Too Much Planning?

This morning’s Daily Progress featured a column by George Will mentioned Friedrich Hayek’s description of the “Fatal Conceit” – the idea that government can know the future’s possibilities and can and should control the future’s agenda.

Considering Hayek’s position and the high level of planning in Albemarle County – with 50 planning commission meetings annually and 22 Entrance Corridors regulated by the Architectural Review Board – raises the question, can there be such a thing as too much planning? 

If one multifaceted governmental review of a proposal is good, shouldn’t ten make the proposal ten times better?  Or, is there a point of diminishing return on time (and tax dollars)? 

On May 21, 2008, The Albemarle County Board of Supervisors, Planning Commission, and Architectural Review Board held their first joint meeting since 2005.  The meeting, in part, was a reply from the Development Review Task Force report created to evaluate the development approval process.

The majority of the meeting included presentations explaining the process and allowing staff to identify where potential time savings can be made. 

Staff was concerned about applicants who do not include all the items on the development submission checklist.  They explained that the checklist is provided as a guide but if an applicant turns in the application without everything they still must accept it.  One board member suggested writing an ordinance to require those items.  Another board member was concerned that if that was done the locality could not then ask for additional information.  This item, as with all others introduced at this meeting will be continued in a future meeting.

In one of the more interesting slides of the day, staff highlighted that many localities Albemarle County often compares itself to only hold Planning Commission meetings once a month.  Albemarle County Planning Commission meets once a week.  In addition to the considerable time commitment of Planning Commissioners, the staff time to prepare for a planning commission meeting is enormous.  One solution discussed was increasing the number of proposals that can be handled under administrative review (eroding Planning Commission/Board of Supervisors power).  Projects that are administratively approved require half the staff time of projects that go to the Planning Commission. 

After the staff presentations, Paul Wright of the Architectural Review Board presented a number of concerns the ARB has with the current processes.  These concerns included enforcement and an inability of the ARB under its current powers to control the skyline within the entrance corridors.

The resulting discussion changed the course of the meeting entirely.  Rather than looking for ways to streamline the development review process and improve public understanding, the members of the ARB pressed for more power.  In addition they expressed concerns that they were the last consulted regarding one of the County’s own projects Albemarle High School expansion.  One member of the ARB suggested they should be consulted on every building the County has an interest in.

Thus a meeting designated to discuss streamlining development approvals devolved into a conversation creating new time intensive initatives and possibly expanding ARB powers. 

The results of the meeting are more meetings to evaluate the ARB proposal and the staff proposals.

The ARB is an advisory board on matters in the entrance corridor overlay district to the Planning Commission and The Board of Supervisors.  The Free Enterprise Forum has previously expressed concern over the number of roadways that are now considered Entrance Corridors (22).  Not satisfied with expanding their powers geographically, The Free Enterprise Forum believes the ARB is accelerating toward expanding its “advisory” powers.  Such an expansion should be approached with great trepidation.

Again quoting Nobel Laurate Economist Friedrich Hayek,

“What our generation has forgotten is that the system of private property is the most important guarantee of freedom, not only for those who own property, but scarcely less for those who do not. It is only because the control of the means of production is divided among many people acting independently that nobody has complete power over us, that we as individuals can decide what to do with ourselves

We shall never prevent the abuse of power if we are not prepared to limit power in a way which occasionally may prevent its use for desirable purposes.” –The Road to Serfdom, 1944 



  1. I think having a long complicated and unclear process ultimately makes the situation worse for everyone. As an environmentalist, I see alot of value in setting clear guidlines that people either meet, or don’t. After all, how can I expect a developer to meet an environmental goal that isn’t openly stated? How can we provide incentives for people doing things the “right” way, when there’s no way for them to know if they’ll face just as many hurdles as everyone else?

    I’d like to see the checklist required, and a score attached to each section. Basically, then each project would be issued a “grade”. This would provide a level of objectivity that is currently lacking in the process. It would also result in a means of comparing different projects, and more uniform application of ordinances. If we then have issues with the way developers are developing, then we could adjust the checklist accordingly.

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