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.
By. Neil Williamson, President
As of 2009, most of the geographic area of Albemarle is in the rural areas (95%+) yet, by design, the population majority is in the development areas (53%). This population/area inversion means as a community we are becoming increasingly less connected to the agricultural enterprises that make the rural areas economically sustainable.
The Rural Areas chapter of the Albemarle County Comprehensive Plan is vastly improved over previous iterations. Some of the concepts such as adaptable reuse of historic crossroads buildings and embracing the diversity of Albemarle’s agricultural products is refreshing and could be used to grow agribusiness; other portions seem to be regulatory overreach that seems to want to stunt such growth before it begins.
As an example in considering new uses for the Rural Area, the Comprehensive Plan has set forth criteria that will be incredibly difficult to meet, including:
- relate directly to the Rural Areas and need a Rural Area location in order to be successful
- be suitable for existing rural roads and result in little discernible difference in traffic patterns.
The first provision seems to be an impossible challenge; how to define “need”. There are successful urban wineries but, all of Albemarle’s have proven success in the Rural Areas. The second perverse provision reminds me of a former Albemarle County Supervisor who famously once said
“I love the wineries, it’s their customers I could do without”.
While the disconnect with the business demands of a rural enterprise may be predictable due to our population centers shifting to the development areas, it is no less troubling. For that reason, we were happy to read the very specific language in the Chapter regarding conflicts between agricultural enterprises and residential uses.
Livestock produces odors and noises. Application of fertilizer, especially manure, on crops can produce smells that are offensive to non-farming residents, especially when those residents are entertaining outdoors.
This recognition of rural enterprises as the primary function of the Rural Areas is refreshing.
Interestingly, on page 7.41 the Rural Area Chapter references recent legislation that limit locality regulatory power:
On July 1, 2014 State legislation became effective that expanded the opportunities for events at farms with bona fide agricultural operations and also for farm breweries. Localities are only able to to regulate events that have a “substantial impact” on public health, safety and welfare – which the State does not define.
Albemarle has decided a significant impact is a party of 200 people:
Strategy 6a: Continue to require special permission for events at farm wineries, farm breweries, and bona fide agricultural operations for over 200 persons and for other events in the Rural Areas for over 150 persons. These special events should promote or support agricultural production or a unique rural activity, such as a County fair, and should be limited to once or twice per year.
Not content to just limit the number of people gathered in the Rural Areas, the Comprehensive Plan is also seeking to determine what outdoor recreational activities one is allowed to do in the country.
Banning Golf, Swim and Tennis
While some on the planning commission were looking to be more permissive suggesting uses such as commercial mountain biking, cyclocross, zip lines and rock climbing activities, the tenor is much more restrictive regarding other recreational uses in the rural areas:
Clubs for swim, golf, and tennis have many suburban characteristics and typically are located in or adjacent to the development areas. A Development Area location is more accessible to and compatible with nearby residential uses where sidewalks and road improvements are expected. Expectations from patrons can be very different from those of nearby farmers. Consideration should be given to removing these uses from the list of available special uses in the Rural Area.
To be clear, currently these uses require a special use permit that provides the locality the mechanism to develop conditions that mitigate impacts on the community.
Example 1: The Old Trail Golf Course in Crozet is located in the Rural Area. This serves as an amenity to the Old Trail Community and provides a buffer between the dense residential area and the rural area. As apart of their special use permit Old Trail and Albemarle agreed to agreed to 18 conditions that covered many important considerations including water usage and source, public accessibility to the course, the use of native plants throughout the course, minimal grading plan, extensive stream buffering system and much more.
Example 2: The Blue Ridge Swim Club. According to their website:
The Pool at Blue Ridge Swim Club is a historic treasure. Built in 1913 by R. Warner Wood, the Blue Ridge Pool was the centerpiece of Blue Ridge Camp, established in 1909. The camp was founded by Wood, a University of Virginia graduate with a Master’s degree in Greek and History and a firm believer in developing both mind and body. According to his 1918 brochure, Blue Ridge Camp offered “symmetrical, physical, mental, moral and social development in boys, along with plenty of healthful, natural fun.” Boys slept in tents on the property and activities included swimming, calisthenics, boxing, wrestling, baseball, football and track.
Wood and his friends chose a spot where a spring fed the stream to build the pool. He is said to have hired an engineer who had worked on the Panama Canal to design the water flow system, which brings water from the stream into a nearby settling tank, where the silt separates from the water. The same system continues to supply water to the Pool today.
In 2010, about 100 years after its founding, The Blue Ridge Swim Club wanted to return to its roots offering summer camp activities similar (but updated) to those offered in 1910, the centerpiece being the pool.
In order to accomplish this task, a Special Use Permit was required which included 10 conditions that served to provide the community with a set of expectations regarding camp operation. Those conditions included:
SP-2010-00041 Blue Ridge Swim Club subject to the following conditions:
1. Development of the SP-2010-00041 uses use shall be in general accord with the conceptual plan titled “Blue Ridge Swim Club “ prepared by Kelly Strickland and dated December 20, 2010 and revised February 2, 2011 (Attachment A) (hereafter “Conceptual Plan”), as determined by the Director of Planning and the Zoning Administrator.
