“How Do You Like Me Now?”–Albemarle’s Neighborhood Model turns 10

By. Neil Williamson, President

Ten years ago this April, the Albemarle County Board of Supervisors approved the ordinances that created the Neighborhood Model a new planning paradigm for their development areas. 

Places29 Bistro CornerThe Neighborhood Model draws its being from a New Urbanist planning philosophy known as Traditional Neighborhood Development (TND).  Albemarle’s Land Use Plan documents define TND as:  

(TND) is characterized by street grids, a mixture of
uses, sidewalks, and parks within a walkable
distance. Called traditional because they draw from
the design of towns before World War II, the TND
is compactly designed, with a center, an edge and
a general area that is predominantly residential.
Buildings are close to the street, the streets have
sidewalks, and housing designs include porches
and other traditional elements.

The Free Enterprise Forum opposed many of the highly prescriptive aspects of the neighborhood model preferring to allow the market to dictate housing types.  In addition, we raised significant concerns regarding the high level of development demands (curb, gutter, street trees, etc.) would increase the cost of new home construction and negatively impact affordable housing.

Now ten years later, what have we learned?

oldtrailTo be fair there have been some successful neighborhood model communities, Old Trail Village embraces many of the design constructs and has sold well.  The Shops at Stonefield, under consideration in 2001 as Albemarle Place, are now moving dirt and looking to open their first phase later this year.

Others have been even slower to take off and still other approved projects remain on the drawing boards waiting, ostensibly for market conditions to ripen to support their communities (and the costly proffers that are trigged by new construction).

The significant downturn in the real estate market has made the discussion of housing affordability less critical as all housing has become more affordable.  The just released Charlottesville Area Association of REALTORS® (CAAR ) 2011 Year end report cites:

Housing affordability is a positive aspect of this market. 596 homes, or 30% of the active listing market, were
for sale at $200,000 or less to begin 2012.

Have fewer single family homes been built in the Rural Areas?

Below is an analysis of New Single Family Home Construction based on Albemarle County’s Building Reports (note 2001 is only through the 3rd quarter) The data indicates that in the ten years after the adoption of the neighborhood model, the percentage of homes being built in the rural areas has not changed.

Single Family Home Construction   Development area Rural Area
  2001 47% 53%
  2002 50% 50%
  2003 51% 49%
  2004 47% 53%
  2005 48% 52%
  2006 36% 64%
  2007 35% 65%
  2008 37% 63%
  2009 52% 48%
  2010 57% 43%
  2011 42% 58%
TOTAL 2001-2011 46% 54%

Has Albemarle County Made Good on its Infrastructure pledge?

Interestingly the strongest rebuke of the Neighborhood Model is the issue of concurrent infrastructure.  Albemarle County envisioned making the development areas more attractive than the rural areas to live based upon amenities and efficient delivery of county services.  The long term funding issue for the Crozet Library is one example of Albemarle failing to live up to the demands of concurrency of infrastructure.

Back in August of 2003, Tom Loach, then a neighborhood representative took issue with moving forward with another master plan when the County had not fully funded the infrastructure for the Crozet plan.  He told the Development Steering Initiatives Committee (DISC II):

Mr. Loach would not agree to endorse the draft Resolution 2. He said the Board needs to “show us the money”. He said that until Crozet is shown that more money will be spent in Crozet, “how can another area expect to have payment for any infrastructure there either?” He wondered why any other neighborhood should even bother going through a master planning exercise.

The Free ENterprise Forum would tend to agree with Mr. Loach’s position.  When approving the Neighborhood Model in 2001 the additional costs of infrastructure were discussed at length.  Supervisor David Bowerman said there will come a time when future Board will need to fund the infrastructure to support this plan — They have not.

So the intended result did not occur; But what of the unintended consequences?

Unintended Consequence 1 – NIMBYism

In a recent roundtable regarding commercial development, now Planning Commissioner Tom Loach was very concerned about increasing the availability of industrial land near Crozet.  He mentioned that the Yancey Lumber Mill is in their area so “They already gave at the office” .  The empowerment of “Master Planning Groups” and the delegation of planning powers to these groups ensures more parochnimby1ial interests come to bear rather than thinking of the County as one community. 

The Board of Supervisors makes a point to indicate as a Board they represent the entire County.  It seems recent boards have endorsed the idea of attracting and retaining business as a Board Priority.  If this is the case, the Board must assert their authority over the advisory comments from the Master Planning groups.  It is unfortunate that this planning process has broken down into a battle of NIMBYism (Not In My Backyard) between neighborhood groups.

Unintended Consequence 2 – Loss of Light Industrial Land

It is fascinating to read the goals of the neighborhood model as approved in 2001 with the economic vitality lens of 2012:

  1. Pedestrian Orientation
  2. Neighborhood Friendly Streets and Paths
  3. Interconnected Streets and Transportation Networks
  4. Parks and Open Space
  5. Neighborhood Centers
  6. Buildings and Spaces of Human Scale
  7. Relegated Parking
  8. Mixture of Uses
  9. Mixture of Housing Types and Affordability
  10. Redevelopment
  11. Site Planning That Respects Terrain
  12. Clear Boundaries with the Rural Areas

Only #5 AND #8  touch on the need for economic activity within the Neighborhood Model communities.  The Free Enterprise Forum would suggest that the neighborhood model is, by design,  clearly light on jobs.

Perhaps because of this residential housing centric paradigm, we have seen a number of projects be rezoned from light industrial use to Neighborhood model.  To be fair, the property owners are well within their rights to request a rezoning of property to its highest and best use. 

What about needed infrastructure for business?

The reality  many light (and heavy) industrial uses can not find an affordable location within Albemarle’s currently designated development areas.  If Albemarle wishes to attract (and more importantly retain) their employers, they need to proactively determine where these activities should be centered. 

If we accept that there is limited funding for additional infrastructure and that most industrial users have a need for transportation access it seems logical to consider where such infrastructure already exists just outside the boundaries of the development areas.

One need only look at the location of two of the largest employers in Albemarle County, Martha Jefferson Hospital and State Farm Insurance, neither of these large users are house in the second story over a retail component, instead they have located near existing infrastructure (I-64).

To consider an industrial specific expansion of the development areas will not put the principles of the Neighborhood Model on their head but they will recognize the unintended consequences of new urbanism without a proper industrial component.

Alternatively, the jobs could relocate to localities who recognize the importance of an industrial base. 

The question to Albemarle with 10 years of economic data regarding the impact of the neighborhood model –where do we grow from here?

Respectfully Submitted,

Neil Williamson, President


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, Louisa and  Nelson County.  For more information visit the website www.freeenterpriseforum.org

Photo Credits: Albemarle County, Old Trail Village


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