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
To understand the conceptual underpinnings of the Development Areas Chapter of Albemarle County’s Comprehensive Plan, one must understand that the over arching planning goal is to drive the majority of county residents to live in the development areas where it is more efficient to provide government services.
The generally accepted methodology for encouraging this population movement is to incise new dense development by making the development areas more attractive than rural area development by virtue of better service delivery, enhanced recreational opportunities as well as other amenities.
If you accept this premise, then the question is who will provide the amenities that make the development areas more attractive than rural area development. In the early 2000s, the Development Initiatives Steering Committee (DISC) and the Development Initiatives Steering Committee II (DISC II AKA “Son of DISC”) believed that it was a joint public private partnership to provide such infrastructure.
THE BIG LIE – Concurrency of Public Infrastructure
The private side of the equation has held up their part of the bargain mainly as required “voluntary” proffers for rezoning applications but the public investment has been lacking.
Consider the (empty?) promises in the Development Areas chapter:
The urban neighborhoods are expected to provide a full array of residential types and densities and look and feel like a city. All levels of retail, business, and industrial activities, along with regional employment centers. In addition, extensive urban and regional public facilities and services and infrastructure are to be provided. (8.4)
Strategy 2c: Continue to promote pedestrian safety through construction of crosswalks for sidewalks. The County has developed a capital needs list which includes locations for crosswalks to improve pedestrian safety. Funding and prioritization takes place through the Capital Improvements Program (CIP). This activity should be continued to improve pedestrian safety. (8.14)
New centers should be created in accordance with Master Plan recommendations. Existing centers should be recognized and, in some cases, enhanced. Public investment may be needed to create a center, such as a new public park in or near an existing neighborhood. New centers should be created in accordance with Master Plans. As destinations, centers should be visually discernible to help create and facilitate a sense of arrival. (8.17)
Strategy 3c: Work with residents and property owners to identify property maintenance concerns, establish maintenance expectations and programs to address them, and determine the resources that will best enable the programs to be effective.(8.30)
Existing neighborhoods are also key features of the Development Areas. Investments in infrastructure, such as water, sewer, sidewalks, and drainage, help to strengthen these neighborhoods. Improved street networks, connections to employment centers, and excellent school facilities help support residential development as well as encourage businesses to expand. (Introduction 8.3)
The public infrastructure investment in existing neighborhoods in Albemarle County has been tepid at best. Some Supervisors are awakening to the fact that it is NOT new development that is generating the demand for infrastructure investment but instead deferred public investment.
As neighborhoods age new community investment will be needed not only to provide the amenities that supposedly draw residents to the Development Areas but basic infrastructure investment to keep citizens safe.
Adequate Public Facilities?
Later in the chapter, recognizing that the county has not met its investment obligations to support the Development Areas, the Comp Plan throws what can only be described as an illegal “Hail Mary” pass suggesting it can postpone development applications based on this County failure:
Strategy 9c: Do not approve proposed rezonings and special use permits outside of 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.
Planning staff may want to run this passage past legal once more. Annually, Albemarle County and other localities attempt to gain such legislative authority via Adequate Public Facilities legislation. It has failed in each of the last 10 General Assembly sessions. Absent such legislation, under the Dillion Rule, Albemarle County does not have the ability to reject development proposals on the basis that Albemarle County has failed to properly provide for their existing residents.
Density Desires-Stack’em and Pack’em
Objective 5: Promote density within the Development Areas to help create new compact urban places.
Albemarle County’s Growth Management Policy relies on development within the density ranges recommended for the Development Areas. Although parts of Albemarle County’s Development Areas were developed at less than two units per acre, low-density development prevents opportunities for transit and increases maintenance costs for roads and utilities. For these reasons, Albemarle County expects new development in a different pattern so that residents can have more opportunities to walk, bicycle, or take transit to work and entertainment. To avoid expansion of the Development Areas and to help create livable walkable places, density of new development is expected at a minimum of three units per acre in places designated as Neighborhood Density and a minimum of six units per acre where land is designated as Urban Density.
New Urbanist theology revolves at the altar of density – it is little surprise however that most existing neighborhoods balk at the concept of having such high density new development built around them.
Yet, rezoning applications that need to go through the public process and hear these neighborhood concerns also must answer the Comprehensive Plan demands:
Strategy 5b: Encourage developers to build at the higher end of the density range, on greenfield sites, provided that development will be in keeping with design recommendations in the Neighborhood Model.
Even worse than being just stuck between these competing goals, the Comprehensive Plan also seeks to maintain the unelected, unregulated “advisory” role of Community Councils –
The Gatekeepers – Community Councils hinder Property Rights
Strategy 1b: Continue to use Community Advisory Councils to help develop Master Plan updates, provide guidance on conformity of proposed projects with the Master Plan, assist in implementation of the Master Plan, and to act as a clearing-house for information that is important to the Development Area.
The Free Enterprise Forum finds these unelected councils to be superfluous to the process and often counter to the County’s stated positions and goals. One of the largest battles at the first Community Council was over the density planned for Crozet.
In addition, the Councils provide Planning Commissioners and Board of Supervisors members political cover and the ability to avoid making important decisions regarding the County’s direction. While encouraging citizens to be engaged in the legislatively mandated planning process, the Free Enterprise Forum continues to call for the elimination of the illegal gatekeepers known as Community Councils.
In mandating Comprehensive Plans, Virginia State Code prescribes the nature of the plan:
§ 15.2-2223. Comprehensive plan to be prepared and adopted; scope and purpose. …
The comprehensive plan shall be general in nature, in that it shall designate the general or approximate location, character, and extent of each feature, including any road improvement and any transportation improvement, shown on the plan and shall indicate where existing lands or facilities are proposed to be extended, widened, removed, relocated, vacated, narrowed, abandoned, or changed in use as the case may be.
Albemarle County has a different concept of general in nature as the Development Area Chapter goes to great length to be rather specific regarding their new urbanist philosophical positions:
It is important to visually define the center to help create and facilitate a sense of arrival. In Figure 10, the clock tower and cupola help people to see their destination. Centers should be approximately ¼ mile from homes as seen in the illustration in Figure 11. This distance can be increased up to ½ mile if a center contains a transit stop.
This granular level of design can inhibit creative street alignment. While the above figure might work well on paper the rolling hills that we appreciate in Albemarle County often require a less grid like pattern.
In the nearly 50 pages of the Development Areas chapter of Albemarle’s Comprehensive Plan, several new urbanist themes are demanded of private developers increasing the cost and increasing the Development Area amenities while Albemarle County continues to fail to make similar investments allowing some neighborhoods to decay and depreciate.
A robust infrastructure investment program is needed to support the lofty (and so far empty) promises of the Development Areas Chapter.
Neil Williamson, President
TOMORROW – Albemarle Transportation Policy – Multimodal or Anti-Automobile?
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 Credit: Source: Community Design and Architecture 2011