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Planning Philosophy

In November, 1996 the Town of Huntersville discarded its old zoning ordinance and replaced it with a new ordinance modeled upon the principles of traditional town planning. The following sections will give you an overview of the ordinance, Huntersville's regional context, and the factors which will shape the Town's growth into the next century.

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1. Planning Philosophy Fundamentals 

2. Growth and Regional Context

3. Valuing the Small Town Lifestyle

4. Features of the Development Code

5. Establishing Land Use Patterns to Support Rapid Transit

6. Moving Ahead

7. The Challenge of Preserving Rural Heritage

8. Zoning Ordinance Highlights

9. Design Features Mandated by Huntersville's Ordinance


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PLANNING PHILOSOPHY FUNDAMENTALS

In November, 1996 the Town of Huntersville adopted new ordinances to guide the development of our community. These ordinances reflect the Town’s new focus: coordinating growth based upon the time-honored principles of traditional town planning. Simply put, the elected officials and the committee that prepared the new regulations determined that Huntersville would not be consumed by the same suburban sprawl that has already engulfed large portions of the Charlotte region. The Towns of Cornelius and Davidson have adopted similar policies; together, the three towns cover 100 square miles of Mecklenburg County. This large area will, over time, evolve in a manner substantially different from the pattern that dominates the rest of the Charlotte metropolitan region.

"Sprawl" is the term used to characterize the predominant pattern of development that has occurred over the last five decades in the United States. This pattern is typically marked by the following characteristics:

development at very low land-consuming densities;

eradication of farmland and other open spaces that define the character of a community;

zoning codes that mandate rigid separation of land uses;
expensive reliance on the automobile as the only viable transportation option;

minimal pedestrian amenities;

expensive extensions of water, sewer and road systems to serve far-flung development;

houses arranged around cul-de-sacs rather than interconnected streets;

look-alike strip malls as opposed to traditional village centers; and

urban traffic volumes in non-urban settings as suburb-to-suburb commutes become more prevalent.

Of great concern to the individuals who drafted Huntersville’s new growth policies was the fact that suburban sprawl oftentimes eradicates a town’s uniqueness by establishing conventional building patterns that disrespect the existing fabric of the community. Huntersville has, until very recently, been a small rural town with a modest central business district, numerous working farms, and extensive woodlands. Certainly no one expects Huntersville to remain this way forever---but there are steps that can be taken to accommodate new development that respects the values and characteristics that are unique to Huntersville.

The irony of most suburban development is that it often promises "life in the country" but typically delivers a finished product that, when combined with other suburban development, eliminates the "country" characteristics that drew new residents and businesses in the first place.

On the following page are some of the philosophies that will guide the growth of Huntersville into the next century and which are embodied in our existing zoning and subdivision regulations.

Huntersville’s planning policies embrace a number of fundamental concepts:

Growth---a great deal of it---is coming to Huntersville as landowners continue to sell properties to developers in this vibrant market. Therefore, the Town must be proactive in its approach to guiding this development in a sustainable and efficient manner. The Town’s sphere of influence covers 64 square miles; some estimates place Huntersville’s ultimate population well over 100,000.

Each new park, house, school, store, and road—in its small way—incrementally---helps to build our community. This perspective requires the Town’s decision-makers to view each new development proposal in a larger context rather than as a stand-alone, isolated "pod" that bears no relationship to its neighbors.

The suburban sprawl model will not be the guiding principle of Huntersville’s growth. While this model does provide some short-term advantages, it produces many more long-term inefficiencies related to infrastructure maintenance, environmental degradation, and loss of community character. Huntersville’s adoption of traditional town planning principles is therefore grounded in economics as well as aesthetics.

Streets are the fundamental building blocks of the community and will be inviting public places that respect the pedestrian and accommodate the automobile. Streets in Huntersville are required to connect to one another. Doing so assists in the dispersion of traffic and fosters pedestrianism. Connected streets provide numerous avenues for emergency access. Through streets do not have to be dangerous high-speed raceways—traffic calming measures can be implemented to achieve the same design speeds found along cul-de-sacs. There is no evidence to support the assertion that connecting streets increases crime and lowers property values. Careful and conscientious design is the key.

