Monthly Archives: August, 2012

Greene County BOS Approve Skyline CAP’s Request

By Brent Wilson, Greene County Field Officer

The Greene County  Board of Supervisors approved a request from Skyline CAP, Incto rezone from R-1 to R-2 at their most recent meeting on August 28th.  This is an increase in residential density per acre, in addition R-2 Residential allows multi-family dwellings by special use permit as opposed to the R-1 Residential only allowing single family dwellings.

The property is located on Jack Russell Lane off Celt Road near the school system in Stanardsville.  As a proffer or offering to the county, Skyline CAP, Inc. will restrict the additional residences to 55 and older.  This was a two step process – first to rezone to R-2 and then secondly to issue a Special Use Permit for a multiple family dwelling.

While the Free Enterprise Forum has no position on this, or any other application.  The Board of Supervisors believed the density change to R-2 in this area fit well with Greene’s Comprehensive Plan.

Affordable housing is a priority which these apartments will fit, especially for the elderly and disabled. Another favorable consideration is the parcel’s location, the apartments are near the town of Stanardsville, banking and shopping. The applicant’s proffering of a resident age restriction (55+) will mitigate any direct impact on the school system and the county funding of schools.

Concurrently with this application, Skyline CAP, Inc. is undertaking its annual survey of needs assessments of its localities. They are surveying both housing needs  and community needs  and are intended to identify the needs housing for seniors, disabled and homeless. The Housing Needs Assessment targets specific questions about what functionality is needed and what type of housing is needed. Within rental housing, it asks that you prioritize potential housing solutions. For home ownership, it asks what issues are most important from weatherproofing to methods of ownership.

While this self selecting survey has the same non scientific balance the Free Enterprise Forum faulted in the Thomas Jefferson Planning District Commission (TJPDC) livability survey, we again have decided to encourage folks to participate despite this lack of scientific sampling.

The Community Needs Survey targets employment, education, type of housing, money management and outlines the programs that they offer. Specifically, the survey asks to prioritize employment issues. In regards to education, the survey asks to prioritize types of education vs. child care. Housing issues are listed from lack of housing to knowledge of how to buy a home. Skyline CAP, Inc. was founded in 2009 and has the mission of helping those in need attain self-sufficiency. Here is the mission statement of Skyline CAP……

The agency is organized and operated as a not for profit corporation exclusively for community service activities including education and charitable purposes. Specifically, the purpose is to advance the general welfare and conditions of low income, elderly and/or disadvantaged person by providing programs and services that shall promote, develop and encourage activities and means to improve housing, educational and literacy needs. And further, will help low income families and individuals move out of poverty and help to alleviate the conditions associated with poverty; and to that d, sponsor, support, promote and undertake safe, affordable housing projects, education projects and other services to include the designated Counties of Greene, Orange, Madison, and in the future, contiguous counties that may be without community action services, without regard to race, religion, and national origin.

The Free Enterprise Forum believes Skyline Cap is a part of the affordable housing solution we wrote about earlier this week in a Daily Progress Guest Editorial.

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Brent Wilson is the Greene County Field Officer for the Free Enterprise Forum a privately funded public policy organization.

The Free Enterprise Forum Field Officer program is funded by a generous grant from the Charlottesville Area Association of REALTORS® (CAAR) and by readers like you.  To support this important work please donate online at www.freeenterpriseforum.org

Chamber/Free Enterprise Forum Luncheon Announced

CHARLOTTESVILLE REGIONAL CHAMBER OF COMMERCE TO HOLD ANNUAL CHAMBER FREE ENTERPRISE FORUM LUNCHEON ON SEPTEMBER 27TH, AT GLENMORE COUNTRY CLUB, 11:30 AM – 1:30 PM

(Charlottesville, Virginia – August 30) The Charlottesville Regional Chamber of Commerce and Free Enterprise Forum today announced that the 2012 Chamber Free Enterprise Forum Luncheon would be held on September 27, 2012 at Glenmore Country Club, from 11:30 AM to 1:30 PM.

