First Do No Harm?

By. Neil Williamson

In last week’s Albemarle County Planning Commission meeting, one commissioner raised the idea that the Commission should, like in the hippocratic oath, first do no harm when considering land use decisions.  This analogy is interesting, let’s take it a bit further. 

If an automobile accident victim is still in the car and the vehicle is on fire, there is a danger in moving the victim but there is also a danger in doing nothing.  The fire is the more immediate and dire threat, a judgement call must be made and getting the victim to safety outweighs the danger of additional injury.

Too often in planning commission reviews,  the focus is subjectively reviewing the plan the applicant brings forward vs the existing conditions rather than understanding the applicant’s  “By-Right” option. Time after time we hear the planning commission provide the direction to applicants to come back with a “better” plan, despite the plan that was presented was vetted with staff first.  Even in the second or third planning commission review, we often hear “this plan has come a long way, but I still think you can do more”.

If an owner becomes frustrated with the unpredictable byzantine approval process and chooses to go with the existing zoning; this will likely result in a less desirable form of development.  A combative, confusing regulatory environment (where staff direction, commission direction, and board approval are not in synch) likely increases the number of the “less desirable By-Right” developments. 

The Free Enterprise Forumasks, if an increase of “By Right” developments is the end result, generating lower desity and a different form than prescribed by the Comprehensive Plan,  how does this measure up to the  goal of  “First, Do No Harm”?

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