Albemarle Backdoor Downzoning Proposed

By. Neil Williamson, President

Imagine you woke up one morning and you learned, through no fault of your own, your property was worth 50% less than when you went to bed the night before.

What if you also found housing was less available, less diverse and more expensive?

And what if your neighbors were behind the change?

All of this is possible under a resolution under consideration (but not yet endorsed) by Albemarle County’s Crozet Community Advisory Committee (CCAC).

Thee fundamental question at hand is seeking to redefine the land use calculation from gross density to net density.

In an oversimplification, this moving of the goalposts reduces the density possible on most parcels.

The New Designs for Growth Guidebook correctly identifies the impact of the different planning paradigms:

Density Calculations
The method communities use to calculate density can dramatically impact development patterns.  For instance, while densely arranged homes on one portion of a large parcel would have the same gross density as the same number of homes spread out evenly over the parcel, the two developments have substantially different net densities.  Hence lot size and building arrangement can result in very different residential densities.

When revising ordinances, local jurisdictions should take into consideration the implications inherent with the different methods of calculating density.  Net density produces a more visually recognizable density for the developed portion of the site, while gross density allows for more flexibility in developing sites (e.g., cluster developments, PUDs) as well as projects evaluated in the context of average density of adjacent developments (i.e., a development fitting within a density continuum).

Gross density = Total residential units / total development land area
Net density = Total residential units / total residential land area (excludes roads, open spaces, and other uses)

While accurate, the definition above fails to address the clear concern of property owners the numerator in the calculation. Currently under the gross density concept if you have 10 acres in R-2 zoning in the development areas, you have the by right ability to build 20 homes on the 10 acres.  Under net density, the applicant must discount any land deemed “unbuildable by regulation”.

What would be included as “unbuildable by regulation”?  The City of St. Helena in Oregon has the following considerations:

    • All sensitive land areas:
    • Land within the 100-year floodplain;
    • Land or slopes exceeding 25 percent;
    • Drainageways;
    • Wetlands;
    • Fish and wildlife habitats;
    • Archaeological sites;
    • Federal or state protected areas for listed threatened or endangered species; and
    • Designated open space and open space-design review areas;
    • All land dedicated to the public for park purposes;
      • All land dedicated for public right-of-way:
      • Single-dwelling units: allocate 20 percent of gross acres for public facilities; and
      • Multiple-dwelling units: allocate 15 percent of gross acres for public facilities;
    • All land proposed for private streets;

Considering the topography of the Piedmont, one can easily see the aforementioned 10 acres losing significant portion of its by right density.

But the demand for housing will not go away.

Albemarle County’s Comprehensive Plan highlights the anticipated need for new units:

As seen in the residential Capacity Analysis discussed in the Development Areas Chapter, projections suggest that by the year 2030, approximately 15,000 additional dwelling units will be needed to accommodate the County’s future population. According to the Development Area Master Plans, the Development Areas can accommodate a range of approximately 13,800 to 29,000 new dwelling units.

Under current zoning, approximately 13,400 to 19,900 new dwelling units can be built.

If Crozet is able to move the goal posts by changing the density calculation, this would result in a less dense community, more expensive delivery of government services and a loss of property value to development area land owners.

Further as fewer homes will be able to be constructed in each development the cost of the infrastructure required for those homes would be spread across fewer units increasing cost to the end user.

As development area lots become more expensive, rural area development will become more economically attractive encouraging sprawl.  When coupled with the dearth of available new units to meet the forecast demand, cost of all housing (rural and development areas) will increase.

But it will reduce the population density allowed in Crozet – could this be the overarching goal?

Regardless of cost?

As usual more questions than answers, stay tuned.

Respectfully Submitted,

Neil Williamson, President


Neil Williamson is president of the Free Enterprise Forum, a privately funded non-profit public policy organization focused on local governments in Central Virginia. For more information visit www.freeenterpriseforum.org.

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One response

  1. Excellent, Neil. My first thoughts: Would this decrease the income from property taxes? Financially, how would serve the county? Yes, end users would pay higher taxes.

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