Monthly Archives: February, 2010

If a Band Plays a New Urbanist Venue, Does it Make a Noise?

By. Neil Williamson, President

Over the past few weeks, the Charlottesville City Council has heard an “earful” from musicians, restaurateurs, and neighbors about noise in the Belmont neighborhood

The Belmont community consists of primarily  two “1890’s era subdivisions, “Belmont” and “Carlton”. The neighborhood has experienced significant increases  in affluence in recent years.  In agreement with their comprehensive vision of building a walkable, sustainable community, City Council designated Belmont to be a priority neighborhood for improvements from 1996-1999, which according to the City website:

resulted in enhancements such as new paved crosswalks, street trees and planters in “Downtown Belmont.” The Neighborhood has a mixture of housing with corner convenience stores scattered throughout

City Council also permitted the conversion of several buildings into restaurants to generate more mixed use in this neighborhood.

The Free Enterprise Forum believes the concern about noise calls into question the concept of mixing residential and commercial uses that is critical to the theology of New Urbanism. 

For those unfamiliar the philosophical underpinnings, here are three of the top ten principles from

1. Walkability
-Most things within a 10-minute walk of home and work
-Pedestrian friendly street design (buildings close to street; porches, windows & doors; tree-lined streets; on street parking; hidden parking lots; garages in rear lane; narrow, slow speed streets)
-Pedestrian streets free of cars in special cases

3. Mixed-Use & Diversity
-A mix of shops, offices, apartments, and homes on site. Mixed-use within neighborhoods, within blocks, and within buildings
-Diversity of people – of ages, income levels, cultures, and races

7. Increased Density
-More buildings, residences, shops, and services closer together for ease of walking, to enable a more efficient use of services and resources, and to create a more convenient, enjoyable place to live.

In seven years of listening to project reviews and examining architectural renderings, the Free Enterprise Forum has never seen a rendering featuring the nightlife of a mixed use community.  Usually the renderings feature sidewalk cafes, perhaps with a nice dog in the picture and folks having coffee just steps away from their loft.

urban frontage

The image to the left is part of Places 29 a planners’ vision for future development along Airport Road in Albemarle County.

Note the wide sidewalk cafe seating, apartments over retail, and yes, a nice dog behaving well tied to a street tree.

What if one of the new retail spaces chooses to offer live music to go along with their lattes?  Will the existing noise ordinances cover residences that are in the same building as the restaurant that is providing a live music venue?

Back to the Belmont neighborhood, property prices have increased in recent years, some may claim the increase in value is due to the revitalization of opening up commercial uses in the neighborhood.  Others believe their home values are being diminished because of the late night activity and noise. 

Are the residential property owners who spent thousands of dollars to remodel their home expecting to live in a quiet neighborhood setting, right in their opposition to restaurants in their district staying open late into the evening/early morning?

What of the commercial property owners who spent thousands of dollars to remodel their buildings to open an enterprise (generate tax revenue, provide jobs, within walking distance) as supported by the City’s Vision?

Or, is it possible, such divergent uses should be separated to prevent such conflict?

The question remains, should residential be mixed with livelive music music and Mojitos?small house 



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


Albemarle Seeks to Redefine Family


By. Neil Williamson, President

Albemarle County is seeking to restrict the number of unrelated persons living in a rural area home by redefining “family”.  The proposal, which was deferred by the Planning Commission last week (2/16), would seek to limit any rural area dwelling unit to no more than 2 unrelated persons living together as a single housekeeping unit.  In addition, the ZTA would seek to limit the number of “families” to one per dwelling unit.

The current Zoning Ordinance, enacted in 1978, allows up to six unrelated people to reside together as a single housekeeping unit.

The Free Enterprise Forum is concerned about the true goals of the ordinance, the impact on rural “families” that do not meet this new definition, the effective reduction of affordable housing, the enforcement challenges of the proposal, as well as the liability  impact on rural landlords.