Huntersville will generally concentrate higher-density development where existing highways and future rail lines are located. Rural areas—many of which lie in state-protected watersheds---should experience less development, more open space preservation, and the establishment of small, walkable village centers as an alternative to wall-to-wall subdivisions. The Town must always respect the rights of individual property owners to develop their land, but to do so in accordance with growth policies established by the Town’s elected officials.

Huntersville will work to design communities that are transit-supportive wherever possible. The Town cannot rely solely on the private automobile forever and must constantly study the important link between land use and transportation. It is impossible to build one’s way out of congestion by constructing more and more roads while ignoring land use patterns. Other transportation alternatives will be pursued (buses, rail service, paratransit) that can be used to mitigate congestion and offer alternatives to residents that are unable to depend on the private automobile.

It is not unreasonable to declare that Huntersville should be a distinct and beautiful community, as well as an efficiently-run and responsive municipal operation. For example, while the Town does not regulate architectural style, the community has every right to demand the highest level of excellence in building design, streetscapes, pedestrian amenities, preservation of special places, and enhancement of community distinctiveness.

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GROWTH AND REGIONAL CONTEXT

The Town of Huntersville is one of three small towns in north Mecklenburg County. It lies along Interstate 77, just 12 miles north of Charlotte's center city and 20 minutes from Charlotte-Douglas International Airport. It is within a 10-minute drive of Lake Norman, a major recreation area. Historically an agricultural community with a small textile mill and a modest commercial area along a north-south railroad spur, Huntersville remained insulated from metropolitan area growth until the late 1980's. However with the advent of the 1990's, growth exploded, resulting in a 728% population increase from 1990 to 2000. The 2010 census figure for the Town's population is 46,773. Our ETJ has an estimated additional 2,994 people. Town development regulations govern an area of approximately 64 square miles, which includes the corporate town limits and a large extraterritorial zoning jurisdiction (ETJ). Along with the towns of Davidson and Cornelius, its neighbors on to the north, Huntersville has dramatically remodeled its development regulations following a multi-year process of public participation.

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VALUING THE SMALL TOWN LIFESTYLE

In an effort to preserve the small town quality of life and avoid the faceless suburban sprawl consuming the Charlotte region, town officials initiated a strategic land plan. The plan, developed during 1994-95, established a vision for the physical development of the town and surrounds, then defined a series of action steps to move the area toward that vision. A one-year moratorium on new development was enacted to forestall additional devastation of the countryside until a new code of development regulations could be drafted and adopted. By the end of 1996, the new code was in place. It requires that new and infill development follow the principles of traditional development in the town’s urbanized area. It shapes development patterns to anchor the town on a proposed rapid rail corridor along the little-used north-south rail spur, and makes an initial attempt to preserve rural vistas in outlying areas east and west of the town.

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FEATURES OF THE DEVELOPMENT CODE

The new development code is performance-based, with stringent urban design requirements. All new developments must be built on a fine-grained network of low-speed pedestrian-oriented public streets that are configured into blocks and connected into adjacent properties. The result, over time, will be an interconnected street system that is safe and accessible to pedestrians and cyclists, as well as automobiles. However, having met the requirements for streets and other public spaces, the developer finds immense flexibility to meet market demands for housing type, housing density, and mixed uses. For example, the predominant in-town residential zoning district is not regulated by housing density or by minimum lot size. Density in this district is irrelevant.

As a matter of right, apartments or other forms of attached housing may constitute up to 30 percent of the housing units in a major subdivision. Apartments and attached homes are permitted by-right on individual infill lots. Each single family home, attached or detached, is allowed one accessory dwelling, unrestricted as to occupancy. At urban intersections and along major streets, commercial uses with second floor apartments are permitted by-right. If developers take advantage of the ordinance’s flexibility, housing should become more accessible to a broad spectrum people of various incomes and ages. Small-scale commercial uses providing opportunities for shopping and employment will be located within easy walking distance of homes. This development form also reduces the likelihood that new housing will be formed into pockets of economic homogeneity. The most touted new development project in Huntersville includes a variety of housing types and small commercial buildings, and makes seamless street connections into an existing low to moderate-income minority neighborhood.

