Chesterfield County kicks off effort to overhaul zoning ordinance

Chesterfield County formally launched an effort to overhaul its zoning ordinance in January. (BizSense file)

Chesterfield County has taken the first steps toward a major overhaul of its zoning ordinance, a process that’s expected to take several years to complete.

The project, which the county expects to cost as much as $1 million, aims to modernize its land-use categories, make the ordinance more user-friendly and develop a new online zoning ordinance tool, among other improvements.

Consulting firm White & Smith LLC is leading the project for the county. The firm’s Mark White and county staff briefed the Planning Commission on the effort last week.

“This is a complete overhaul of the entire zoning code. So we’re going to touch everything in it,” White said at last week’s presentation. “We’re going to deal with the substance and metrics of your zoning districts and what your zoning districts are (and) some may change.”

The zoning ordinance establishes what uses are permitted where and under what circumstances within the county.

Chesterfield hasn’t substantially updated its zoning ordinance since 1997, though there have been some limited additions in the years since. One objective of the update is to better integrate recent changes with the ordinance at large. The ultimate aim of the effort is to create a ruleset that’s better suited to contemporary and anticipated development trends.

“We want to take the best of every approach to zoning and apply that to this county in a way that makes Chesterfield County the place it wants to be when it grows up,” White said.

The process, which officially started in January, is in its diagnostic phase, a six-month process of community engagement and analysis that’s intended to figure out the way forward through the rest of the process. It’s expected to take two to three years to complete the update, and adoption is slated for spring 2023.

The exact form of the new ordinance depends on public feedback that will be solicited during the update process. County officials have previously expressed interest in more by-right uses in residential areas, the creation of mixed-use zoning districts (which isn’t in the existing ordinance) and resources to help shopping centers maintain viability.

The county and its consultant conducted listening sessions in the summer and fall with the likes of Revitalize Our Communities Committee, Chesterfield Citizens United, Richmond Association of Realtors and shopping center management groups, among others. White said people who participated in those discussions voiced support for things like neighborhood character, a better conditional-use permit process, mixed-use zoning, more housing options and an ordinance that better accommodates changing uses.

“It’s anybody’s guess where the next five years get us post-COVID,” White said. “A lot of people are going to meetings online instead of face to face and that’s changing demand for office space and there are now demands for drive-up uses.”

Last March, the Board of Supervisors gave staff the go-ahead to task White & Smith to update the ordinance. The county expects to pay $1 million to update the ordinance, and most of that money ($795,000) will pay the consultants while the rest has been banked for potential add-ons. The contract covers design and development services in addition to a new online ordinance tool.

Improved usability is a key element of the update, and to that end the ordinance’s language will be made more clear and visuals incorporated to help illustrate concepts.

“Our ordinance is very antiquated. It’s been around for quite some time and it is long and cumbersome to navigate through. What we want to do is bring a modern document to Chesterfield County,” county planner Rachel Chieppa said during the presentation.

Another priority is an expansion of by-right uses in multifamily and single-family residential zoning districts as well as tweaks to the conditional-use permit process. Improvements along these lines are anticipated to decrease usage of conditional-use permits to make their projects happen.

“Years ago when (the CUP) was created it was intended to be an exception. However, because our ordinance is so rigid, it often becomes the rule today,” Chieppa said.

County staff expects to return to the Planning Commission with an update at the end of the diagnostic phase.

Planning Commissioner Gib Sloan wondered during the meeting last week if the two-to-three-year timeline could be sped up, or perhaps the broad strokes of the update be approved with some outstanding pieces to be addressed later, to avoid the update taking place during an election year. The Board of Supervisors is up for election in 2023, and campaign season could overlap with the ordinance update.

“I think that to the extent that this gets carried over into an election year, it will end up being a whole lot more work,” Sloan said.

White said the team could work toward completion on a faster timeline, and didn’t rule out the idea that the bulk of the project could be completed with a few last steps left for a later date.

“We can write the entire code, that’s not the problem,” White said. “I think the issue is making sure the county, its stakeholders and decision makers are in agreement on what needs to be in the code and come to agreement fairly quickly.”

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