Planners Playing Possum or Orchestrating Oysters?

By. Neil Williamson, President

The varied local government operational response to COVID-19 is striking.  In many cases it differs by department.  Charlottesville Neighborhood Development Services (NDS) has embraced an opossum strategy while Albemarle County Community Development Department is taking an oyster approach.

Please let me explain.

When faced with danger an opossum plays dead.  According to Bethany Foster:See the source image

Playing dead is an involuntary response on the part of the opossum. The stress of the confrontation facing the opossum causes him to go into shock. This shock induces a comatose state that can last from 40 minutes to four hours.

Charlottesville’s NDS “opossum” guidance last Friday (4/3) regarding their continued operations:

UPDATED! Neighborhood Development Services offices are now closed to the public. Staff will continue to process currently submitted applications remotely and send notice to applicants by email or phone. Modified inspections will continue. No new Development Review applications will be accepted at this time. Applications and fees for building mechanical, electrical, plumbing and fire permits may be submitted through USPS. ……

At this time the City is not accepting:

  • Any New Development Projects not already in the City’s Review Pipeline
  • Any Submittals (new or resubmittals) requiring a Public Hearing or Action by a Board/Commission/Council.  This includes, but not limited to; SUP, Rezoning, COA, Waivers, etc. 

Emphasis Added – NW

The Free Enterprise Forum also learned last week, anecdotally, Charlottesville would not accept electronic copy of an ‘As Built’ plan – that had already been submitted to them insisting instead that the document be dropped into the US Mail.  Whether it gets to us or not, that’s your problem – the applicant was told by NDS staff.

This may seem like a bureaucratic blip but in reality NDS is being unnecessarily obstructionist.  The receipt of the paper copy ‘As Built’ plan (which has not changed) was the last step to allowing a water meter to be placed on a property – a requirement for a certificate of occupancy.

The reality of possession of a paper “As-Built” plan does nothing to limit the City’s risk (especially since they had already accepted a digital version previously).

The downstream economic impacts include the small, local home builder, the subcontractors as well as the future owner – who likely will have a delayed closing and may be homeless in the interim.

This is the result of an opossum strategic mind set.

Luckily, Mother Nature provides another example of how to respond to an intruder.

According to Michelle Bryner of the source image

A natural pearl begins its life inside an oyster’s shell when an intruder, such as a grain of sand or bit of floating food, slips in between one of the two shells of the oyster…

In order to protect itself from irritation, the oyster will quickly begin covering the uninvited visitor with layers of nacre — the mineral substance that fashions the mollusk’s shells. Layer upon layer of nacre, also known as mother-of-pearl, coat the grain of sand until the iridescent gem is formed.

Albemarle’s Community Development response to the COVID-19 was like the oyster, immediate and direct.  Early in the COVID-19 outbreak, the staff proactively reached out to the development community and indicated they were considering limiting intake hours, and asked which days/hours were most important.  Working with organizations such as the Blue Ridge Home Builders Association (BRHBA), staff developed a customer focused COVID-19 response.

An examination of Albemarle’s Community Development Department (CDD) web page is indicative of the import, professionalism, accountability and resiliency of this vital county function:


Clearly an oyster strategy, Albemarle CDD has made changes to their document intake process in response to COVID-19 but they have done so in a manner that protects county employees, applicants AND projects safely moving forward.

We understand how important it is to keep our community going, and the role we play in your projects.

We have modified and adapted our services to comply with CDC recommendations on social distancing in order to reduce transmission of COVID-19. . .

Apply Online –This is our preferred, and faster, method of submitting applications. Complete and send us your application, and all related information, without leaving your home or office….

Apply In-Person – Lobby Hours: M, W, and F from 8:30 am until 4 pm.

You will be asked to deposit your application, and all related information, into a bin provided in the lobby. Make sure to include all required application components as incomplete applications will delay the process.

Please note: Plans or applications printed on paper will take longer to process. As the COVID-19 virus lives on paper for about 24 hours, we quarantine all paper for at least 36 hours from receipt; this includes plans, applications, checks, and any other documents. …

Pay for a Permit

Permit payments must be made via credit card through the County’s Payment Portal. To enable that process, you will now pay as you’re picking up your permit. When your permit is ready for pickup, we will contact you and tell you the amount due. …

Please understand we’re trying to help everyone in this time of limited resources.

Only time will tell which approach is best, we believe the opossum strategy is borne out of an overabundance of caution and a lack of forward thinking leadership. Make no mistake, it is more difficult to implement an oyster strategy over an opossum.

The reality we see is those following the oyster paradigm are literally “reinventing how government works” for the better.  Once these new protocols are put in place, it will be difficult if not impossible to go back to the old way of “doing business”.

Early adopters will benefit with increased government efficiency — and likely increased activity producing increased economic vitality.  In turn, increased supply will positively impact affordability.

Interestingly, the corollary is also true, by making the process less efficient and more costly, the return on investment is reduced and affordability is negatively impacted.

How about your local government?

Is it an oyster or an opossum?

Respectfully Submitted,


Neil Williamson, President

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

Photo Credit: National University of Singapore,, Albemarle County,


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