Tag Archives: Albemarle Planning Commission

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


Albemarle Comp Plan Far From ‘Pitch Perfect’


By. Neil Williamson

On Tuesday July 23rd, Albemarle County’s Planning Commission will take final public comment on the Comprehensive Plan.  After working with the document for over two years, I believe the PC [and staff]would like to vote it ahead regardless of its true readiness for the stage.

The 2012 movie ‘Pitch Perfect’ follows an all-girl college a cappella group,pitch perfect The Barden Bellas, as they compete against another a cappella group from their college to win Nationals.  Along the way the “Bellas” must re-imagine their identity and find their voice by working to harmonize their very different extreme personalities and talents.

The latest rendition of Albemarle County’s Comprehensive plan fails to find this multi faceted harmony and instead sounds more like  an ill prepared middle school choir with several different talented voices but no harmony.

Remembering that this process was a part of the one million dollar planning grant the Thomas Jefferson Planning District Commission (TJPDC) was awarded, one might have thought the document would be better coordinated.

Not singing from the same music 

For well over four years, the Planning Commission has effectively refused to consider most changes proposed  to the development area boundaries that were created in 1979.

Many thought that the state came in and took a significant portion of Albemarle’s planned development area with the ‘Biscuit Run’ state park acquisition was reason enough to reconsider the lines drawn during the Carter Administration.

Since about 2009, the Planning Commission promised applicants that they would consider their concepts “comprehensively” as a part of the Comp Plan process. When the time finally came to discuss potential expansion, the Commission did not weigh the merits of the potential expansion, they did (on a split vote) decide not to consider ANY potential expansion of the Development Area.

Regardless of their eventual decision to changing their tune regarding listening to the proposals was bad policy. 

Lack of balance

While we significantly appreciate the mere existence of an economic development chapter in the Comprehensive Plan, it seems almost apologetic for taking up space in the development area for jobs.

The very thin (smallest chapter in the plan) economic development chapter has one specific environmental stewardship plank:

Strategy 1c: Encourage all businesses to adopt environmentally sustainable business practices.
Natural resource protection and conservation, including improving water quality, preserving water quantity, and reducing air pollution are established Albemarle County priorities. Encouraging sustainable business practices helps to further these priorities. The County is a sponsor of the Better Business Challenge, a friendly competition among local businesses to integrate sustainable initiatives into day-to-day business. The challenge centers on sustainability goals in the areas of Energy, Transportation, Water, Waste, Purchasing, and Leadership.

If this is appropriate why not have a portion of the Natural Resource Chapter focused on the County’s goals for Economic Development? 

If the County can team up with Better World Betty, shouldn’t equal import be placed on Better Business Betty?

The Natural Resources chapter reads like a environmental evangelism text to the extent of explaining the details and detriment of habitat fragmentation. The level of detail in the Natural Resources text is mind numbing.  While much of this seems like good information, the Free Enterprise Forum questions the need for such text in the Comprehensive Plan:

The next step in planning for biodiversity protection is a landscape-level analysis that incorporates data on the County’s landforms and on the location and quality of habitats, including fragmentation and connectivity, as well as their current level of biodiversity. Aquatic biodiversity should also be addressed through a sub-watershed analysis. The landscape approach focuses on a wide scale (square miles rather than square feet) and on the management of major land features (e.g., forest blocks, watersheds, urbanized areas) to conserve biodiversity.

The squeakiest wheels get solos

In considering this document, the Planning Commission again and again has asked “What does the Neighbnimby1_thumb.jpgorhood Advisory Council think of this?”.  While the advice of the advisory council is important, it is also important to recognize that those who serve as members of the council are “representative”.

Too often the advice of such council is to change nothing.   This Citizens Against Virtually Everything (CAVE) mentality permeates many of the advisory councils and is not representative of the citizenry at large.   Elected to lead, one hopes the Board of Supervisors would put the advisory council opinions to the side and consider the good of the entire county.

Just as ‘Pitch Perfect’ isn’t over after [spoiler alert] the girls finish third in regional competition, the Planning Commission’s July vote isn’t the beginning of the end, it is merely the end of the beginning;  The yet to be scheduled big finale will be with the Board of Supervisors sometime late in 2014 or early 2015.