Craig Drinkhall

The Chamber Free Enterprise Forum Luncheon is underwritten by Lumos Networks and Jaggers Communications. The luncheon will feature Craig Drinkhall, Vice President of Product Management & Engineering, Lumos Networks and Marijean Jaggers, President, Jaggers Communications.  The discussion will focus on “Emerging Technologies, The ‘Cloud,’ Security & our Privacy.”

Marijean Jaggers

Pricing for the luncheon is as follows: Chamber Members – $40 through September 19 ($45 September 20-26, $50 the day of the event), Non-Members – $45 through September 19 ($50 September 20-26, $55 the day of the event), Chamber “Inner Circle” Table of eight – $500. Reservations are required to attend this event.

Glenmore Country Club is located at 1750 Piper Way in Keswick. For additional information, please contact the Chamber at 434-295-3141 or programs@cvillechamber.com.

The Free Enterprise Forum is a privately funded public policy organization focused on local governments in Central Virginia. The Free Enterprise Forum is dedicated to providing clear positive balance to the discussions of important issues of the day.

The Charlottesville Regional Chamber of Commerce is dedicated to representing private enterprise, promoting business and enhancing the quality of life in the greater Charlottesville communities.  Founded in 1913, today Chamber member enterprises employ more than 45,000 people in Greater Charlottesville, representing an estimated total payroll of more than $1.75 billion a year.

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“New Normal” Demands a New Affordable Housing Diagnosis

This editorial first appeared in The Daily Progress on Sunday, August 26, 2012

FORUM WATCH EDITORIAL

By Neil Williamson, President, Free Enterprise Forum

Over the years, Central Virginia localities have attempted to address the need for affordable shelter in a variety of ways.  Every locality is mandated by the Code of Virginia to have an “Affordable Housing” chapter in their comprehensive plan. The Albemarle County Planning Commission is discussing their plan on Tuesday, August 28th.

The Free Enterprise Forum believes the state mandate for an affordable housing chapter in comprehensive plans is both out-of-date and has created a myopic view of housing.  We encourage the Commonwealth and localities to use a wider lens and seek to understand how local actions, proffer requirements and regulations impact housing affordability across all price points.

The Free Enterprise Forum believes affordable housing must include the region’s significant affordable rental opportunities in addition to affordable for purchase housing.  Housing policy needs to be timely and comprehensive in addressing the needs of residents at all ages, income levels, and lifestyles.

While each locality is different in its approach, the Free Enterprise Forum believes there has been a misplaced emphasis on the supply side of affordable housing; we contend in most localities there could be an ample supply of affordable housing choices if financing and regulatory hurdles could be removed.

Further, as many of these policies were first written at the top of the housing bubble, it would be wise to revisit the concepts and the assumptions with the “new normal” in mind. 

If there is any lesson learned from the latest housing crash, it is that not everyone needs to, or should be, a homeowner.  Homeownership is of great value to a community but it is not for everyone.  National housing experts seem to agree 60-65% homeownership is sustainable.    Most of our localities already exceed this measure. 

What is each locality’s homeownership goal? 

Should a locality have a goal?

homeownership chart

Source US Census 2010

It is important to note that the City of Charlottesville’s percentage of homeownership is significantly lower than the neighboring localities. 

Is this a bad thing?

Much of the City’s housing is rental student housing.  The University of Virginia generally houses just 30% of its full-time students on grounds.  The balance fills rental opportunities in both the City of Charlottesville and to a lesser extent the urban ring of Albemarle County. In addition, the compact design and availability of public transit increase viability of city rentals.

For the purposes of this discussion, affordable is defined as dwelling units with a monthly cost equal or less than 30% of the household income at 80% of area median income.  If we use an annual median income of $50,000, 80% of that income is $40,000 which suggests a budget of $1,200 a month for shelter (30%*40,000).  Albemarle County currently defines affordable as “Maximum sales price of $211,250.  Rents would be determined based on bedroom size and tenant-paid utilities; ex. 2br $1,029 maximum with owner paying all utilities”

Failure of Financing – The Federal Housing Administration (FHA) provides financing for the vast majority of “affordable” buyers.  The FHA is reluctant to finance condominium purchases, wary of the restrictions placed on property owners holding such property.  This regulatory roulette keeps many families off what could be their first step on the homeownership ladder.

