The Louisiana “Overlay District” — a Jeffersonian Approach to Property Rights?

Albemarle County has been rewriting their state mandated Comprehensive Plan for over four years.  The Free Enterprise Forum has been an active participant in these conversations.  With the plan now headed to its final public hearing on June 10, we will provide our chapter by chapter review over the next two weeks culminating with our overall analysis prior to the public hearing. 

Today – Chapter 5 Historic, Cultural, and Scenic Resources

By. Neil Williamson, President

Philosophically, there is an inherent tension between public historic preservation goals and property rights.  The question is when, if ever, does the community’s value of a property’s historic value exceeds the owner’s constitutionally guaranteed rights of property ownership?

The Free Enterprise Forum has long maintained a rather simplistic solution to the property rights tension – If you want to control the property – BUY IT.

In our reading of Chapter 5 of the Draft Comprehensive Plan, it seems as though the value the community places on historic preservation is not about property acquisition but rather property control.

In a recent Albemarle County Board of Supervisors meeting (5/6), Jeff Werner from The Piedmont Environmental Council spoke on behalf of the Historic Preservation Committee regarding their advocacy for increased regulation around the recordation of properties they deem to be historic prior to demolition.  Suggesting that the current voluntary program lacks any “teeth”, Werner asked that more power be given to mandate these recordings.

While the Free Enterprise Forum is aware of a number of properties that have voluntarily opened their doors to such documentation, we have grave concerns regarding the mandate that could require I provide access for the government to record the details of my property.

Carrot or Stick?

Objective 2: Pursue additional protection measures and incentives to preserve Albemarle’s historic and archaeological resources in order to foster pride in the County and maintain the County’s character.

This objective (and the majority of the strategies that support it) seem to rely most heavily on developing a number of new “tools” that are designed to increase the size of government and restrict property rights.

Strategy 2b: Consider adopting regulatory measures for preservation and conservation such as those called for in the adopted 2000 Historic Preservation Plan and its updates.

The surest method of protecting the County’s outstanding collection of Historic and Cultural Resources is through the adoption of an historic overlay district in the Zoning Ordinance, as recommended in the 2000 Historic Preservation Plan.

There is a reason the historic overlay plan recommended in 2000 has not been implemented it is an overzealous use of zoning law that takes advantage of a loophole in The Dillon Rule which exempts local statutes regarding historic reservation.

Control of all I see

The Free Enterprise Forum has been very clear of our concerns regarding property rights crushing viewshed regulations.  While Monticello is seeking their own special designations via the Comprehensive Plan (more on that below), Albemarle County is seeking to gain power over all they can see.

Strategy 6b: Support enabling legislation for Albemarle County to provide a scenic protection and tourist enhancement overlay zoning district. . .

As the County pursues options to protect the visual quality of land as an aesthetic and economic resource, this legislation would provide a method to ensure greater protection of visual resources and scenic areas than currently exists.

Once again the Comprehensive Plan seeks to place government in a position that it knows best how you should handle your property rather than you.  Beyond just restricting development potential, it is not a stretch to see a tourism overlay that might prohibit the harvesting of privately held forested lands or otherwise diminish the property owners ability to utilize their land as they see fit. 

Monticello Super Citizen

Sadly this is not the most egregious flaw in the chapter; that designation clearly belongs to the Monticello  Viewshed property rights restrictions.

The most famous former resident of Monticello had many thoughts about property rights including:

“A right to property is founded in our natural wants, in the means with which we are endowed to satisfy these wants, and the right to what we acquire by those means without violating the similar rights of other sensible beings.” Thomas Jefferson

In addition Mr. Jefferson (as he is so reverently referred to in Charlottesville) also suggested in another document that “all men are created equal”.  Not so according to the Thomas Jefferson  Foundation, the non profit entity that owns the former president’s mansion.

The Foundation has been successful in inserting language into Albemarle County’s Comprehensive plan that would provide Monticello “Super Citizen” status:

Strategy 5: Help protect Monticello’s Viewshed … Monticello’s elevated location near the County’s Development areas means that the view from that mountaintop is subject to significant change.  Albemarle County, therefore, has a cultural responsibility and an economic interest in helping to preserve Monticello’s viewshed….

To help preserve the view from Monticello, the Thomas Jefferson Foundation has prepared guidelines for development located within the vista of the Monticello mountaintop.  These voluntary guidelines which are available from the Foundation, are intended to help property owners and land developers work with the Foundation to preserve the important views for tourists who visit Monticello.

So, Albemarle County finds that the economic interests of the foundation exceed the property rights of those property owners who dare to live within sight of Jefferson’s mansion.

Beyond just these “voluntary” guidelines, the Comprehensive plan provides two more strategies designed for the Monticello Super Citizen:

Strategy 5c:  When reviewing discretionary land proposals, consider impacts on Monticello’s viewshed and encourage mitigation measures that are keeping with the County’s Comprehensive Plan …Strong consideration of how a proposed development affects the Monticello Viewshed should be given when reviewing development proposals in the viewshed.  Impacts to Monticello should be a part of staff reports provided to the Commission and Board.

Strategy 5d:  When revising zoning and subdivision regulations, consider the impacts of new regulations on Monticello’s viewshed.

Yes, Monticello is an important part of our community but the Free Enterprise Forum does not believe it is deserving of such super citizen powers over other property owners.

Contrast this taking of others property options absent compensation  approach to The Thomas Jefferson Foundation’s actions to acquire Montalto (formerly Brown’s Mountain) in 2004.  Dan Jordan, then Foundation President was quoted in The Hook 

“It’s a very expensive approach to viewshed protection,” says Jordan. “We’re not in the real estate business, but we felt we had to act to save our viewshed and protect a community landmark.”

Just as Jefferson did not seek to grow the nation via the Louisiana Overlay District, if the Foundation is interested in determining the color of the buildings on the land beneath them, they should PURCHASE it.

Anyone who wishes to do anything ever with their Albemarle County property would be wise to read the Historic, Cultural and Scenic resources chapter of the Comprehensive Plan to see how little Albemarle County values your property rights.

Respectfully Submitted,

Neil Williamson



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

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