The True Goals of the Ordinance

Albemarle County’s Board of Supervisors’ Resolution of Intent indicates that:

Whereas, the current definition of “family” in the Albemarle County Zoning Ordinance has two meanings depending on the zoning district to which it is applied, and these varied meanings allow a dwelling unit to be more intensely occupied within some districts than in others; and

Whereas, the impacts resulting from a family’s occupation of a dwelling unit are generally the same in all zoning districts; and

Whereas, it is desired to amend the Zoning Ordinance’s definition of “family” to establish a single meaning applicable in all zoning districts. 

The Free Enterprise Forum disagrees with the second Whereas regarding a family’s impact. 

  • The rural areas are not served by Albemarle County Service Authority thus the impact of a family on the community water system is zero. 
  • In the rural areas where most lots exceed 2 acres in size, the impact of a family on its neighbors is significantly less than a condominium or townhouse.  

If my family enjoys an evening of country clogging in the kitchen of my rural home it will disturb fewer people than if we practice in a top floor condominium on Rio Road.The Free Enterprise Forum contends the impacts resulting from a family’s occupation of a dwelling unit are DIFFERENT dependent on zoning classification.

Initially reading this Resolution of Intent made this seem like a legal housekeeping measure rather a significant change in rural area policy.   

The Free Enterprise Forum fears that a careful reading of the ordinance and examination of the “families” impacted may draw one to a conclusion that the goal of this ZTA is to effectively eliminate certain socio-economic groups from Albemarle via zoning changes.

The Impact on Rural Families

Often the best way to examine a proposal is to take it out for a “test drive”.  ZTA-2009-019 would likely eliminate the following housing opportunities:

  • Three UVA law school students sharing a farm house
  • An unmarried farm couple taking in a renter to make ends meet
  • An unmarried couple hosting an exchange student
  • Three farm workers renting a farm house
  • Two unmarried couples renting a house

Of the five impacts our test drive identified (there are certainly many more), the Free Enterprise Forum finds the loss of farm worker housing to be the most troubling.  Albemarle County’s Comprehensive Plan goals are to support the agricultural uses, with residential uses secondary.  If this ZTA will have negative impact on the availability of farm worker housing, it could be argued that the provision is contrary to the Comprehensive Plan. 

Further, the Free Enterprise Forum is troubled by the concept of pushing farm workers out of the rural areas where they work.  This would likely result in higher labor costs to agricultural enterprises and increased public costs due to transportation network impacts.

Effective Reduction of Affordable Housing Stock

The Free Enterprise Forum appreciates The staff report recognizes but does not quantify a negative impact on affordable housing:

While staff cannot predict the impact on affordable housing, it is possible that there may be implications regarding rental affordability.

Rental housing stock is a critical part of housing affordability.  Based on our anecdotal understanding of the number of rental homes located in the rural areas, we believe “may be implications” is quite an understatement.

Anticipating that those who may need more than two unrelated persons to affordable rent in the rural areas could be pushed out of Albemarle County and into surrounding localities, one should also anticipate greater difficulty finding labor to fill lower rung career ladder jobs.  This would be a loss for the tapestry of our community.

Enforcement Challenges

In Albemarle County, as in most jurisdictions, zoning is enforced on a complaint basis.  To enforce this ordinance, staff would need to determine who is residing at the residence on a regular basis versus who may be a long term visitor.  In addition, the staff time to conduct site visits to make a zoning determination would not be insignificant.

Seeing as the current regulations, allowing up to six unrelated individuals to define a family,  have been on the books since 1978, it is disappointing that there is no grandfathering included in this proposal.

Rural Landlord Liability

Albemarle County’s Zoning Department takes a very pragmatic view processing zoning violations.  Their goal is to resolve the violation.  If a tenant is violating the ordinance and can solve the problem, they deal directly with the tenant and inform the landlord.  If however, the tenant cannot or will not resolve the issue, the property owner is ultimately held responsible.

