Go Big or Go Home – Albemarle PC Missed Opportunity

Forum Watch Editorial By. Neil Williamson, President

Allison Wrabel’s front page article in this morning’s Daily Progress correctly highlights last night’s Albemarle County Planning Commission desire to see the county focus limited resources on timely updates of master plans and the prioritization of affordable housing.  What’s even more interesting is the part of the staff report they chose NOT to talk about.

While uniformly competent and generally complete, rarely do Albemarle staff reports provide visionary opportunities to increase economic development and improve housing affordability.  Last night (1/29), the final paragraph of the Community Development Work Program, 2019-2022 report did just that:.

Finally, starting in mid-2020, staff requests the Board consider the option of directing resources toward a comprehensive examination of development review, in keeping with the objective of Project Enable, the Economic Development Strategic Plan. The intent would not be simply to consider the development review process, but instead focus on the extent and complexity of development requirements. Having completed two major and numerous minor examinations of development review process over the last 15 years, staff believes there is not likely to be much improvement by simply looking at the process. Instead, any significant in-depth consideration of the complexity of those regulations and where the County might be willing to provide less oversight. Bluntly put, the focus needs to be more on what we regulate than how we regulate itEmphasis Added-nw

In his comments to the Commission, Community Development Department Director Mark Graham explained the goal would be to simplify, not remove, regulation and would require an involved public process over a number of years.

We believe the benefits of regulatory reform would be worth the effort and those benefits include economic development and housing affordability.

Back in a February 2008 paper on housing prices, University of Washington Professor Theo S. Eicher used regression analysis to study housing prices and their relationship to regulatory environment in five major cities in Washington State (Everett, Kent, Seattle, Tacoma and Vancouver). His findings, reprinted below, are not surprising but are eye opening.

Aside from demand factors, housing prices are found to be associated with cost-increasing land use regulations (approval delays) and statewide growth management. For example, after accounting for inflation, regulations are associated with a $200,000 (80 percent) increase in Seattle’s housing prices since 1989, while housing demand raised prices by $50,000. This constitutes about 44 percent of the cost of a home in 2006. Cities with less stringent land use regulations had significantly lower price increases due to regulation.  Emphasis added – NW

In 2010, when Albemarle was increasing Zoning fees, the Free Enterprise Forum created the cost of complexity index, where we calculated the increase in fees (less the inflation rate).  As fees must be tied directly to the work involved, we theorized the dramatic increases [up to 620%] were due to a combination of the complexity of the regulations as well as the multitude of layers of approval.  At that time we wrote:

The cumbersome development review process [and obstructionist culture] is broken and it is negatively impacting both new construction and economic development.

The impact of Albemarle’s Byzantine regulatory complexity is magnified by staff retirements AKA the “Silver Tsunami” including Community Development Director Mark Graham. We believe the anticipated loss of institutional knowledge will have a negative impact on the application process.

Reiterating our 2010 position, we are happy Albemarle staff is sharing our concern with the regulatory environment negative impacts on economic development and housing affordability.

While we are disappointed the Planning Commission chose not to engage in a discussion of staff’s BIG IDEA, we hope the Board of Supervisors will not miss this exciting opportunity to advance their strategic plan when presented next Wednesday 2/4.

Burr GIFThe Free Enterprise Forum believes simplifying (and reducing) regulatory barriers can  positively impact both housing affordability and economic development. That seems like a win win to us.

To paraphrase Aaron Burr in Hamilton, “Regulate less, smile more”

Respectfully Submitted,


Neil Williamson, President

Neil Williamson is the President of The Free Enterprise Forum, a privately funded public policy organization covering the City of Charlottesville as well as Albemarle, Greene, Fluvanna, Louisa and  Nelson County.

Photo Credit: 66.Media.Tumbler.com

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