of “community benefit agreements” — something Bokhari had also pushed to nix. Advocates say CBAs help ensure equity, and that residents have a say in the development process, as WFAE reported. Developers have opposed them.

Dodson also pulled out a goal to make “at least half of public infrastructure spending over next 20 years to the most vulnerable communities,” saying her team “will be limited in our ability to successfully establish public-private partnerships through the city,” if that part stays.

  • Jaiyeoba responded to that by saying, “While I agree that we can re-phrase this policy idea to encourage public-private partnership, there is no evidence that this limits our ability to do critical work.”

Jaiyeoba’s biggest contention was the timing of the memo. He pointed out seven meetings between the planning and economic development staffs over the past year.

  • “At no point in time during multiple meetings with Economic Development did you or your staff put forward objections to proposed policies in the Plan or expressed that any policies were not supportive of businesses thriving in our city.”

Neither Dodson nor Jaiyeoba responded to a request for comment.

Reality check: Often more than any politician or city staffer, developers and real estate community exert the most power in the city. And those industries have made it known — through letters to council and a big PR push —  that they believe some elements of the plan stunt growth for the sake of equity.

  • They will fight and try to use their influence until the bitter end of the 2040 Plan debate.
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