The Free Enterprise Forum believes that is a rural area dwelling unit can meet the health department standards for well and septic, zoning should not regulate the number of unrelated persons living there.  In the rural areas, the impact of a family of six is very similar to the impact of six unrelated individuals.

As the Resolution of Intent was passed unanimously by the previous Board of Supervisors, the Free Enterprise Forum requests that the new Board of Supervisors weigh in on this issue before significant staff time is spent researching ZTA 2009-019.

If there are not the votes to support such a change, we encourage the Board of Supervisors to direct staff to save precious (and expensive) staff time and drop the issue.

Respectfully Submitted,

Neil Williamson


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

Albemarle Winery Ordinance Improves With Age

By. Neil Williamson, President

Last week (2/16) the Albemarle County Planning Commissionichardonnay held a work session on the revised Farm Wineries ordinance.  While the Free Enterprise Forum was highly critical of the concept of regulating the industry (see Albemarle’s Agricultural Angst post), this proposal has improved dramatically with age.  The Albemarle County wineries are to be commended for productively engaging with staff and planning commissioners regarding their concerns with the proposal.

logo-topmenu Recognizing that Albemarle County is in the heart of the richest appellation in the state, the Monticello Wine Trail, and that winery events are an important revenue stream to keep land in agriculture, the Planning Department staff listened to the concerns of the industry regarding the previous draft ordinance. 

The Free Enterprise Forum agrees with the philosophical underpinnings of this decision.  Staff correctly identified the Comprehensive Plan’s primary purpose of the rural areas is to be supportive of agriculture.  Staff also concluded that winery weddings with under 200 persons attending are usual and customary for farm wineries in the Commonwealth.

Staff believes wineries will seek a single special use permit for all weddings exceeding 200 persons.  Such a special use permit will come before the Planning Commission for approval.  One of the factors for consideration of approval is the frequency of such events.   

The Free Enterprise Forum does not believe this should be a decision point.  If a facility is suited to handled in excess of 200 persons, that same physical plant will be able to do so on a regular basis.  The frequency consideration should be dropped from the special use consideration.  In addition, the enforcement of such frequency conditions will be problematic at best.

Despite this rather technical disagreement with the Special Use portion of the ordinance, the Free Enterprise Forum finds the revised ordinance to be dramatically more winery (and agra-tourism) friendly and applauds the changes that have been made. 

The ordinance will go to Public Hearing at the Planning Commission in March.


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

Just Another Day in Paradise

By William J. Des Rochers, Fluvanna Field Officer

fluvanna sealOn February 18th, Fluvanna’s Board of Supervisors spent the better part of an hour discussing possible changes to the county’s adopted vision statement. Currently it reads: “Fluvanna County  is the most livable and sustainable community in the United States.” No changes were made since at least half of the supervisors seemed to favor the current one. This was the first of three meetings Wednesday evening.

The major news occurred after the regularly scheduled meeting when the Board held a budget work session. The county staff announced that to keep services at current levels, fund proposed capital projects, and the increasing debt payments, the supervisors would have to raise real estate taxes by about $.20 per $100 of assessed valuation, or forty percent over the present $.50 per $100.  To download the current budget book click here (PDF).

This scenario also would require the county to absorb certain state cuts as well. At the other extreme, if the county were to revert to its FY 2005 spending levels, it would require about a 35 percent reduction in spending, excluding debt service.

These assumptions do not address the additional cuts proposed by Governor McDonnell prior to the meeting on February 17th. The presentation was an elaboration upon earlier information and provided parameters not seen before.

For the most part, supervisors kept their counsel, except for supervisor Sean Kenney (Columbia) who stated that he opposed a tax increase and intimated that he would seek to reduce the local contribution to the school system by as much as $3 million (or twenty percent of the current $15 million).

In other business, supervisors:

· Adopted a “Financial Sustainability” chapter to the Comprehensive plan;

· Authorized a request for proposal for financial advisory services. The county recently terminated its contract with Davenport and Co.; and,

· Were briefed on economic development strategies by Ms. Liz Povar, director of business development for the Virginia Economic Development Partnership.

