If Charlottesville truly wants the Department of Neighborhood Development Services to improve its efficiency, the director says the city must update its zoning ordinance.
“The city’s zoning ordinance is a wastebasket of errors,” said NDS Director Alex Ikefuna at a Wednesday city council work session.
The work session was held at the Charlottesville Albemarle Technical Education Center to discuss a progress on recommendations from a study of the department.
The city paid Novak Consulting Group $42,000 last year to review the department, which primarily deals with land-use requests. The study, completed in February, built on a separate evaluation of the efficiency of the city government as a whole, which cost $101,250.
Most of the evaluation focused on the development approval process and ways to improve the department’s work.
The firm worked with NDS staff, community groups and developers on the study.
The study found several issues in the department, including a reliance on paper documents, a lack of centralized data and heavy workloads.
The firm had eight recommendations: create a support services manager; reallocate job duties; rebalance assigned areas; add a new planner; establish protocols for council inquiries; create a comment review meeting; improve technology and develop performance measures.
On Wednesday, Ikefuna said job duties have been reallocated and neighborhood assignments have been rebalanced. NDS has also started tracking workloads, upgraded its computers and revised the application process so a comment review meeting can be requested.
The department is holding off on hiring a new planner until a civil engineer can be hired, which was recommended in the original study. NDS also is waiting for funding to hire a manager.
During a presentation about the study, Councilor Kathy Galvin was concerned the changes would only expedite the improvement process without improving it.
Ikefuna said the issue comes from the city’s zoning ordinance. He provided an example that the zoning administrator must have the city attorney sign off on all zoning letters, which isn’t “best practice.”
“We are going to continue to have a problem,” Ikefuna said.
Ikefuna said the ongoing update to the city’s comprehensive plan could guide positive change to the ordinance.
Galvin appreciated Ikefuna’s direct response.
“Without that comment,” Galvin said, “it seemed like we were just going to be doing bad stuff faster.”
Galvin focused her questions on a part of the study that looked at community responses to a survey about interactions with the department.
Staff at the front desk, in building code and inspections and property maintenance code enforcement were lauded in the survey. Respondents also said the city provided plentiful information on affordable housing and was efficient at neighborhood outreach.
The engineering department didn’t fare as well, with more than half of respondents saying comments from staff during plan review are “unhelpful.” The survey carried similar results for transportation and traffic engineering.
“[M]ost respondents do not find staff comments helpful and believe staff could be more responsive to customer requests,” the study says.
The planning and development review process received mostly negative feedback. While respondents had little issue with staff, the process itself was an issue.
“More than three-quarters of respondents believe development regulations are a hindrance to development and are dissatisfied with the current development review process, from intergovernmental coordination to stormwater regulations,” the study says.
In contrast, the process for work on historic properties wasn’t an issue, but staff comments weren’t helpful, the survey found. Respondents also said zoning issues aren’t “handled effectively” and comments are unhelpful.
“Those interactions also have a big impact on the efficiency [of the] development process,” said interim City Manager Mike Murphy.
Staff also discussed implementing a software upgrade that will include the Public Works Department. Public Works Director Paul Oberdorfer said having a unified system helps efficiency in both departments because their duties often overlap.
The software would allow more public access to the development review process, but likely won’t be installed until 2020.