A recent property search of the Charlottesville Area Association of REALTORS® (CAAR) Multiple Listing Service (MLS) resulted in 582 properties being listed at $175,000 or less.  When condominiums were eliminated from the search, the number of properties available dropped by more than 18% to 473.  If FHA financing regulations were reduced, the number of truly affordable units for purchase would increase without building one “new” unit.

Down Payment Catch 22 – Down payment assistance money is being left on the table.   Financing issues are by far the most difficult to conquer.  Despite interest rates being at a historic low point, the number of folks who can qualify for a mortgage in the current market is relatively small.

With this difficulty of folks being able to qualify for mortgage financing because of  tightening of credit terms, the unintended result is the inability of down payment assistance funds to be distributed to those in need.  In order to qualify for the assistance, applicants must not exceed certain income limits and such a limited income (and a low credit score) will not qualify for the needed underlying mortgage financing.

Cost of “Public Services” Harms Affordability – Most planners agree locating affordable shelter near services makes for more efficient delivery of such services.  To build in such “development areas” requires the unit to hook up to public water and sewer.  The cost of these hook ups is $10,000 each in Greene County (slightly lower in the other localities). 

When presented with this question last year, Albemarle County Service Authority (ACSA) Executive Director Gary O’Connell said that the ACSA is about building and maintaining infrastructure as well as providing water and sewer service efficiently to its customers; affordable housing is not an ACSA issue.

Cost of Community Design Harms Affordability – Many of the localities have pursued a complete street philosophy regarding new neighborhood construction.  A complete street may include curb, gutter, bike lane, on street parking, street trees and a sidewalk.  Each of these mandated amenities comes at a cost, making the delivery of affordable housing even more challenging.

Overlapping/Conflicting Agency Responsibilities Harms Affordability – Super agencies such as Virginia’s Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), US Army Corps of Engineers (ACOE), and Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) often have overlapping jurisdiction with localities and each other, the additional time it takes to sort out this alphabet soup of regulators adds time and cost to every project.

Rental Stock Blinders – While the state code is very clear that rental housing is a part of the housing equation and several localities include the use of “affordable housing” proffers on rental assistance, rarely is such housing considered when calculating the availability of affordable housing.  

A recent review of the Blue Ridge Apartment Council website showed 158 properties currently available for rental under $850 a month.  While no such rental database exists for the outlying counties, it is reasonable to assume a significant portion of the affordable housing in those communities is being provided by private landlords both with and without the use of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) vouchers.  Comprehensive plans must recognize the significant role affordable rental stock has on the market.  In addition, localities should embrace the property owner community and build bridges to better serve these important taxpayers and service providers.

As localities prepare their five-year revisions of their comprehensive plans, the Free Enterprise Forum has several questions related to their housing policies:

  • What is the locality’s goal percentage of owner occupied housing and why?
  • What is a sustainable rate of homeownership?
  • Is rental stock considered a part of the locality’s affordable housing inventory?
  • How is the locality helping property owners achieve affordability?
  • What is the level of community investment dedicated to affordable housing?
  • Is the locality providing financial literacy training?
  • If new affordable housing stock is created how will is stay affordable?
  • Should dwelling units be distributed equally throughout the community or should they be focused close to services (transit, employment opportunities etc.)?
  • Some of the affordable housing stock is of low quality.  This makes it less desirable for purchase and more expensive to maintain.  Can/should affordable housing policies include incentives to upgrade, or replace, substandard housing stock?
  • Can, and should, localities forgive or reduce required fees on new affordable housing creation?

Just as the housing market is dynamic, the discussion of affordability must be an ongoing conversation.  The Free Enterprise Forum welcomes an open, comprehensive discussion regarding how to best support our community’s housing goals.

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,

Albemarle Downzoning by Definition?

By. Neil Williamson, President

In last night’s (8/21) Albemarle County Planning Commission meeting new definitions language was added to an ordinance that could have a chilling effect on the development of the development area (and the balance of the county).