The Fluvanna Board of Supervisors will hold a joint work session with the Fluvanna School Board to discuss budget issues on Saturday, February 20th, at 9:00 am in the new Courthouse.

Charlottesville/Albemarle Retail Sales Exodus Continues

By. Neil Williamson

The Charlottesville Regional Chamber of Commerce today (2/11) released their compiled sales tax data report showing Charlottesville, Albemarle and Augusta have declining retail sales while retail sales have grown in Greene Louisa and Waynesboro.  

From the Chamber’s media release:

Virginia Department of Taxation sales tax data compiled from the University of Virginia’s Weldon Cooper Center showed that retail sales during 2009 (January through December) compared to the full 2008 year were down in Albemarle County -9%; in Charlottesville -7.82%; in Augusta County -19.54%; while retail sales in 2009 rose in Greene County, +14.47%; Louisa County, +11.99%; and, Waynesboro, +1.11%.

Albemarle and Charlottesville, the region’s retail hub, accounted for $2.08 billion in total retail sales over the full course of 2009 – down by $190 million from 2008 and lower by $233 million (10%) from 2006 levels. (The Chamber started tracking area retail sales tax data in 2006.)  In addition to the loss in retail associated jobs and private investment, the decline in retail sales equates to a 2009 local tax revenue loss of more than $1.14 million for Albemarle and a loss of more than $782,000 for Charlottesville.  Meanwhile the retail sales gains in Greene County represented a 2009 local tax revenue growth of $149,000 while retail sales gains in Louisa County represented a 2009 local tax revenue increase of $231,000.

In reading the report, The Free Enterprise Forum was interested how important the retail sector is to our economy nationally.  According to the the National Retail Federation:

The National Retail Federation (NRF) is the world’s largest retail trade association … represents an industry with more than 1.6 million U.S. retail establishments, more than 24 million employees – about one in five American workers – and 2008 sales of $4.6 trillion.

One has to wonder if consumer confidence is critical to our national economy and retail sales are slipping in Charlottesville and Albemarle but growing in other neighboring communities, how will this shift in local consumer spending impact our overall economic health?  Can the trend be changed?  Should it be? 

Once again we find more questions than answers.


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


The Siren Song of Light Rail

By. Neil Williamson, President

Once again a local official has called for an investigatihouston-light-railon into light rail as a solution to our region’s traffic issues.  In last week’s meeting of the Albemarle Board of Supervisors, Duane Snow R-Samuel Miller District called for a study of light rail to connect Crozet, Charlottesville and the regional airport.

Charlottesville Tomorrow has the story and podcast:

It seems like there’s money in the federal budget to explore something like this right now,” Snow said …I think that a light rail system in conjunction with the rails that are already there can be installed a lot cheaper than bridges or an extra lane of traffic.”

It is easy to see why light rail seems to be a solution.  In addition to the “sexiness” of a train, there is a perception that more people will ride a train than a bus and the idea that the money would come from the federal government is also attractive.

We wrote of this siren song impacting Charlottesville City Council  in our 2008 post “A Desire Named Streetcar”

By means of background, The Free Enterprise Forum (in conjunction with The American Dream Coalition)has traveled the country looking at light rail systems.  We have visited Atlanta, Portland, Seattle, Houston, and Minneapolis.  In each city, the light rail was under utilized the majority of the day.  On average, it has been calculated each light rail trip carries just 24 people. 

Mr. Snow is mistaken regarding the costs associated with light rail.  Robert Poole of The Reason Foundation recently wrote:

At today’s construction costs,  a four-lane freeway can cost $40 to $60 million to build…  In a news release in early 2005, the Federal Transit Administration provided figures on nine light rail projects for which it had approved “full funding grant agreements.” The cost per mile ranged from a low of $44.5 million (Charlotte) to a high of $254 million (Pittsburgh). The average of these—and these are costs as of five years ago—was $124 million per mile. That’s five times what Oberstar claimed.  And the highly touted Central Link light rail that opened just the other day in Seattle weighs in at $171 million per mile, four to five times more than a mile of freeway.

