By. Neil Williamson
An open letter to the Albemarle County Planning Commission:
April 15, 2013
Mr. Calvin Morris, Chairman, Albemarle County Planning Commission
Dear Chairman Morris and members of the Albemarle County Planning Commission,
Thank you for the extended deadline to provide written comments on the Albemarle Comprehensive Plan. Staff should be commended for marshaling this process forward and seeking to limit the size of the plan (which is still too big).
Before we get to our analysis of the plan, the Free Enterprise Forum wishes to highlight the failure of the Thomas Jefferson Planning District Commission to meet the deadlines associated with the joint City/County/TJPDC/UVA livability plan. In concept this over 1 million dollar expenditure was to “inform the comprehensive planning in the City and County”, the money has been spent but the work is not yet complete. The plethora of meetings, public input sessions and joint Planning Commission meetings produced a number of benefits but absent the final work product the effort must be deemed a failure. While appreciative of the supplementary benefits, the Free Enterprise Forum remains concerned that this project was mismanaged by the lead agency.
We have reviewed the entire plan and our comments are organized sequentially with the plan.
Chapter 2 Growth Management Policy – page 2.2.2 the joint City Count statement “the scale and scope of the impacts of new development on this infrastructure necessitate greater financial participation by new development in addressing this need.” The statement infers that absent new development infrastructure would be adequate – which is not true. A lack of concurrency of infrastructure has been a concern of the Free Enterprise Forum for over ten years. If the answer to this concern is to make Development area projects even more expensive, this will force development into by right status , into the rural areas, or out of Albemarle County entirely.
Page 2.2.3 should recognize that the County Capital Improvement Plan (CIP) has not kept up with the community needs.
Page 2.2.4 The Free Enterprise Forum is concerned with the concept of priority areas within the development area. We recognize the limitation of public funds and the need to focus those funds. Where we are concerned is the language: “Land Use decisions should be made consistent with the priority areas established in the Development Area Master Plans. The County may decide not to approve new rezoning or special use permit outside of the designated priority areas as planned facilities are not in place to support the proposed project and the existing neighborhoods. If approved, however, as a part of the land development process, developers will need to provide more significant levels of improvement to ensure adequate infrastructure and services are available to the area.”
If, as we contend, the County has failed to properly fund and construct concurrent infrastructure, the cost to provide adequate infrastructure to both new and existing residents is now on the private land owner whose development area parcel happens not to fall in the “Priority Area”. For the same reasons as cited above this will accelerate the kind of By Right development the Comprehensive Plan indicates it wishes to avoid.
As an aside, The Free Enterprise Forum is concerned with the growing power of appointed Community Councils. We are troubled that development proposals are regularly referred to these councils for their blessing prior to going before the Planning Commission.
Chapter 3 Comprehensive Plan and Background – Page 3.2 The 1998 Sustainability Accords these items have appeared in the Comprehensive Plan since their passage. While there has been little discussion of these accords the plan states “Goals for sustainability were most recently adopted in 2007 when the Comprehensive Plan reaffirmed the accords” Has the Planning Commission, or any other body really reviewed the sustainability accords recently? They were written 15 years ago. Should we accept these accords as if they came down from the mountain on stone tablets? Or should they be examined prior to passing the comprehensive plan that would “reaffirm the Accords”
Historic Preservation Page 3.9 (joint City County goals) “To do this the City and County will: Colloborate with the University of Virginia, Ashlawn-Highland, Monticello and other community organizations on historic preservation matters.” The Free Enterprise Forum finds the failure to include property owners in the list of collaborators is an error and speaks to an institutional bias in opposition to property rights.
Chapter 5.1 Natural Resources – Page 5.1.1 This chapter is in need of editing. It speaks to the importance of an issue that the Natural Resources chapter of the comprehensive plan is 30 pages while only 11 pages are dedicated to the economic development chapter.
Page 5.2.4 Mountain Protection – This section correctly identifies the Mountain Protection Ordinance as being rejected by the community in January 2007. IS there a reason for including this text in the plan? The issue has been resolved. This text should be removed.
Page 5.1.10 Stormwater Management – The plan states “Evidence has shown that, once constructed, many facilities are not maintained properly.” While this may be true in some areas, it is clearly not true in other areas. This text is prejudicial and should be reworded.