This definitional modification, which was not mentioned by staff but was brought to light by an alert citizen, was proposed as follows:

Density, gross: The theoretical maximum number of dwelling units allowed per acre within a zoning district
before complying with all applicable regulations pertaining to critical slopes, stream buffers, flood plains,
minimum yards, maximum structure height, and other regulations affecting the development of a site.

Density permitted by right: The maximum number of dwelling units allowed per acre within a zoning district upon complying with all applicable regulations pertaining to critical slopes, stream buffers, flood plains, minimum yards, maximum structure height, and other regulations pertaining to the development of a site.

Now I am not an attorney and I may not completely understand this concept but it is clear this is a MAJOR SHIFT in County Policy – and it only gets a footnote in the marked up version of the ordinance.

The rationale for including this revised definition is a still unpublished Virginia Supreme Court Decision that indicated the town of Occoquan “could not require a special exception to disturb critical slopes for residential development to achieve the density permitted by right.  The definitions clarifying that the “density permitted by right” under the County’s zoning ordinance is the density achieved after complying with all of the other regulations pertaining to development”.

How is this not a down zoning?

When staff was questioned about the impacts on by right development and it was suggested this would reduce the number of by right units in the development area.  Albemarle County Planning Director Wayne Cilimberg indicated this was not the intent of the language.

Wait a minute, let’s look at a conventional, by-right development in the development as an example.

A ten acre parcel in the development area that is zone R-4 (4 units an acre) Gross density= 10 x 4 = 40.

If three acres are in critical slopes the new “density permitted by right” is (10-3) x 4 = 28.

Net density lost = 12 units.

Now the planners suggest you can request your “lost” density be returned  along with the critical slopes exception application.  But in order to enforce the concept of “critical slopes” your by right density must be reduced.

So, if enacted, the ordinance will make landowners petition government for theoretical development rights that they have today.

The proposed new definitions are nothing short of a regulatory taking of property rights.

The Free Enterprise Forum believes rather than twisting their ordinances to permit regulating “critical” slopes, Albemarle County should eliminate critical slopes in the development area from any restrictions, other than those directly related to a stream bed.  This would mitigate the largest number of slopes and truly protect those slopes that most greatly contribute to the health of the community’s streams and waterways.

We encourage the Albemarle County Planning Commission to consider this alternative track when the Zoning Text Amendment is again heard in October.

If the ordinance as written is  enacted, the Free Enterprise Forum anticipates Albemarle’s County Attorney’s office will be preparing much more than a mere footnote to defend this aggressive regulatory reduction of property rights.

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, Louisa and  Nelson County.

Greene Says “No” To MPO

By. Brent Wilson, Greene County Field Officer

At their August 14th meeting the Greene County  Board of Supervisors unanimously agreed to decline the invitation to join the Charlottesville-Albemarle Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO). The Board had asked a number of questions regarding membership in the organization.  As the reply to those questions came in after the Board packet had been prepared for the public, the Board requested Planning Director, Bart Svoboda  read the answers into the record. 

Steve Williams TJPDC Photo Credit Greene County RecordThe answers were provided by Stephen Williams, Executive Director for The Thomas Jefferson Planning District Commission (TJPDC) . The key answer that impacted the decision was that Greene County would not have voting rights initially and it might take years before such voting rights would be granted.

In addition, the increased demand of limited county resources was also a factor in the supervisors’ decision. Supervisor Jim Frydl calculated that close to one month’s cost of the administrator would be the cost Greene County could incur when the annual meeting time for a Board Member, Planning Commission Member and staff was calculated.

The five current voting members of the MPO Policy Board are Charlottesville (two), Albemarle County (two) and the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) (one).  These five would be deciding policy until Greene County was given voting rights. Chairman Buggs Peyton also wanted to keep the Greene County Transit System separate. It operates on an as needed basis as opposed to a regular schedule.  Both Supervisors Lamb and Deane raised concern over the inability to get the US 29 Western Bypass accomplished.

