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.
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 curb 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:
- How wide are the fire vehicles that will travel on these roads?
- Can smaller fire suppression vehicles provide adequate service?
- 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.
- Has the Albemarle County Police Department been consulted regarding the likelihood of speeding issues on the proposed wider streets?
- 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.
- 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.
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