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ESTABLISHING LAND USE PATTERNS
TO SUPPORT RAPID TRANSIT

The development code seeks to establish a land use pattern supportive of future transit service among the towns of North Mecklenburg and the City of Charlotte. In addition to the permissive densities allowed throughout the "urban" area of the town, sites within a quarter mile of proposed transit stops are not restricted as to housing type. By eliminating the political storms that often accompany attempts at multi-family rezoning, the town hopes to increase development interest in dense housing within a five-minute walk of transit stations. The urban design requirements remain stringent, however, with all buildings, regardless of type, respectful of the scale and massing of its neighbors and arranged in an orderly fashion along streets designed for pedestrian comfort. Since successful transit systems require a healthy percentage of walk-in riders, we believe that what is good for pedestrians is good for public transportation.

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MOVING AHEAD

Huntersville is an enthusiastic partner with Charlotte and the five other towns in Mecklenburg County to develop an integrated transit/land plan for rapid transit. The north corridor, because of its rapid growth and transit-friendly land plans, is a viable candidate for the first commuter rail line in the region. The north Mecklenburg County towns are also partnering in a related effort to develop detailed urban design plans for future station areas.

As we look to the 30-year future, the advantages of applying sustainable development principles are clear. The windfall economic development being experienced in Huntersville is the direct result of offering a small town quality of life in proximity to a major urban area. However the practice of suburban sprawl is fully ingrained in the thinking of designers, developers, builders, and financial institutions. Shaping new development to fit town goals for sustainability requires constant redirection of the professionals who work in our region. We remind each developer that he is building a piece of the town. After years of experience with the new development code, we see projects of substantially better quality underway. The work required to redirect building and development practices appears to be well worth the effort.

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THE CHALLENGE OF PRESERVING RURAL HERITAGE

To reach a sustainable future, the majority of new development in and around Huntersville must be steered to those areas targeted for urban development, where pedestrian access to jobs and goods is practical, where service and intrastructure provision is economical, and where population concentrations can be efficiently served by the proposed commuter rail line and its feeder buses. So hand in hand with flexible density standards in the urban districts, the Strategic Land Plan sought to preserve some semblance of the town's rural heritage and create an "edge" which marks the line between "town" and "country". Thus the still rural areas are seen as appropriate for the compact village or hamlet, nestled in the landscape.

Toward that goal, the new development code promotes open space preservation in outlying areas with incentives for compact development sited to maintain rural vistas.

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ZONING ORDINANCE HIGHLIGHTS

Principles of traditional American town-building have guided the development of the Huntersville Zoning and Subdivision Ordinances. Standards promote a well-connected system of low-speed streets, faced with buildings and accented with sidewalks and street tree. Streets are designed for the comfort of the pedestrian and the cyclist as well as for the efficient distribution of traffic. Mixed uses of similar scale may be placed in proximity to one another providing pedestrians accessibility to shops and services, as well as their neighbors. An identifiable public realm is the focus of the planning and development process. It is composed of streets, parks, squares, and other forms of open space, which provide opportunities for recreation and an active community life.

The zoning ordinance establishes three primarily residential districts, three mixed-use districts, and three commercial districts. In addition, overlay districts provide for traditional neighborhood development, mountain island lake water quality protection, and appropriate siting of manufactured home neighborhoods.

The general zoning districts are as follows:

The neighborhood residential district (NR) provides for a pattern of infill housing in and around the traditional town center, future neighborhood centers, and along the rail line, designated for future transit service. Density and lot size are not regulated in the NR district. Development is regulated by building type. This district replaces single-family and multi-family districts found near the center of the jurisdiction.

The rural district (R) is provided to encourage the development of neighborhoods and rural compounds that set aside significant natural vistas and landscape features for permanent conservation. Development typologies associated with the Rural District are farms, the single house, the conservation subdivision, the farmhouse cluster, and the residential neighborhood.

