E-mail received Wednesday July 27th:
“Last evening (7/26), under New Business (after your departure) the planning commissioners briefly discussed your comments under “matters from the public.” We wonder if you might expand on your thoughts in a 1-3 page “discussion piece” for our review, reflection and comment at a future meeting.
J. Timothy Keller – At-Large Commissioner and Chair
Albemarle Co. Planning Commission
By. Neil Williamson, President Free Enterprise Forum
For a LONG TIME, Albemarle County has been institutionally aloof regarding business prospects. The consensus thinking had been ‘of course they want to come here, they are lucky we’re even considering letting them in’. Virginia’s economic development office only reluctantly sent prospects to Albemarle based on this attitude and the lack of inventory available. Many neighboring localities benefited from this posture as they positioned themselves as “Not Albemarle”.
According to some, this philosophical position has changed, we are still waiting to see “the New Day in Albemarle”. Like it or not, economic development is a competitive effort. The question is not only does Albemarle want to compete – the question is does Albemarle want to win?
Citizens are beginning to recognize the need for commercial and light industrial economic development that could increase revenue and relieve tax pressure on Albemarle County land owners. Staff to is recognizing the need as some have taken to comparing economic development decisions to getting a child to eat vegetables, it is no longer ‘do you want vegetables’ the question is ‘peas or carrots?’.
As part of Albemarle County’s Economic Development Strategic Planning, the Free Enterprise Forum believes the Planning Commission is uniquely qualified to assist in identifying and reducing the regulatory barriers to development while preserving the public input to the process.
In her presentation, Economic Development Director Faith McClintic identified Regulation & Development Review Time as one of the four County influences of cost components. As “Time is money”, the Planning Commission should consider several steps to reducing the time required for a prospect business to gain the necessary approvals to build or lease space and be open for business.
We believe the Planning Commission should focus on this charge rather than determining which type of job or income level we should be targeting. By focusing on improving the process, you make Albemarle more welcoming to ALL jobs.
Idea #1 Proactive Rezoning – The community vetted Comprehensive Plan map and the Zoning maps do not agree. If the Planning Commission simply did a County wide adjustment to the maps, with owner consent and proper public input, you could increase the inventory of properly designated land AND remove an unproductive 1.5 years from an applicant approval process. Such a public process might include a public education component regarding business taxes reducing pressure on property taxes.
To be successful the proactive rezoning must allow for development to occur. When Albemarle created the Downtown Crozet District with a proactive rezoning it added a burdensome layer of design guidelines that precluded almost all private investment in the district (only 1 business is now using the DCD zoning- and they almost could not).
Idea #2 Expand the development areas
Albemarle County is woefully behind other communities in land designated for growth. Based on the new environmental restrictions (stream buffers, preserved slopes) and the Creation of Biscuit Run State Park.
Expecting 5% of your land mass to generate enough positive business revenue to pay for citizen service demands, is not feasible. Absent new land for light industrial development, Albemarle’s projected property tax increases are only just beginning. As the tax rates grow, businesses will stop expanding here, choosing instead more business friendly (and lower tax burdensome) localities.
Albemarle will never catch up to its so called “peer” communities if it does not dedicate, designate and zone more land to jobs.
Idea #2.5 Removing highway interchange zoning restrictions.
Starting with the end in mind, Albemarle County should have land available to meet the Comprehensive Plan’s Economic Development goal of a varied and vibrant job base. According to McClintic, if a prospect business contacts her office seeking to have highway access, she must tell them she has nothing to offer.
Due to political work of those who came before us, Albemarle has Interstate 64 cutting through the County. In 1979, when the development area boundaries were created, Albemarle made a decision not to maximize this highway frontage. Let’s face it 1979 had a number of bad ideas (pet rocks, disco, Ford Pinto etc.) it is time to reconsider this nonsensical notion and open economic development near interchanges to both commercial and industrial opportunities.
As an aside, this issue continues to be discussed in the community. Just last week, the Albemarle County Farm Bureau passed a resolution in support of this concept.
Idea #3 Streamline Approval Process – One need only look to the Development Review Task Force, Development Initiative Steering Committee (DISC), DISCII (AKA Son of DISC) to see specific proposals to streamline operations that have not been instituted.
The level of detail required at the rezoning stage is ridiculous. Albemarle should return to the “bubble map” methodology which focuses on the use not the design of the project. This would significantly reduce the staff time to process applications and the applicant cost of reengineered drawings for multiple iterations.
Idea #3.5 Eliminate Mandated Community Meetings-Holding such meetings in the prescribed county fashion adds unnecessary red tape and time costs. Such meetings should be voluntary for applicants and those who hold them will tend to have a competitive advantage when their proposal comes forward. These meetings have become unelected screening devices that limit the quality and density of proposals that move forward to the Planning Commission.
Idea #4 Consider Municipal investment in an Industrial Park – Albemarle County has dedicated a significant portion of its development area to open space (parks, easements, stream buffers, etc.) that positively impacts the “Quality of Life” but generates zero tax revenue. An argument could be made that investing in an industrial park where local jobs could grow would be at least as valuable as paying a landowner not to develop their development area property.
Idea #5 Remove Development Area Building Height Restrictions If Albemarle wishes to develop a true urban core with significant population and business density, the current height limitations should be repealed. Allow the market (rather than government) dictate height requirements.
Idea #6 Metrics, Metrics, Metrics The Free Enterprise Forum believes people pay attention to those things that are measured. We recommend the Planning Commission and Board of Supervisors receive quarterly reports that contain the following:
- what is the success rate for NMD projects?
- How much commercial absorption is happening each year? If we achieve no real commercial, then aren’t these just overcomplicated residential projects?
- What’s the Review time per project?
- What’s the tax revenue impact per project?
- What is the cumulative tax revenue impact of commercial development?
- New Commercial SF construction/yr
- New Industrial/Flex SF construction/yr
- Residential build-out of higher profile areas or projects (e.g., Crozet, HTC, Belvedere, Liberty Hall, Spring Hill, Riverside Village, Old Trail)
As stated previously, the Free Enterprise Forum believes the Planning Commission is in the best position to identify and eliminate regulatory barriers. Such action will require courage and faith. Many of these types of decisions will require the Planning Commission NOT to weigh in rather to grant approval administratively. While we recognize this may be a new concept for many commissioners we believe not weighing in may actually generate more of the type of development the Comprehensive Plan envisions.
Thank you for the opportunity to provide more than three minutes of thoughts on this issue.
Neil Williamson, President, Free Enterprise Forum