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


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


2 responses

  1. Neil-
    While I no longer live in Albemarle County and am no longer a member of a fire department in Albemarle County, I do have some insight into this topic that I’d like to share. It comes sheerly from personal experience and I’m a data point of 1, so take it for what its worth. I built my home in Belvedere – the ‘example’ of the neighborhood model – and will tell you that getting any fire truck, much less an 100′ aerial fire truck, around the neighborhood was quite the challenge and did, in fact, reduce our response times. ESPECIALLY when people were not parked appropriately and ignored ‘fire lane’ signs.

    While wider roads may increase speeding and yes, it means more runoff, the fact is that your insurance rates are dictated by a number of factors, including response time and the amount of water than can be on scene within a given amount of time. Could the trucks be smaller? Yes, they could be, but they would have to carry less water in order to do so (or carry less equipment that makes the engines less capable of responding to any type of emergency and require more specialized apparatus for different types of calls which would cost more taxpayer money).

    Having been involved with development and new construction when I lived in VA I certainly understand the conflict created by things like this, but I think that it’s important that there be a clear understanding of the issues on both sides. I found myself in the same situation when discussing the proposal to make sprinkler systems mandatory in residential construction a few years back.

    You state in your article that the likelihood of fires in new homes is less than in old homes. While I don’t have easy access to information on the average age of a home that catches on fire, I can tell you 1st hand and share some studies that show just how much FASTER new homes burn. It’s SCARY when you see it: http://www.ul.com/global/eng/pages/offerings/industries/buildingmaterials/fire/fireservice/lightweight/

    Also, no one is suggesting that older neighborhoods will no longer receive service. But progress needs to be made. The apparatus are bigger now than they used to be for a variety of reasons: improved safety measures, advanced technological equipment that helps put out fires faster (such as compressed air foam systems), increased call volumes that require a wider variety of equipment to be carried on each apparatus, EPA requirements that require advanced exhaust mitigation that increases the size of the engine components, etc… Much like building codes and zoning regulations have changed over time so to do the other aspects of development.

    Also, the picture you posted appears to be of a foreign fire truck. If you’ve ever been to Europe you’ll have noticed that their trucks are a lot smaller. They also have a completely different vision, strategy, and tactics as to how they fight fires which is not typically used here in the states. They tend to also be in areas with a higher concentration of people and available firefighting resources. The fact is that the majority of Albemarle County is still rural and water sources can be few and far between, thereby requiring the vehicles to be more capable of operating on scene by themselves until other resources arrive.

    I’m sure that someone within Albemarle County Fire Rescue would be more than happy to speak with you regarding your concerns and hopefully that will open up some communication. Please let me know if you’d like an introduction.

    Hope all is well in Central VA!
    -Drew Lawrence-

  2. My remarks on a county concern here are coming from a city resident’s perspective. I don’t mean to step into a matter that’s rightly and properly Albemarle’s domain to deal with. I comment here knowing that the situation between city and VDOT is somehow different with streets.

    Anyhow, my remarks here are only offered simply from another view, as though this instead were happening within the City of Charlottesville. Of course, who’s to claim it yet couldn’t? Cough, cough, reversion, cough.

    This Free Enterprise Forum (FEF) post is correct about the “increase cost, increase impermeable surface, increase focused storm water.” As far as “the new urbanist style” and much touted “standards” being destroyed, what is there about this “new urbanism” which won’t handle itself accordingly?

    “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.”

    A thread running through this article hints at an underlying but unobvious contradiction. That would be what is envisioned by (pedal to the floor) high density prone urban-model planners (and siding staff) versus a public not favoring so much top-down urbanism. If it weren’t serious, it might be amusing that such styled concept finds it way into being even fostered through the fire department. It wouldn’t be so bad, if aspects didn’t reflect back on and revolve around zoning.

    Of course this may be a stupid question but, what is style and what is practical among this? Mr. Williamson has his finger on some thoughful regards and encompassing questions over the “neighborhood model.” Therefore I agree. Let the VDOT standard rule and not be an exception. Don’t let a contrary precedent be sanctioned and started here. At least not without additional sufficient deliberation.

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