The transitional residential district (TR) serves as a bridge between rural zones and more urbanized development. It is provided to encourage the development of neighborhoods and rural compounds that set aside significant natural vistas and landscape features for permanent conservation. Densities are higher and open space is less than what is found in the Rural District. Development typologies associated with the Transitional District are farms, the single house, the conservation subdivision, the farmhouse cluster, and the residential neighborhood.

The general residential district (GR) is applied to existing subdivisions (built or approved) to provide for build-out of each according to its approved plan.

The town center district (TC) provides for revitalization, reuse, and mixed-use infill development in Huntersville's town center. The district accommodates the higher overall intensity of development required to support a vibrant center and a future regional transit station.

The neighborhood center district (NC) provides for shops, services, small workplaces, civic, and residential buildings to anchor residential neighborhoods.

The campus institutional district (CI) provides for large institutional complexes, which, because of the scale of the buildings cannot be fully integrated into the fabric of the community.

The highway commercial district (HC) provides for businesses that are predominantly auto-dependent; such businesses serve the interstate traveler as well as the Huntersville community and are unlikely to provide a comfortable pedestrian environment.

In the corporate business district (CB) the predominant use is that of the large workplace, which, because of the scale of the buildings, cannot be fully integrated into the fabric of the community. This district takes the place of Business Park and Light Industrial districts.

The special purpose district (SP) is established to accommodate uses that have greater than average impact on the environment or on nearby properties. This district replaces the Heavy Industrial district and also provides a place for extremely large retail stores.

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DESIGN FEATURES MANDATED BY HUNTERSVILLE’S ORDINANCES

  • Delineate town and country. Regulations work in concert with the zoning map to strengthen the identity of Huntersville by delineating clear edges to town development while providing for a more rural-appearing landscape punctuated by pockets of development.
  • Build a public realm. A consciously conceived public realm must be provided to strengthen and enliven the public life of the town. Town streets in combination with squares, greens, parks, or plazas should be designed into each project. 
  • Connect pedestrian-friendly streets. The classification of town streets is found in the zoning ordinance; it supplements, but does not replace, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg-NCDOT classification of thoroughfares. Town streets are characterized by low-speed geometry and the presence of sidewalks and street trees. Space for parallel parking is provided where on-street parking will meet the day-to-day needs of adjoining development. Town streets are fully connected in a system of blocks, creating a fine-grained network to disperse traffic and meet the mobility needs of vehicles, pedestrians, and bicyclists. Street design should incorporate traffic calming intersections to forestall high-speed through traffic opportunities in neighborhoods. 
  • Enclose streets with buildings to create the public space of the street. Buildings should have consistent set backs and be aligned along the streets. In urban, village, or hamlet settings, buildings will be close to the street. In less urban settings, a larger setback is permitted as long as regular rows of large maturing street trees are provided to form the vertical edge of the street. Parking is placed behind buildings. 
  • Maintain compatible building relationships along streets. Buildings of similar scale are placed alongside and across the street from one another. Changes in building scale should be negotiated at mid-block (i.e. at back property lines). This technique reduces dependency on wide buffers to separate variously sized buildings and differing uses. 
  • Screen unattractive uses thoroughly. Dense screening of parking lots and other unsightly areas of projects provides good visual separation without space-consuming buffers.
  • Mix housing types. Infrastructure cost is offset and affordable housing is encouraged by allowing a broad mixture of lot sizes and housing types in the residential districts.
  • Design buildings to respect human scale. Rigorous attention must be paid to the scale and massing of buildings and the character of pedestrian entrances along streets. Appearance standards are provided to allow for a mixture of uses and housing types while maintaining compatible relationships among buildings. 
  • The Rural District (R) is provided to encourage the development of neighborhoods and rural compounds that set aside significant natural vistas and landscape features for permanent conservation. Development typologies associated with the Rural District are farms, the single house, the conservation subdivision, the farmhouse cluster, and the residential neighborhood.
  • Thoroughly buffer uses that disregard the human scale. Most non-residential land uses can be integrated into the townscape by regulating building placement, massing, and scale. However rigorous conditions and large buffers apply to uses that cannot respect human scale or may detract from neighborhood livability. These include big box retail, quarries, commercial communication towers, various waste handling facilities, junk yards, outdoor storage, and the like.

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