It is generally believed at the next census – in 2020 – Greene County will have grown in population to mandate inclusion into the MPO. The BOS unanimously agreed that they would prefer to not spend the money required to join the MPO and deal with the MPO in 10 years when Route 29 has been expanded northbound. Greene County has been studying the Route 29 corridor as it passes from Albemarle County into Greene County as part of their 20 year comprehensive plan  .

As the Free Enterprise Forum stated in our July 23th editorial, we believe that the Greene County Board of Supervisors considered the pros and cons of joining the MPO and made a decision in the best interest of Greene County.

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Brent Wilson is the Greene County Field Officer for the Free Enterprise Forum a privately funded public policy organization.

The Free Enterprise Forum Field Officer program is funded by a generous grant from the Charlottesville Area Association of REALTORS® (CAAR) and by readers like you.  To support this important work please donate online at www.freeenterpriseforum.org

Photo Credit: Thomas Jefferson Planning District Commission

Who’s the Boss? ACFD vs. VDOT & The Neighborhood Model

By. Neil Williamson, Presidentseminole tower 88

When it comes to roadway designs in Albemarle there’s a new boss. Under the call for public safety, Albemarle County Fire Rescue has changed the secondary roadway regulations without so much as a public hearing. 

The Free Enterprise Forum has learned that Albemarle County Fire Rescue Department is now requiring new developments implement  new roadway widths with a 20’ clear zone that increase cost, increase impermeable surface, increase focused storm water and destroy the much touted new urbanist style “Neighborhood Model” development standards. 

By means of background, the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) standard width for a secondary road is dependent on several variables but for the low end traffic volume urban cross-section subdivision street the curb to curb width necessary for the travel way and parking on both sides of the street is 29’ (recently increased from 28’).

In Albemarle County’s Neighborhood Model, they describe the importance of streets as follows:

To achieve the goal of having neighborhood friendly streets and paths, the relationship of streets to neighborhoods must be considered. In Virginia counties using VDOT subdivision street standards, traffic engineering typically deals with capacity of roads.

With the Neighborhood Model, the character and appearance of the street as well as the design speed and capacity must be factored into street design. Character and appearance are determined by streetscape elements, building front conditions, building use, and form. Capacity and design speeds are determined by local street design standards. Design speeds generally should be lower on subdivision streets than on arterials in the urban area.

hand-rendering-community-lewistonIn addition to their significant environmental benefits, such narrower streets encourage slower speeds, which is safer for pedestrians and minimize impervious area.

Virginia’s statewide fire prevention code (which mimics the International Code Council) was passed in 2009 indicating a minimum of 20′ clear travel way. 

If parking is provided,an urban cross-section street the curb to curbPlaces29 Bistro Corner width necessary for the travel way and parking on both sides of the street would be 36’.  The Albemarle County Fire Department is also mandating turning radius of not less than 25’ on roads less than 32’ in width.

The Free Enterprise Forum understands the concept ACFD is working from but we find it out of balance with the county’s other comprehensive plan goals as it relates to affordable housing, neighborhood design and environment.

It is important to note, localities are not bound by the fire code.  Developers, if they wish to have their roads accepted by VDOT as public roads, must meet VDOT design regulations. In order to gain site plan approval, ACFD must approve the planned design.  To quote William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, “Aye, there’s the rub”.

The dueling regulation issue first came to a head in Fairfax County last summer.  Staff despite hearing concerns from the development community and members of the Board of Supervisors pressed for the wider Fire Department street standards over VDOT’s standards.

In an interview with the Fairfax Times Stewart Schwartz, executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth, said:

having wider streets encourages drivers to speed, making people less inclined to walk around the neighborhood, he said.

In the same article Ted Britt, chair of Fairfax County’s Engineering Standards Review Committee (ESRC) was quoted:

The staff proposal “seems to run counter to” the county’s environmental initiatives to preserve trees and reduce paved surfaces

Both Fairfax’s Planning Commission and ESRC were opposed to the staff recommendation of wider roads.  After significant staff and Board debate the Fairfax Board of Supervisors threw out the fire departments demand for wider roads and sided with VDOT.