Cato Institute Senior Fellow Randal O’Toole has written extensivelyotoole  about light rail.  Here are a few of his observations:

San Jose’s light rail has turned out to be an even more spectacular failure than the ones in Sacramento, Portland, and Los Angeles. Yet regions all over the country, including Houston, Seattle, and Orange County, suffer from light-rail envy and are eagerly planning new rail systems.

Does light rail improve transit? No, most cities that built light rail experienced a decline in transit’s share of travel. This is partly because the expense of light rail forced transit agencies to increase fares, as Minneapolis is about to do.

Is light rail faster and more attractive to transit riders than buses? No, transit riders are sensitive to frequencies and speed, and buses can easily run on schedules more frequent and faster than light rail. Where most light rail lines average just 20 miles per hour, many express bus routes average better than 30 miles per hour.

Does light rail reduce congestion? No, it increases congestion whenever the rail lines occupy former street space and also because it is such an ineffective form of transit. Traffic growth on the freeways paralleling Portland’s light-rail lines accelerated after the light rail replaced faster express bus routes.

Is light rail cost effective? No. The average light-rail line planned or under construction will cost more per mile than a four-lane freeway. Yet no light-rail system in the nation carries as many people (in passenger miles per route mile) as a single lane mile of typical urban freeway.

Nor is light rail cost-effective when compared with bus transit. One dollar spent on bus transit can provide the same benefits as $10 to $100 spent on light rail. Light rail is so expensive that most cities that have built it lacked the funds to make needed bus improvements.”

Light rail does seem to work in Europe and Asia, places with significantly higher population density than Central Virginia. 

Many years ago, when the Free Enterprise Forum was advocating (successfully) to have light rail removed from Albemarle County’s Comprehensive Plan, Planning Commissioner Pete Craddock said, “I hope I am six feet under ground before Albemarle has the population density to support light rail”.  In addition to its low relative population density, Chbuss rapid transitarlottesville and Albemarle’s jobs and homes are widely dispersed. 

Based on all of the above, light rail does not fit in Charlottesville/Albemarle.   In addition to increasing lane miles, we believe examining Bus Rapid Transit (BRT), Park and Ride lots and incentivizing Employer van pools is a better use of limited transit dollars.  Regardless of the origin of the funds, it is all our money and we should use the funds to achieve the most effective /transit system possible.


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

Local Governments Blamed for Childhood Obesity?

 By. Neil Williamson, President

On Monday (2/8), the University of California, Berkley released a study on Monday indicated children living in homes surrounded by traffic hazards are at risk if unhealthy weight gain. 

The study concluded:

This analysis yields the first evidence of significant effects from traffic density on Body Mass Index levels at age 18 in a large cohort of children. Traffic is a pervasive exposure in most cities, and our results identify traffic as a major risk factor for the development of obesity in children.

American City and County Magazine reported the study’s findings suggested city planners should use traffic calming methods to make it safe for children to play outside.

The article quotes UC-Berkley lead researcher Michael Jarrett “When it’s not safe to play outside, kids are more likely to stay inside and play computer games and watch television”.

In September 2009 American City and County Magazine  covered another study reporting Local Governments can help control childhood obesity.  That study from the National Academy of Sciences Institute suggested:

Zoning restrictions on fast-food restaurants near schools and playgrounds, community policing to improve safety around public recreational sites, limiting video game and TV time at publicly run after-school programs, and taxing high-calorie, low-nutrient foods and drinks are some of the strategies local governments can use to combat the problem, according to the report. Those actions could help create environments that make it easier for children to eat healthier diets and move more, said the committee of health experts that wrote the report.

The Free Enterprise Forum finds both studies place too much emphasis on the government and not nearly enough on individual choice and parental guidance. 