Page 5.1.13 Objective 1: Retain Biodiversity in the County – “This information should be used to create a database that includes both landscape features such as habitats and critical slopes areas and species occurrences from point observations. The database should then be included in the County’s Geographical Information System so that County staff and the public can use the information for conservation purposes. The information could also be used in reviewing requests for legislative approvals.” [emphasis added]
Is Albemarle County prepared to limit development in their development area based on the number of species established by a biodiversity inventory? What possible project could be approved under such a standard?
Page 5.1.14 Biodiversity Action Plan “Building on this analysis, the County should develop the action plan based on conserving ecological integrity at the scale of the landscape” Ecological integrity is an undefined buzz word that promotes existing conditions while failing to recognize potential ecological benefits of development (or redevelopment) This entire concept should be removed from the plan
Page 5.1.15 Strategies – In no other chapter does the work of the comprehensive plan fall so directly on one group of unelected individuals. The Natural Heritage Committee is continually mentioned as a resource and an “expert” on Biodiversity. Interestingly this group has lost more than half of its members in the last year and the clerk’s office has not received any interested applicants in the last two months.
Page 5.1.19 Strategy 4d.3 – “Apply a general risk management approach to the public water supply watershed whereby land use management takes priority over design and best management practices (BMPs) to reduce or eliminate risk from land development activities.” Reading between the lines of this dense statement, it suggests regardless of placement in the development areas, any parcel should not be developed if it is within the public water supply watershed. This could be read as a call for no development. This is absurd.
Page 5.1.19 Strategy 4e.1 – The explanation of groundwater is overly verbose and at times nonsensical. The suggestion that “A new well may also draw water from the flow that is going to a different resident’s well” is gently worded enough to be technically correct but contradicts testimony provided to the Albemarle County Board of Supervisors from then Water resource Manager David Hirshman.
Chapter 5.2 Historic, Cultural, and Scenic Resources – Page 5.2.3 “Moreover the number of resources destroyed in recent years suggests that continued reliance on solely voluntary measures would not be adequate to protect those resources. Instead a combination of strategies is necessary, including voluntary techniques, regulation, education and financial incentives.” The Free Enterprise Forum calls for regulation to be removed from the strategies listed. This community has a firm desire for voluntary measures and incentives but Historic Preservation Ordinances are unacceptable.
Page 5.2.8 – No one of the strategies for historic preservation includes the phrase with the consent of the property owner.
Page 5.2.10 Strategy 2b1: “Adopt a historic overlay district ordinance to recognize and protect historic, architectural, and cultural resources, including individual sites and districts at the local level”. We acknowledge that this language exists in the current comprehensive plan but we have not seen significant public support for a new confiscatory historic overlay. The Free Enterprise Forum asks that this language be struck from the Comprehensive Plan.
Page 5.2.10 Strategy 2.b.3: “Expand the authority of the Architectural Review Board (ARB) to include the review required under the recommended historic district overlay ordinance. Revise the make up of the ARB to include members with expertise in historic preservation and revise the name of the group accordingly”. Considering our significant concerns with the existing regulatory over reach of the ARB, the Free Enterprise Forum does not support the creation of the Super ARB and ask that it be struck from the Comprehensive Plan.
Page 5.2.10 Strategy 2b.7: “To discourage the destruction of important historic resources, seek enabling legislation that would allow the County to impose meaningful civil penalty for inappropriate demolition, razing or moving of any designated historic resource. This enabling legislation should also authorize the County to use civil penalties collected to fund components of the County’s historic preservation program.” The fact that the County can’t work with existing legislative authority and is seeking to develop a civil penalty slush fund to be used for preservation suggests this is not a true priority for the County. If the county wishes to preserve a historic building or landscape – they should buy it.
Page 5.2.12 Strategy 4a: “The County should help protect Monticello’s viewshed using these measures:” The Free Enterprise Forum has been very outspoken on this issue. Time and again when we raise the issue we have been told this is a voluntary program. Reading the introductory statement this is not voluntary it is declarative.
While we believe all of strategy 4a should be dropped, we ask that if you consider retaining any language it be improved to recognize that the “protection” Monticello is seeking is at the cost of other tax paying property owners rights. Perhaps change this directive to encourage communication (not cooperation) between Monticello and other private property owners regarding visual impacts (not viewshed).
Page 5.2.12 Strategy 4a.5: “Staff should be aware of the Viewshed area and be especially careful when applying land use regulations to properties in the viewshed.” Again we believe the whole section should be dropped but this is ridiculous is staff NOT to be careful in applying land use regulations elsewhere in the County. This is superfluous and suggests additional special treatment that does not exist in code!