We encourage Albemarle to follow Fairfax’s lead on this road design power grab.  As a part of this discussion, we have several questions regarding the need for these changes:

  1. How wide are the fire vehicles that will travel on tsmall fire truckhese roads?
  2. Can smaller fire suppression vehicles provide adequate service?
  3. Given that the vast majority of existing streets that don’t meet this 20′ clear requirement, is ACFD suggesting that those neighborhoods won’t be served in the future?  If they will be served in the future by smaller vehicles, then fire departments will need to have smaller vehicles in their fleet and thus would be capable of serving all neighborhoods with smaller streets.
  4. Has the Albemarle County Police Department been consulted regarding the likelihood of speeding issues on the proposed wider streets?
  5. Given that the likelihood of death by fire is significantly less than death in some kind of traffic related accident, it would seem that we’ve placed fire safety over pedestrian/vehicle safety.  In reality, the likelihood of fires in new homes is dramatically less than older homes so we’re focusing attention on the structures that are least likely to burn.
  6. Are there creative alternatives to achieve the same goals?  Selectively lowering the curb profile in parts of the development might alleviate the need for a maximized radius that creates a pedestrian hardship.

The Free Enterprise Forum calls on the Albemarle County Board of Supervisors to direct staff to include a discussion of this issue in their September 5th meeting.  We firmly believe VDOT standards should continue to apply on all public roadways.

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, Louisa and  Nelson County. 

Photo Credit: Seminole Volunteer Fire Department, Albemarle County, http://tropicalpenpals.com/blog/ , Congress for New Urbanism

Fluvanna Supervisors Approve Riparian Buffers

By William J. Des Rochers, Fluvanna Field Officer

On August 1st, the Fluvanna Board of Supervisors voted to require riparian buffers in the designated growth areas of the county, as well as the rest of the county. The 4-1 vote (Chairman Shaun Kenney, Columbia, dissented) came despite warnings from critics that the requirement could have an adverse impact upon economic development prospects in the Zion Crossroads area of the county.

There are three categories of buffers: those for rivers (the Rivanna, the James, and the Hardware): 100 feet on either side; principal streams: 75 feet on either side; or, intermittent streams: 50 feet on either side. The Zion Crossroads area has both principal and intermittent streams.

Supervisor Joe Chesser (Rivanna), a strong proponent for economic development, stated that the issue was a tough one but ensuring clean water now will be cheaper in the long run than delay. A similar zoning text amendment to the subdivision ordinance passed unanimously.

Supervisors also took several other actions. They:

· Approved a $1.5 million contract to construct a new firehouse in Fork Union;

· Accepted a proposal by Robinson, Farmer, Cox to conduct an efficiency audit of the Fluvanna school system; and,

· Realigned the order of business when they conduct their public meetings.

The Board later reconvened to consider numerous water sources in the county and how they might be integrated into a comprehensive water plan for the county and especially Zion Crossroads. County community development director Bobby Popowicz listed six major sources of water for the county, and the gallons of water per day (gpd) that each could provide.

They are: Aqua Virginia (500,000), VA. Department of Correction (150,000 to 175,000), the “Thomasville” wells from the now vacant manufacturing plant (400,000), the James River existing unused intake (250,000), the James River Water Authority, jointly owned with Louisa county (5,000,000), and, the ECTI Raw Water intake (unknown capacity).

While much of the immediate focus is on the Zion Crossroads area, planners would like to see the entire county be part of a long term water solution and requested the supervisors to instruct them to develop a phased strategic water plan for the county.

While the supervisors did not act upon the staff request, they did direct staff to:

· Investigate water partnership options with the Department of Corrections.

· Continue review of the Aqua Virginia and any other water proposal received under the PPEA process.

· Investigate Carysbrook wells (“Thomasville”) and the County’s existing unused James River water intake to determine viability for potential county water needs.

· Set up an early September 2012 meeting between two Fluvanna BOS members and two Louisa County BOS members to discuss water planning issues; and,

· Coordinate a late September or early October 2012 meeting of the James River Water Authority to discuss current water opportunities.

Supervisors will not meet next until September 5th.

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William Des Rochers is the Fluvanna County Field Officer for the Free Enterprise Forum a privately funded public policy organization.