The concepts suggested by the National Academies of Sciences’ Institute of Medicine banning fast food restaurants near schools and playground runs afoul of our concept of freedom.

While the built environment clearly will affect  lifestyle, we believe the Jarrett study does not adequately address the other significant socioeconomic variables that have a higher impact than the traffic calming measures that may or may not be in place

It’s the Twinkie® not the traffic

Increased traffic calming measures and skinnier roads will not make skinnier children.  Barring fast food close to schools just means Mom, Dad or Junior will just have to drive further to get their burger.  In the end it is the individual (or parental) dietary choices and level of physical activity that have the greatest impact on childhood obesity. 


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

Does Charlottesville Want To Elect A Strong Mayor?

By. Neil Williamson, President

Charlottesville City Manager Gary O’Connell’s recent announcement of  his departure from Charlottesville City government presents a unique opportunity for the City to discuss its governance structure.  Prior to conducting an expensive national search for a new City Manager should the City consider a strong elected mayor form of goveBallot Boxrnment?

While quiet conversations regarding the form of city government have occurred over the years, the Free Enterprise Forum believes now is the time to for City Council to step up and engage the citizens on this fundamental issue.

In a City known for considering Council resolutions on international affairs, to ignore this opportunity for dialog on governance seems out of place.  

To be clear, the concept of a “strong” Mayor is not a knock on Mayor Norris or any previous Mayor, it is a structure of government.  The definitions of a strong mayor system according to

Under this system the Mayor is the chief executive and the City Council is the legislative body.  This system is modeled after the Federal Constitution structure of government. 
The primary components are:

Chief Executive
City Council
  • Not A Member Of The City Council
  • Proposes City Budget
  • Appoints Department Directors
  • Veto Authority
  • Elects Own Presiding Officer
  • Sets City Council Agenda
  • Approves City Budget
  • Mayoral Veto Override Authority

Many communities of varying sizes have chosen to move to a strong mayor system.  The Council Manager system, which came out of the progressive movement in the 1900s, is still the most popular form of city governance.  In this, more corporate structure, Councilors are elected then the Mayor is elected by Council.  Council appoints the City Manager who acts as the CEO of the City.

Federal Way, Washington was considering a move to a strong mayor system in 2008 prompting this posting from resident Jerry Vaughn :

Proponents of the mayor-council form of government assert a strong mayor form is “constitutional” while the council-manager form is “bureaucratic.”

That is hyperbole. It attaches convenient labels designed to make the form they favor sound “good” and the other sound “bad”. . .

We are a local government, not a national or state government. We have a form of government in Federal Way that ensures a high level of efficiency, effectiveness, responsiveness and professional service led by a qualified CEO. Progressive local governments throughout the United States have embraced the council-manager form of government for over 60 years and with good reason. More than 92 million individuals live in 9,620 cities operating under council-manager government; 63 percent of U.S. cities with populations of 25,000 or more operate under the council-manager form. Strong mayor-Council governments are found mostly in very big or very small cities. In many of those cities, in addition to the strong mayor, they also have a city administrator adding a layer of bureaucracy and costs.

In 2008, Federal Way voted to remain in the Council/Manager form of governance.  Just three years prior the City of San Diego California chose the Strong Mayor for a five year test.  This trial period is coming to a close and the voters are poised to vote on the results according to a report by KPBS yesterday (2/1):

SAN DIEGO — San Diego’s experiment with the strong mayor form of government is coming to an end. This summer voters will get to decide whether to keep the system or not.

The San Diego City Council will act today to put the strong mayor form of government on the June 8th ballot. San Diegans voted to try out the system in 2004. Now they have to decide whether to make it permanent. City Council President Ben Hueso says voters are essentially being asked how they want the city to be run.

“Should the mayor be someone that should be held accountable in terms of how the policies of the council are implemented? That was a difference in the old form of government,” he says. “It’s going to be a question of how they want to oversee their government.”