Page 5.2.14 Cultural and Scenic resources (last paragraph): “Existing regulations only go so far in protecting the resources. Greater ability to regulate aesthetics is desired to help preserve these qualities“. Recognizing the balance of this chapter calls for increased regulatory powers and aesthetic controls, the Free Enterprise Forum asks how this balances with the “desire” for economic development. Albemarle County is at a critical tipping point where over regulation, while seeking to maintain the existing condition, may forestall the economic advancement of the community.
Page 5.2.21 Plan for Scenic Resources Objective 1: Support wider enabling legislation for regulating aesthetics in specified areas of importance.” Once again the desires of the property owners will be secondary to the powers of regulations for “areas of importance” This objective and the following strategy should be dropped from the plan.
Page 5.2.21 Strategy 1a: “Support enabling legislation for Albemarle County to provide for a scenic protection and tourist enhancement overlay district”. Based on the Free Enterprise Forum’s opposition to the Monticello viewshed overlay one can imagine we are equally, if not more, concerned with the concept of a tourism enhancement overlay district that would hinder the property rights of Albemarle citizens. We do not believe this is the general direction of the Board of Supervisors at this time and question whether the Planning Commission, utilizing Zero Based Planning, has fully vetted this question. If such a proposal were to go forward, the Free Enterprise Forum promises to fight it at the local and state level.
Page 5.2.22 Strategy 2f: “ Consider additional EC [Entrance Corridor] designations as appropriate, or as road classifications change for roads such as the John W. Warner Parkway, Route 614 (Sugar Hollow Road), Route 692/712 Plank Road, and Route 810 (Brown’s Gap Turnpike)”. Albemarle County today has 19 Entrance Corridors. The Free Enterprise Forum believes this is a gross misuse of the enabling legislation. The Free Enterprise Forum asks that the number of entrance corridors be reduced to ten and that no new road may be added as an entrance corridor unless one is removed.
Page 5.2.23 Strategy 2g: “Review the EC guidelines for effectiveness in protecting the integrity of exceptionally scenic EC corridors, such as Route 250 West.” Now the EC guidelines are not enough the concept is to plan for super guidelines for those “exceptional corridors”. If Albemarle County is serious about create protection for the exceptional, the Free Enterprise Forum suggests simply reducing the number of Entrance Corridors and implementing the exceptional strategies on that reduced number.
The natural progression from this concept is recognized in the last line of this section “recommendations for stricter zoning regulations in the ECs may be an outcome of this review”.
Page 5.2.24 Objective 5: Preserve important views as they relate to tourism and recreational assets. This objective and the strategies supporting it suggest a regulatory solution to the organic change of the community. How does this balance with the economic development [or ecological in the case of controlled burns, timber harvesting].
Page 5.2.24 Strategy 5b: Protect the Monticello viewshed as indicated in the historical Resources Section. – see our comments above
Chapter 5.3 Economic Development: While the Free Enterprise Forum is concerned that the Economic Development chapter is the shortest in the Comprehensive Plan, we applaud the inclusion of this important concept.
We are concerned that the length of the Natural Resources chapter is three times that of Economic Development chapter. While both are important, the Free Enterprise Forum believes ample opportunity exists to balance the chapters to better reflect their equal import.
Chapter 5.4 Land use for the Rural areas. The Free Enterprise Forum applauds the inclusion of economic sustainability as a goal for the rural areas. The best way to keep land in agricultural and forestry uses is to allow ancillary uses to help economically support the primary uses.
Chapter 5.5 Land Use for Development Areas, page 5.5.11: Tables for remaining non-constrained land the tables were not updated by the time the document was released to the public for review. We are eager to see the new numbers and anticipate they will consider the land that is now slated to be Biscuit Run State Park to be “constrained”.
Page 5.5.11: “Several studies over the last seven years have indicated that the County has enough rezoned commercial square footage to last more than 20 years. The Studies did not include analysis of already zoned commercial areas or the potential for redevelopment. Because of the amount of work that has already been done on the topic, staff is not going to perform another retail analysis. Instead, attention will be paid to the land designated for industrial and/or employment uses ”. This is a false choice. There is no reason the Planning Commission (or the BOS) should not demand that a retail analysis be conducted for this 5 year update of the comprehensive plan. While the studies are mentioned they are not cited and in just about every case I am aware of these reports were completed with an agenda (both pro and con). Albemarle should insist a proper accounting of commercial space be conducted as a part of this plan.
