The draft comprehensive plan that Raleigh planning department officials have been talking up for a year contains hundreds of pages of policy goals and action items, many of which begin with statements such as: "Develop a pedestrian plan with a multi-year priority and funding stream ...."
It's very general, in other words.
But one oversized page of the plan, downloadable to your computer if you give it an hour (and you have a high-speed connection), is highly specific. It's known as the FLUM, short for Future Land Use Map.
The FLUM details, down to the level of each individual lot, what the planners think should happen on every piece of land in Raleigh. Raleigh's never had such a map before.
If adopted, the FLUM won't change the zoning on anyone's land, Deputy Planning Director Ken Bowers insists. It will, however, be "a key component of consistency" when city officials consider whether a given rezoning application complies with or violates the comprehensive plan.
Or as a critic, Stonehenge neighborhood leader Roger Kosak, said Monday with a huff, "It's a de facto rezoning, even if everyone denies it."
So as the comp plan emerges from a four-month sojourn at the Raleigh Planning Commission and speeds toward possible adoption by the City Council in September, its high-minded goals are proving less interesting than the FLUM to landowners, developers and—belatedly—to neighborhood leaders.
For some neighborhood folks and their Council allies, there's a dawning realization that the FLUM often conflicts with the main objective of the comp plan, which is to curb sprawl and channel Raleigh's growth over the next 20 years into designated corridors amenable to rail or bus transit.
For transit to work, these critics say, high-density development needs to be tightly focused around the transit stops within each corridor, rather than be encouraged anywhere in the vicinity.
The FLUM, though, promises a higher-density future to tracts of land that, although located in a broadly defined "corridor," are distant relations to any transit location, existing or planned, and to some tracts not even arguably located within a corridor.
Most of these high-density tracts were in the FLUM when the city's planning staff unveiled it in December. But the planning commission added more, making some 35 changes to the map in a series of meetings attended faithfully by the affected property owners and their lawyers—and much less so, because the meetings were held on weekday mornings, by neighborhood representatives.
Moreover, critics say, some of the FLUM's corridors bump against established low-density neighborhoods. There are no clear standards, either in the FLUM or the language of the comp plan, for how these areas would transition from one to the other.
Hastily added language about the need to "mitigate incompatibilities," grafted onto the plan in recent weeks, is vague, they argue, and leaves older neighborhoods especially vulnerable to oversized developments next door.
All of these issues were raised Monday night when the Council held the first of just two scheduled nighttime meetings to hear from the public, this one at the Eastgate Community Center in Northeast Raleigh.
Paul Brant, chair of the Northeast Citizens Advisory Council (CAC), led a contingent of neighborhood leaders who criticized the plan for lacking clarity about transitions and for the FLUM's "creeping density" tendencies.
"Almost all of the requested changes to the draft plan (the ones recommended by the planning commission)," Brant said in a written comment, "are designed to increase density of development without appropriate transitions to adjacent neighborhoods."
Brant hastened to add that he's not opposed to density, recognizing that Raleigh needs more of it downtown and in the key transit corridors. But "we're very concerned," he saidd, "that there doesn't seem to be a lid on it" in the FLUM. Brant said he foresees density "creeping" toward the Neuse River greenway, where a Cameron Village-sized project would be permitted on one site, and up Capital Boulevard to the north of I-540.
Brant warned, too, about "retail creep" to the north and east of Triangle Town Center, saying the FLUM invites mixed-use developments without being specific about the appropriate mix. The result could be "mixed" projects that are all high-density apartments or all retail, as at Crabtree Valley, which could overwhelm local roads. "We don't want another Crabtree," Brant said.
Another CAC leader, Candy Fuller, noted that the plan and the FLUM would override several existing small-area plans. These were drawn up by residents over the years to prevent the "stripping out" of major corridors in the Northeast district, including Louisburg Road (Highway 401).
"There's nothing in the plan to guide development along some of our most significant roadways," Fuller said.
Other residents, including Roger Kosak, focused on a vacant tract at the intersection of two local streets, Ray Road and Howard Road. In the FLUM, that area is designated for moderate-density residential development (condos or apartments) though it's surrounded by the single-family neighborhoods of Stonehenge and Hampton Oaks.
The tract's owners wanted the higher-density designation, Kosak said, and the planning staff and planning commission went along though neighbors "objected to it every step of the way."
Now, he said, neighbors are counting on the Council to change it to a single-family designation.
One problem with the FLUM is that it calls for mixed-use developments within categories ("Community Retail—Mixed-Use," for example) that don't correspond to any of the classifications in the existing city zoning code.
Planning officials and the Council have started what is expected to be a two-year process of rewriting the zoning code with the aid of Code Studio, a firm that recently helped Denver move toward a more urban and form-based, rather than use-based, code.
A form-based code, according to City Councilor Russ Stephenson, would help resolve the conflicts between the plan and the FLUM by spelling out how big (by height and mass) any new development should be, with guidelines for the allowable mix of uses; both would be based on the context of the project's surroundings.
Form-based codes generally limit the biggest buildings to downtown, with medium-sized developments allowed elsewhere if transit and other infrastructure is available.
Stephenson, an architect who also works as a planning consultant for other municipalities, thinks it's the missing ingredient in Raleigh that could provide predictability to developers and neighbors—instead of the regular rezoning shootouts for which the city's known.
Stephenson says that as much as 70 percent of the city's projected growth over the next 20 years, from just under 400,000 residents to roughly 620,000, could be accommodated in well-planned transit districts, sharply cutting car trips while protecting the city's rural areas in the bargain.
The planning staff generally agrees, though after it discussed steering two-thirds of new growth toward transit, it is now using a 50 percent figure, as Bowers did at Eastgate.
The reason to aim at the 70 percent level, Stephenson says, is that it's "the most efficient way to grow and keep taxes down while maintaining Raleigh's quality of life." But hitting it, he added, must not come at the expense of established neighborhoods and requires clear transition standards.
"Don't expect vague policy statements like 'manage impacts' and 'reasonable limits' to work," he adds, pointing to some language in the plan. "Based on my experience as a member of the planning commission and of the council, what's 'reasonable' will come down to who in the room has the biggest stick."
The second Council meetings on the comprehensive plan is Thursday, Aug. 13, at City Hall, at 6:30 p.m. It will focus on Southwest Raleigh, where the conflicts between the FLUM, neighborhoods and transit planning are also expected to be a hot topic. Mayor Charles Meeker is pushing for Council adoption of the plan before the Oct. 6 council elections.