If the strong mayor format is approved the city will also add a ninth council district to prevent tie votes on the city council. If it’s rejected, San Diego will return to a city manager style of government with the city council largely in control.

The Free Enterprise Forum does not yet have a position on the issue of City government structure but we recognize the importance of the discussion at this specific time.

So the question remains, should the City of Charlottesville open this can of worms prior to a national search for a new City Manager or does City Council believe they know the will of the people and would rather not engage this potentially divisive topic at this time?

More importantly than City Council, do the citizens want to have this community dialog on governance?

In a City known for civic discussion lasting generations (Water, Meadowcreek Parkway, etc.), the relative silence on this issue  is deafening and leads one to wonder if a more successful two party system were in place would the issue of a publicly elected mayor be garnering more attention?.  


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

Albemarle’s Cost of Complexity

By. Neil Williamson, President

Imagine you were running a small business.  If one of your primary vendors increased their pricing by 150% more than inflation, what would you do? 

Now imagine your vendor is the government and your product or service can not occur without the payment of such fees. 

On Wednesday (2/3), the Albemarle County Board of Supervisors will be revisiting the proposed zoning fee increases that came before the previous Board at the end of last year.  The Free Enterprise Forum has written extensively about the cost of complexity of Albemarle County’s development and zoning process. 

To better quantify the proposed zoning fee increases, the Free Enterprise Forum has created a “Cost of Complexity” index. 

Zoning Fees were last comprehensively reviewed in 1991.  Fees have been increased since that time but those increases were implemented across the board.A great deal has changed in terms of application process in Albemarle County since 1991.  A February 19, 1992 staff announcement highlights:

“New regulations, such as entrance corridor overlay and the water resource protection ordinances have added slightly to the costs [of application processing]” 

Using 1991 as a base, The Free Enterprise Forum compared the FY2010 proposed increase to 1991 fee schedule.  Discovering increases of between 14% and 620% we also compared these increases to the increases in the Consumer Price Index (CPI-U).  The resulting  percentage represents the “Cost of Complexity” index.  The full report can be found here.

One fee “Zoning Map Amendment (ZMA) – Planned development under 50 acres” increased over 200% since 1991, subtracting the CPI from the increase the cost of complexity is 150%.  Therefore, according to this fee schedule, a ZMA brought in today takes 150% more resources to review than the same plan if it came forward in 1991.   

One aspect of the proposed new fees includes a cost escalator tied to Albemarle County’s Market/Merit pay increases.  As a data point, we thought looking at this historically might prove closer to the rate of increase proposed in the new fees. 

The Free Enterprise Forum researched the pay increases for Albemarle County staff from 1991 to 2010.  We were not able to obtain the information for 1997 (we assumed no increase).  Our results indicated the increase in pay is higher than the growth in CPI (75% compared to 57%) it is not close to the increases seen in many of the proposed fees.   The Market/Merit worksheet can be found here.

This discussion about fees is much like rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.  While the fees need adjustment the entire development review process [and culture] is the iceberg in our story.

Just last month, we heard anecdotally of an applicant who submitted an Erosion and Sediment control plan along with his $300 application fee and then received comments and requests for changes.  The applicant then made the changes and resubmitted the application with changes requested and an additional $300 application fee, new comments followed requiring yet another revision and another application fee of $300.  In total, this applicant paid $900 to Albemarle County (not counting the engineering fees paid) before receiving approval.

The cumbersome development review process [and obstructionist culture] is broken and it is negatively impacting both new construction and economic development.  On Wednesday, Albemarle County’s Board of Supervisors will again discuss the Zoning Fee proposal. 

  • The BOS could choose to hold the line on fee inflation limited by either CPI or Market/Merit increases
  • The BOS could choose to reconvene the Development Review Steering Committee to identify specific process reforms to be prioritized by staff and completed by the end of the year
  •  The BOS could pass the proposal as currently drafted.

Whether they choose to expand the discussion and engage the more difficult task of development review reform remains an open question.

Often the right choice is not the easy choice.


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