The Free Enterprise Forum Field Officer program is funded by a generous grant from the Charlottesville Area Association of REALTORS® (CAAR) and by readers like you.  To support this important work please donate online at www.freeenterpriseforum.org

Sarcasm and Sharp Elbows Push Albemarle Backward

By. Neil Williamson, President

Albemarle County’s efforts to be more business friendly just took a huge step backwards.  Sometimes it’s not what you say but how you say it and when it is said.  If future public hearings go the same way as Tuesday night’s hearing, it will put a chill on economic vitality.

The July 31st Albemarle County Planning Commission  meeting included a public hearing regarding the 5th Street Station Shopping Center in Southern Albemarle.

It is important to note that the Free Enterprise Forum has no position on this, or any other specific application. 

We do however have a policy issue to the manner in which applications, and applicants, are treated.

For those who have not attended an Albemarle Public Hearing the order of business is as follows:

1. Introduction of the Application by staff reading a staff report which has previously been provided to the applicant

2. Questions from the Board/Commission of staff regarding the presentation

3. Open Public Hearing with Applicant introduction and reply to issues raised in the staff report (10 minutes)

4. Public Comment (3 minutes each)

5. Applicant rebuttal to public comments (5 minutes)

6. Close Public Hearing

7. Discussion by Board/Commission

8. Motion

9. Vote

Additional questions of staff regularly occur during the discussion phase of the hearing. At such time the chair asks the appropriate staff member to come to speak to the specific issue raised.  Rarely, is the applicant offered the same opportunity to address the question.

In this case, while the majority of the staff provided solid context to specific questions posed by the Commission with one stark exception.  Albemarle County Engineer Glenn Brooks was argumentative and combative regarding this specific application.

As the Planning Commission worked through their discussion, Brooks continued to get up from the audience, move to the podium and insert himself (uninvited)  into their deliberations. Such behavior would never be accepted by an applicant.  The Free Enterprise Forum is disappointed that Chairman Cal Morris did not stop this behavior during the meeting.  In this case, Morris failed in his responsibility to control the meeting by failing to control the staff.

In addition, while Morris did provide this applicant a limited number of opportunities to respond;  Brooks dominated the conversation, by not waiting to be invited.

Beyond the inappropriate participation in discussion, the tenor of Brooks’ comments were sarcastic and antagonistic.

When the applicant’s presentation was still on the display screen during the Planning Commission discussion, Brooks said:

“You should take down that pretty picture, they haven’t proffered it”.

Regarding a Planning Commissioner’s comment regarding recommending a critical slopes approval (against his advice) Brooks stated,

“Well if you want to give them an empty slate”.

British Poet Samuel Butler famously said “Neither irony or sarcasm is argument”.  The Free Enterprise Forum recognizes significant issues exist between Albemarle County and this applicant.  Notwithstanding any of the important issues on the table, we are troubled by the process as well as Brooks’ actions and comments.

In the end, the Planning Commission unanimously moved the application forward to the Board of Supervisors. But this application is not the issue.

In our nine years of covering the Albemarle County Planning Commission, we can’t ever remember a county employee ever behaving in this manner. 

Brooks’ presentation and demeanor created an “us vs. them” adversarial relationship with the applicant.  After establishing such a hostile environment one can imagine some reluctance on the part of applicants to upset the same person [the County Engineer] who will be responsible for signing off on their engineering and site plans. 

While we have no reason to question the technical expertise or qualifications of the County Engineer but we do believe that his Planning Commission performance brings his public policy skills into question. 

We were encouraged to see both Scottsville Supervisor Christopher Dumler and Community Development Director Mark Graham in attendance at the meeting.  This will enable them to answer our questions below with a firsthand understanding of the issue.

  • Is this the manner all applications in Albemarle will now proceed?
  • Does staff have an open mike policy during Planning Commission discussion?
  • How can applicants prepare for challenges that have not been enumerated in the staff report?
  • How will Albemarle County respond to this process challenge? 
  • Will they at all? 
  • Will such action or inaction result in a better community? 

Only time will tell.

Respectfully Submitted,

Neil Williamson, President

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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 Credit: