Admiral Stockdale and the Albemarle County Planning Commission

Adapted from comments to the Albemarle County Planning Commission October 22, 2014

By. Neil Williamson, President

UnknownDuring the 1992 Vice Presidential debate Vice Admiral James Stockdale famously asked the existential, and rhetorical, question “Who am I, why am I here?”.

Tonight, we ask the Albemarle County Planning Commission to examine the same question in the context of when is it appropriate for a Planning Commissioner to talk to an applicant.

While the statutory requirements set forth in the Virginia state code are exceedingly clear in their direction for Planning Commissions, in Albemarle County the planning process has become exceedingly elongated for significant projects with the “not required”, “strongly suggested” neighborhood meetings that simply do not exist in state code.

Beyond the “non-mandated” pre-application neighbor meetings, the unelected community councils continue to grow in power in Albemarle County.  Their influence has grown to the point that one Planning Commissioner has said on the record that he would have a tough time supporting any proposal that did not have the blessing of the Community Council.

If all these individuals are meeting with applicants prior to the application coming before the Planning Commission, why shouldn’t Planning Commissioners independently meet with applicants prior to the hearing.

Meanwhile Albemarle’s current Board of Supervisors has shown a tendency to want to send applications back to the Planning Commission if they have significant questions about them.  This is not helpful.

The Free Enterprise Forum is troubled by the lack of leadership from the Albemarle Board of Supervisors regarding direction to the Planning Commission.  To the layperson it would seem that any project that is in accordance with the community vetted comprehensive plan should have a rather smooth route to approval – this is not the case.

Even By-Right projects that have minor special exceptions required tend to be put through the extended Albemarle County application fun ride.

Institutionally, the Albemarle County Planning Commission (and by extension staff) seem to believe the longer it takes an application to work its way through the process the better the application will be.  — this is not the case.

Tonight, the Planning Commission will also be discussing some of the proposed process improvements put forth by the Development Review Task Force a couple years ago.  If this seems familiar, in 1999 we went through a similar process with the Development Initiatives Steering Committee (DISC) not to be confused with 2001 “Son of DISC” (DISC II).  Believe it or not some of the DISC II proposals are still working their way through the bureaucratic process.

While the idea of continuous process review and refinement is laudatory and the concept of preapplication planning commissioner meeting should be discussed — but the bigger picture question must be answered – does Albemarle truly want development in their development areas AND are you encouraging such activity?

The Free Enterprise Forum hopes the Albemarle County Planning Commission will take this opportunity to consider the question of who they are and what is their proper role.  We believe it really is the job of the Board of Supervisors to provide that direction but absent such leadership the Planning Commission self introspection will be helpful.

For what it is worth, we believe their role is to direct staff and advise the board on the appropriateness of proposals as compared with the Comprehensive Plan.  We believe they should, if anything, have a proactive prejudice that suggests they stand up for development in the development areas.  We believe this dovetails with the comprehensive plan as well as the economic development initiatives of Albemarle County

Some on this commission may feel your role is to mitigate the impacts of such development on existing residents while others may not want to see significant increases in development whatsoever.  Regardless of your position it would be good to know where this commission stands.

It is unfortunate that an entire generation only know Admiral Stockdale as Ross Perot’s Vice Presidential running mate. Admiral Stockdale was one of the most decorated officers in the history of the Navy with 26 personal combat decorations, including four Silver Star medals in addition to the Medal of Honor.  During his time as a prisoner of war in the Hanoi Hilton, he provided the troops held with him both leadership and inspiration.  Tonight I will close with my favorite Stockdale quote:

“In order to do something, you must be something”

This seems to be a fitting charge for your discussion this evening.

Thank you for the opportunity to comment.

Respectfully Submitted,

Neil Williamson, President


20070731williamson Neil Williamson is the President of The Free Enterprise Forum, a public policy organization covering the City of Charlottesville as well as Albemarle, Greene, Fluvanna, Louisa  and Nelson County.  For more information visit the website


One response

  1. Here we agree on one thing, that the existential question should be asked and answered by the BOS; I think that “perfectly clear” in the Virginia code (language) which is sufficiently vague (§ 15.2-2210). The legislative intent expressly states that planning is a responsibility and function of our local governing body; the function of the planning commission is advisory. There appears to be sufficient latitude given to elected officials to decide the how, when, where, and why that advising occurs, subject to specifics either mandated or restricted by code.

    For what it is worth, the Comprehensive Plan is “clear as mud”, and the sparring over that is still subject to public comment and review. That said, it appears to this bystander that a majority of items brought before the PC and the Board materially seek exceptions to the CP. What you appear to be advocating is either 1) eliminating restrictions on development activity entirely, perhaps as a far to the right “property rights” advocate; or, 2) expediting the means by which prospective developments can dodge public input altogether.

    As for Admiral Stockdale, I admired his duty to Country and dedicated service. He was a brave man. And by all historical accounts, a wise man. That’s a reasonably good quote, which like any proverb, can be easily misused. “Being” may be a predicate to “doing”, as a necessary condition; however “being” is insufficient. One could argue that the EPA, for example, “is”; even authorized to “do”. Yet what it “does” may arguably be harmful. The Planning Commission can be as useful, or useless, as the BOS chooses and the public (inclusive of but not exclusive to business) allows.

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