Economic Development – it’s not a Department it’s a Philosophy

 By. Neil Williamson, President

Everyone is in Sales. From the person who answers the phone, the person who delivers the product, to the folks in accounting who issue the invoices  and everyone in between. Each and every person has an impact on if our clients choose to buy from us.” – A former boss

I was reminded of this advice during last night’s (11/10) Albemarle County Planning Commission meeting.  My boss was talking about the best way to keep clients was to make sure everyone in the organization was focused on meeting the client needs (thus driving sales).  The same could be said for municipality economic development ideals.  Clearly education and public safety are critical parts of creating an positive environment where business can thrive but so are clear, predictable regulatory programs as well as a business friendly mentality within government.

It two very different discussions, it was clear the current Albemarle County Planning Commission sees its role as one of “protecting the citizens from economic development” not “encouraging the type of development the community desires”.

Wineries Work Session

In response to state legislation (designed to keep localities oichardonnayut of the regulation of farm wineries), Albemarle County is attempting to regulate the hours of tasting room operation, the number of people attending events, as well as some of the activities that occur on the farm wineries. Albemarle believes this is within their scope of “Health, Safety, and Welfare”.

After several wineries spoke regarding the history of the state legislation and the significant negative impact of the regulations on their businesses, one commissioner suggested that it was well and good what the wineries think they got passed in Richmond, but that’s “not how our county attorney interprets the legislation”.

This is the legislation requiring interpretation:

Virginia Code 15.2-2288.3 Licensed farm wineries; local regulation of certain activities.

“Usual and customary activities at farm wineries shall be permitted without local regulation unless there is a significant impact on the health, safety, or welfare of the public.”

Many questions were asked about what goes on by right on farm wineries but interestingly not much was mentioned about other by rural by right uses. Therefore if you are a neighboring parcel, you could invite hundreds of friends to a field party everyday without a special zoning clearance but if you place a winery on the parcel you now have an additional regulatory burden to bear.

One winery owner related to the Free Enterprise Forum that the Health Department mandated he install a septic system with the capacity to handle 200 people an hour using the bathroom for 8 hours every day. For special events, Albemarle County would like to limit that number to 50 without additional zoning clearance.

A Planning Commission with an economic development philosophy would recognize the significant tourism benefit that is derived from having farm wineries making the rural areas financially viable and would be seeking ways to help them. Instead, the current protective philosophy, sees only the trouble and none of the benefits of winery operations.

Is it any wonder there is a strong concentration of wineries just over the border in wine friendly Nelson County?

Zoning Fee Inflation

While some localities are slashing their building permit fees (Charlottesville in ½) and others are holding a “fee holiday” reducing planning fees to encourage commercial development (Chesterfield County), Albemarle County’s Planning Commission has recommended not increasing zoning fees until July 1, 2010.

In addition, the Planning Commission chose to move forward with the lower zoning fees that were suggested by staff and sent down from the Board of Supervisors rather than the inflated fees advertised for public hearing.

On the one hand, I applaud the concept of postponing the implementation of fee increases but I hardly think an extension of 150 days (Staff requested February Implementation) provides significant economic opportunity window. 

A Planning Commission with an economic development philosophy would recognize (and perhaps quantify) the positive economic impact of zoning changes and would proposes a 12 or 28 month delay in fee implementation. In addition such a forward thinking commission would aggressively review the 120 items that are part of the zoning reviews to determine if all these steps are needed.

Example – If a licensed Professional Engineer has calculated the storm water runoff using an accepted software program, should the county engineering department spend half a day to rerun those calculations by hand?

Economic development is tied to the community vision as expressed in the comprehensive plan. As landowners consider the development of their property they will consider the risks and rewards associated with going through the often subjective rezoning process. Increased fees will only increase the cost of rezoning and may result in many more projects going forward based on their underlying zoning, not in agreement with the comprehensive plan.

Consider the chart below from Saint Paul, Minnesota, They have married the planning and economic development departments.  How do you think that would work in Albemarle County?

Economic Development Partners

Albemarle County’s current Planning Commission does not have an economic development philosophy. The Free Enterprise Forum asks all supervisors across the region as they consider Planning Commission and other appointments that they weigh each candidate’s concern for the community’s economic vitality as a part of their evaluation process.

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20070731williamson Neil Williamson is the President of The Free Enterprise Forum, a public policy organization covering the City of Charlottesville as well as Albemarle, Greene, Fluvanna and Nelson County.  For more information visit the website www.freeenterpriseforum.org

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