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


One response

  1. I agree with you on this one, Neal!

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