To be in accord with the Conceptual Plan, development shall reflect the following major elements within the development essential to the design of the development:
• Limits of disturbance
• Location and size of pavilion building
• Location of parking areas
• Minimum clearing possible may be allowed to locate well, septic line and drainfields, parking and pavilion
as shown on the Blue Ridge Swim Club concept plan.
Minor modifications to the plan which do not conflict with the elements above may be made to ensure compliance with the Zoning Ordinance.
2. The hours of operation for SP-2010-00041 Blue Ridge Swim Club shall not begin earlier than 12:00 PM (noon) and shall end not later than 8:00 P.M., each day, seven days per week, Memorial Day weekend through Labor Day weekend.
3. All outdoor lighting shall be only full cut-off fixtures and shielded to reflect light away from all abutting properties. A lighting plan limiting light levels at all property lines to no greater than 0.3 foot candles shall be submitted to the Zoning Administrator or their designee for approval.
4. Food prepared off-site may be sold from a concession stand that is depicted on the Conceptual Plan.
5. Approval of the Health Department for the well, septic and food concession shall be required prior to approval of a site plan.
6. Approval by the Virginia Department of Transportation for the entrance shall be required prior to approval of site plan.
7. Prior approval by the Fire Department shall be required prior to all outdoor cooking and/or campfires.
8. No amplification of sound shall be permitted, with the exception of a megaphone used on Fridays during each season (Memorial Day weekend through Labor Day weekend) during field games, radios, and electronic sound producing or reproducing devices, provided that any such amplified sound shall comply with the applicable noise regulations.
9. Parking on Owensville Road by attendees or staff of the Blue Ridge Swim Club or the Camp shall not be permitted.
10. No more than 200 people shall be on the property for any purpose at any time.
The Free Enterprise Forum believes that if the Comprehensive Plan is enacted as drafted neither of these two entities would be permitted to be constructed in the Rural Area (to be clear they would be grandfathered and permitted to continue current operations).
In Late February we queried Albemarle’s Deputy County Attorney Greg Kamptner regarding the impact of this change in language in the Comprehensive Plan on future applications. While acknowledging he could not envision all possible applications, he was kind enough to opine on three possible outcomes:
In one example, a swim club SP application is received in the months right after the comp plan is adopted. Staff’s analysis would undoubtedly consider the language in the comp plan, note that it states that the County should consider that this type of use should no longer be located in the Rural Area, and likely conclude that the application is inconsistent with the comp plan. Even though the comp plan refers to “considering” the issue, staff’s conclusion could be reached because the application generated the very concerns that the comp plan was seeking to address – the proposed use would be suburban in nature and generally incompatible with the Rural Area.
In a second example, staff could note that the comp plan language provides that removing this type of use be considered for removal from the Rural Area, note that the issue has not yet been considered, evaluate the application based on what is proposed and the general context of the comp plan’s concern – swim clubs and similar recreational uses are generally suburban, not rural, in nature, identify the potential impacts on the district and adjoining properties, but then focus its analysis on the qualities of the particular application and make a recommendation accordingly.
In a third example, a swim club SP application is received a couple of years after the comp plan was adopted. During that time, the Board has considered and rejected the idea of doing away with swim clubs in the Rural Area in their entirety but has, instead, adopted a zoning text amendment that creates performance standards for Rural Area-type swim clubs (and different standards for suburban swim clubs). The comp plan language remains because its review cycle has not begun. The staff analysis for the SP likely would acknowledge the language in the comp plan, note that the County considered the issue, and decided to address it as it did in the zoning text amendment.
Because the comp plan is a policy document created to guide decision-making, it is different from an ordinance and does not compel a particular result.
Considering the unique conditions the Special Use permit provides and the unclear outcomes of such Comprehensive Plan language change, the Free Enterprise Forum recommends changing the Comprehensive Plan language to be less specific and simply recommend evaluating ALL recreational uses in the Rural Areas and their impacts.
Restricting Rural Interstate Interchange Development
Within the Comprehensive Plan Albemarle suggests development at rural interchanges is acceptable as long as it is the right kind of commercial development:
Strategy 7d: Permit uses at rural interstate interchanges that support agriculture and forestry.
So considering the above, the county is OK with rural interchange intersection development but needs to have a nexus to the agricultural community.
Albemarle County speaks at length about their desire for tourism and economic development in other chapters of the Comprehensive Plan. Albemarle often touts that it is the #2 locality in the state in number of Farm Wineries.
From Late April through Late October, each and every Saturday, Albemarle also watches as thousands of winery tourists (and their transient tax dollars) go over the mountain to Waynesboro to find a hotel room. Part of the reason, the Rural Interstate Development Restrictions.
As tourism is important to the success of many rural agricultural enterprises, the Free Enterprise Forum believes allowing hotels located near rural interstate interchanges would be supportive of agriculture. We suggest adding language to the plan that would “consider” under what performance based standards hotels might be allowed by special use permit at rural interstate intersection.
Albemarle County would be wise to allow more rather than less activity in the rural area and provide enforceable special use permit conditions to ensure that the 95% of the county that is designated as Rural Area remains economically viable.
Neil Williamson, President
TOMORROW: Albemarle Development Area Report Card 3 “D”s – DENSITY, DESIGN, DELUSIONS AND DECAY
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 www.freeenterpriseforum.org
Photo Credits: Albemarle County, Old Trail Golf Club, Blue Ridge Swim Club