Is Charlottesville Catching the Albemarle Flu?


By. Neil Williamson, President

Over the last twenty years or so, the City of Charlottesville has beenflu-man-200x300 politically left leaning but has recognized the import of business contribution not only to the tax revenue but also to the fabric of the community.

As a land locked 10 square miles, the City determined to make it easier to increase density where it wanted such density to occur. By right reduction of parking requirements in certain University zones is just one of the many ordinance revisions the City designed to be more open for development. Today, the Free Enterprise Forum is concerned that recent actions may have the City moving away from this philosophical paradigm.

We fear the city is moving in the direction of Albemarle County [Also known as the Albemarle Flu] who has made development applications so expensive and time consuming that they have not seen a significant residential rezoning in many years.

On Tuesday night, the Charlottesville Planning Commission considered a resolution of intent to require almost all development proposals greater than six units to hold public neighborhood meetings prior to being processed. This includes site plans that are utilizing existing zoning.

The Free Enterprise Forum has significant questions regarding the legality of these provisions especially the site plan review.

Considering the import of hearing from members of the public and development community we found it interesting that the staff report admitted that they moved this public engagement initiative forward absent ANY public engagement:

Community Engagement:
There has been no community engagement prior to preparation of this Resolution for your consideration; however, the purpose of the proposed text amendments is specifically to provide for enhanced community engagement on an ongoing basis.

On the face of this it seems like increased public engagement would be a good thing, and many property owners already conduct such meetings and find them to be competitive advantages to getting projects approved. When such meetings are mandated – or worse delegated to a super citizen “advisory” panel – this empowers that unelected group of citizens with defacto veto power over the project.

The result of such power can be changes to the project design that benefits the neighborhood but may weaken the projects impact on the region. Over our dozen years of operation, the strongest voices in opposition to projects tend to be opposed to the increased density such a project may bring. At the Planning Commission level, there is an understanding and acceptance that the density of any rezoning should mirror the designation in the community vetted Comprehensive Plan. This is rarely the case at Neighborhood Meetings where the focus tends to be on reducing the density proposed and reducing the impact of such density on the surrounding community.

The Free Enterprise Forum has significant questions regarding the legality of these provisions especially the site plan review.

No application seeking approval of a site plan, preliminary or final, for property that will be used for any commercial or industrial purpose, or that will contain six (6) or more residential dwelling units, shall be accepted for review, unless and until the applicant has participated in a pre-application conference and has held a community meeting in accordance with guidelines established by the director of neighborhood development services in accordance with sec. 34-41(c)(2). Any application that fails to demonstrate compliance with these requirements shall be rejected as incomplete. The director may waive the requirement for a community meeting, if a community meeting was previously held for the same development at the time of city council’s consideration of an application for approval of a special use permit or petition for a zoning map amendment.

Unintended consequence 1- Loss of density and innovative design — If an applicant must complete the neighborhood meeting prior to their application being complete, the Planning Commission will see significantly fewer innovative higher density projects because the neighbors will not approve of the density or the creative design.

Unintended (?) consequence 2 – Increased application time – Virginia state code mandates completed applications must be considered by the Planning Commission and Board within 90 days of submittal. By inserting language that the results of a neighborhood meeting must be a part of a completed application, the staff is able to hit “snooze” on the so called 90 day shot clock until the meeting has been held. In addition, the proposed ordinance contains a not so veiled threat, considering the applicant has a subjective review in from of the Planning Commission/City Council:

The applicant’s consent to a work session is required, if the work session would extend the time for action by the board or commission beyond applicable deadlines established by law.

The proposed ordinance also provides for more favorable treatment of some applications if the Planning Director wants to waive the meeting requirement. While the Free Enterprise Forum appreciates the flexibility such a provision provides, we wonder if the criteria for waiving the meeting is objective enough to meet the Virginia Supreme Court’s Sinclair decision regarding staff determinations:

The director may waive the requirement for a public meeting, upon a determination that the meeting is not likely to achieve the public purposes intended to be served, after consideration of the following: (i) the nature of the approval requested, the acreage affected, the proposed density, the proposed scale, and potential impacts, (ii) any other factors deemed relevant upon applying sound zoning principles, (iii) whether other public work sessions or meetings have already been held regarding the application, so as to make a community meeting unreasonably duplicative.

Unintended consequence 3 – Increase cost and use of “stale” zoning – If adding a mandated neighborhood meeting increases the approval time on a rezoning by 1 month and adds another set of plan revisions, the cost of the project increases due to financial carrying costs and design fees. Dependent on the size of the project this increase in cost could be in the tens of thousands of dollars. Rather than subject themselves to such cost and uncertainty, many property owners will calculate the value of developing the land not as it is in the community vetted Comprehensive Plan but as the land is currently zoned and move forward in six unit phases. The result is no neighborhood involvement and reduced density in direct conflict with the Comprehensive Plan.

The Free Enterprise Forum is very concerned that Charlottesville’s well intentioned desire for increased public engagement results in several significant unintended consequences and may be legally challenged. Further, we believe this new layer of review will significantly reduce the number of applications that come forward and reduce the economic vitality of the development sector. We fear this may be the intended consequence of the proponents of this ordinance change.

Tuesday night’s resolution may be the first sneeze of Charlottesville catching the Albemarle Flu, I sure hope not.

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

Photo Credit: Donlon Healthmart Pharmacy

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