By. Neil Williamson, President
Prior to reading this commentary, it is important to note that United States Route 29 is a north south highway of “national significance”.
Launched in May 2005, the first few chapters of Albemarle County’s highly touted planning boondogle known as Places 29 are finally headed to a planning commission public hearing on Tuesday, February 10th. This joint project between The Virginia Department of Transportation and Albemarle County marked an important link between land use planning and transportation planning. When the program was announced, we registered our skeptisim regarding the shotgun marriage of these two disciplines. After four years, with all due respect, we believe this marriage has failed.
When the plan was announced The Free Enterprise Forum provided significant public comment. Our concerns focused on the integrity of the process considering the impacts of all Albemarle County residents within and outside of the study area. In addition, we highlighted our 2004 survey which found:
55% of all residents in the Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA) found US 29 traffic to be a major issue. A full 42% of those surveyed indicated they sometimes avoided social activities or visiting businesses on US Route 29 in Charlottesville due to traffic.
In their infinite wisdom, the Albemarle County’s Planning Commission appointed itself as the steering committee for this project. This seemingly self important decision likeily delayed the process by at least 10 months due to the unique meeting requirements of the Planning Commission.
This evening (2/9/09) The Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) held a public input session regarding the blueprint for the US 29 corridor. Many asked questions regarding the viability of a Bypass around Charlottesville. I will be most interested to see what VDOT doeswith this public comment (and the comments from those communities south of Charlottesville demanding a bypass). I was encouraged to hear that the Commonwealth Transportation Board Member Butch Davies as well as at least one (perhaps more) members of the Albemarle Board of Supervisors were in attendance at the meeting.
After Tuesday’s Places 29 public hearing, The Free Enterprise Forum is calling on all planning commissioners to consider the Hippocratic oath regarding the potential of the Places 29 plan — First do no harm. A quick review would find much at risk in the North US 29 corridor.
In a 2007 study conducted by the Free Enterprise Forum for the North Charlottesville Business Council tracked the economic impact of the North 29 area. The Workplace 29 report found:
Workplace 29contributes over 45% of Albemarle County’s local tax revenue from less than 2% of the land area.
Workplace 29 supports approximately 20,000 jobs (including mine) and provides over $800 million dollars in annual salaries to these workers.
Non residential properties in Workplace 29 equate to .4% of Albemarle County’s land area and generate 60% of the non-residential taxes levied.
The Places 29 plan seeks address transportation challenges by building a limited access expressway through the center of Albemarle County’s main street and requesting/demanding land use changes from private property owners that may or may not be in the property owners financial best interest.
After almost four years of gestation, one would have hoped for a much more comprehensive, detailed plan for the corridor. Instead, we have been told a number of Small Area Plans (SAPs) will be required to achieve any actionable level of detail. This seems like a planner employement bill — countless small area plans to create the illusion we are moving forward with something — since there is no money to actually build anything.
Clearly, the Places 29 planning team has produced this report wearing pollyanish rose colored glasses. It is incumbent on The Albemarle County Planning Commission and The Albemarle County Board of Supervisors to consider how this overly ambitious (and woefully unfunded) implmentation plan could impact their current citizens and resident businesses (and the subsequent impact to their tax base).
Perhaps such consideration will serve as windsheild wiper fluid to provide a clear vision of how US 29 may continue to serve as the economic engine/main street of Albemarle County and provide easier passage to those without business in Albemarle County to more efficeintly reach their destination.
Regrettably, this may be too much to anticipate from this plannng exercise.