Raleigh's Unified Development Ordinance

I make it a point to attend my CAC’s monthly meetings. Citizens Advisory Councils are the connecting point between Raleigh’s citizens and our local government. The meetings serve as a way for citizens to communicate with the government and as a way for the government to inform citizens. CACs are the only advisory boards to the city council that aren’t appointed. They’re completely independent, setting their own agendas and electing their own officers. A typical meeting of my CAC will involve presentations from the Raleigh Police Department on crime trends in the area, information from Parks and Recreation regarding local events and hearings concerning rezoning cases within our CAC.

At this month’s meeting, we had a change of pace. Members of the Department of City Planning organized a workshop to help us understand Raleigh’s new unified development ordinance (UDO) project. The UDO will replace the existing complicated and outdated zoning ordinances.

What is the UDO?

The basic idea of the UDO is that each parcel of land in Raleigh will have a code applied to it that will describe the type of use permitted (commercial, industrial, residential, etc.), the allowed height of buildings (in number stories) and the type of frontage the parcel will have. Frontage addresses how the building relates to the street and specifies the required distance from the street that buildings on the parcel must maintain as well as the character of the part of the building facing the street. In some cases frontage may even specify that there be a buffer of trees between the building and the street. The UDO puts a lot of emphasis on mixed-use properties.

Once the text of the UDO – the ordinance itself – is adopted, the process of translating the zoning of existing parcels into the new classification begins. This is tricky because city planners want to make sure that when they apply the new zones, they don’t conflict unnecessarily with what actually exists on the land. They also want to be careful not to ‘up-zone’ a property, which would increase the taxes paid by the land owner as well as open up the possibility of the owner using the land for undesired types of development. When there are questions about how to apply the new zone, planners often refer to the Future Land Use Map that’s part of the 2030 Comprehensive Plan. This map shows the type of use that Raleigh desires in an area in the future (for example, planning for an area to move more toward residential uses or toward commercial uses). The Comprehensive Plan is a long-term “vision” document intended to guide growth.

Rolling up our Sleeves

At our CAC meeting, we broke up into groups and tackled the translation of an area in our CAC from the old zoning rules to the UDO. Planners were available to answer our questions and give advice as we consulted the current use of the area and the future use maps to decide what UDO classifications we’d use. It wasn’t easy – we had a block of land that has a shopping center on it as well as a pocket of residential homes that have been been cut off into a “pocket” as new roads and development grew around them.

The exercise was very satisfying. We got some hands-on insight into the complicated issues that Raleigh planners face. I think it’s great that they made an effort to bring us into the process in such an interesting way.