Page 5.5.15: Objective 1: Achieve high quality development through the application of Neighborhood Model principles. The phraseology of this objective is troublesome. The Free Enterprise Forum believes most if not all applications that come before the Planning Commission have to balance the principles of the neighborhood model to their projects goals and site limitations. We respectfully suggest that the word “flexible” be placed between through and application to better reflect the reality of development [and redevelopment] in Albemarle County.
Page 5.5.19: “A network of streets and convenient routes for pedestrians, bicyclists, buses and other transit, including the potential for light rail in the future allows alternatives to driving”. Back in 2009, we wrote extensively regarding the population required to support the investment of light rail in any community. While we are aware of the highly popular Tide line in the Virginia Beach area, we also recognize they have significantly higher population to support light rail. This twenty year comprehensive plan does not include such population projections; therefore this reference, while fanciful to many in the planning community, should be removed.
Page 5.5.20 Relegated Parking The Free Enterprise Forum believes the parking regulations in Albemarle County are in need of review and revision. The Comprehensive Plan provides an opportunity to suggest such a review. No other principle has received more attention than so called relegated parking. We call on Albemarle County to review the parking regulations with the Albemarle County Police Community Safety through Environmental Design Officer and report back to the BOS prior to moving forward again endorsing relegated parking in the Comprehensive Plan.
Page 5.5.22 “Review the cash proffer policy to assess what effect it may have on density”. Earlier this year the Free Enterprise Forum provided the Planning Commission and Board of Supervisors our white paper “Contradictory Consequences” on cash proffers. We encourage examining our paper, and the examples included, to evaluate the effectiveness of cash proffers on density. We anticipate your findings will be similar to ours that a cash proffer policy encourages by right development at a density and form that is contrary to the County’s approved Comprehensive Plan.
In 2007, Albemarle County looked to Chesterfield County a model for cash proffer legislation. It is interesting that Chesterfield is now contemplating repeal, or at least rolling back, its cash proffer policy. It may be time for Albemarle to take similar action.
Page 5.5.25 Strategy 6b: “Make land use decisions that are consistent with Priority Areas that are established in the Development Area Master Plans. Do not approve proposed rezonings and special use permits outside of the priority areas when planned facilities are not in place to support the project and existing neighborhoods, unless the proposed project will provide significant improvements to ensure adequate infrastructure and services are available to the area”[emphasis added].
As stated above [under growth management] If, as we contend, the County has failed to properly fund and construct concurrent infrastructure, the cost to provide adequate infrastructure to both new and existing residents is now on the private land owner whose development area parcel happens not to fall in the “Priority Area”. For the same reasons as cited above this will accelerate the kind of By Right development the Comprehensive Plan indicates it wishes to avoid. The Free Enterprise Forum is opposed to the se of Priority Areas to reject land use applications that would otherwise have been approved.
Page 5.6.11: “Fund programs of the County’s Housing Department to implement housing policies.” Similar to our concerns regarding the Natural Resource Chapter mandating the County “Hire” an environmental planner, the Free Enterprise Forum does not believe the comprehensive plan is the proper place for the housing department to be requesting additional funding.
Page 5.7.3: “Dispersed development patterns have helped promote a transportation network that is mostly focused on the automobile. In the past a more abundant supply of cheap land and fuel encouraged development patterns that have become hard to sustain”. This anti automobile philosophy is prevalent throughout academic papers in planning. The reality is the automobile is and for the foreseeable future will be the primary form of transportation for the majority of Albemarle’s population. Given advances in fuel economy, hybrid vehicles and transit opportunities, we must question if the current development patterns are really “hard to sustain”?
The Free Enterprise Forum believes multi modal opportunities should be evaluated and implemented but only after recognizing that people who live, work and play in Albemarle County appreciate and invest in the independent mobility of the automobile.
If you have made it this far, thank you. The Free Enterprise Forum is appreciative of the considerable effort of staff, planning commissioners and the public to engage with this document. In addition, thank you for the extension for written comments, as the 3,000+ words above indicate this is a dense document and required time to digest.
We look forward to being a part of the continuing dialog on this issue.
Neil Williamson is the President of the Free Enterprise Forum, a local government public policy organization located in Charlottesville. www.freeenterpriseforum.org