Beca_3If, however, the Board of Supervisors fails to fix both the lack of harmony and the intellectual inconsistencies, this document may end up like pre-Beca Bellas – All dressed up with nothing meaningful to say.   And that would be — as they say in the movie – “Aca-Tragic”.

Respectfully Submitted,


Neil Williamson, President

clip_image0024_thumb.pngNeil Williamson is the President of the Free Enterprise Forum, a local government public policy organization located in Charlottesville.  www.freeenterpriseforum.org

Photo Credits : Universal Pictures

Albemarle Seeks to Redefine Family


By. Neil Williamson, President

Albemarle County is seeking to restrict the number of unrelated persons living in a rural area home by redefining “family”.  The proposal, which was deferred by the Planning Commission last week (2/16), would seek to limit any rural area dwelling unit to no more than 2 unrelated persons living together as a single housekeeping unit.  In addition, the ZTA would seek to limit the number of “families” to one per dwelling unit.

The current Zoning Ordinance, enacted in 1978, allows up to six unrelated people to reside together as a single housekeeping unit.

The Free Enterprise Forum is concerned about the true goals of the ordinance, the impact on rural “families” that do not meet this new definition, the effective reduction of affordable housing, the enforcement challenges of the proposal, as well as the liability  impact on rural landlords.

The True Goals of the Ordinance

Albemarle County’s Board of Supervisors’ Resolution of Intent indicates that:

Whereas, the current definition of “family” in the Albemarle County Zoning Ordinance has two meanings depending on the zoning district to which it is applied, and these varied meanings allow a dwelling unit to be more intensely occupied within some districts than in others; and

Whereas, the impacts resulting from a family’s occupation of a dwelling unit are generally the same in all zoning districts; and

Whereas, it is desired to amend the Zoning Ordinance’s definition of “family” to establish a single meaning applicable in all zoning districts. 

The Free Enterprise Forum disagrees with the second Whereas regarding a family’s impact. 

  • The rural areas are not served by Albemarle County Service Authority thus the impact of a family on the community water system is zero. 
  • In the rural areas where most lots exceed 2 acres in size, the impact of a family on its neighbors is significantly less than a condominium or townhouse.  

If my family enjoys an evening of country clogging in the kitchen of my rural home it will disturb fewer people than if we practice in a top floor condominium on Rio Road.The Free Enterprise Forum contends the impacts resulting from a family’s occupation of a dwelling unit are DIFFERENT dependent on zoning classification.

Initially reading this Resolution of Intent made this seem like a legal housekeeping measure rather a significant change in rural area policy.   

The Free Enterprise Forum fears that a careful reading of the ordinance and examination of the “families” impacted may draw one to a conclusion that the goal of this ZTA is to effectively eliminate certain socio-economic groups from Albemarle via zoning changes.

The Impact on Rural Families

Often the best way to examine a proposal is to take it out for a “test drive”.  ZTA-2009-019 would likely eliminate the following housing opportunities:

  • Three UVA law school students sharing a farm house
  • An unmarried farm couple taking in a renter to make ends meet
  • An unmarried couple hosting an exchange student
  • Three farm workers renting a farm house
  • Two unmarried couples renting a house

Of the five impacts our test drive identified (there are certainly many more), the Free Enterprise Forum finds the loss of farm worker housing to be the most troubling.  Albemarle County’s Comprehensive Plan goals are to support the agricultural uses, with residential uses secondary.  If this ZTA will have negative impact on the availability of farm worker housing, it could be argued that the provision is contrary to the Comprehensive Plan. 

Further, the Free Enterprise Forum is troubled by the concept of pushing farm workers out of the rural areas where they work.  This would likely result in higher labor costs to agricultural enterprises and increased public costs due to transportation network impacts.

Effective Reduction of Affordable Housing Stock

The Free Enterprise Forum appreciates The staff report recognizes but does not quantify a negative impact on affordable housing:

While staff cannot predict the impact on affordable housing, it is possible that there may be implications regarding rental affordability.

Rental housing stock is a critical part of housing affordability.  Based on our anecdotal understanding of the number of rental homes located in the rural areas, we believe “may be implications” is quite an understatement.

Anticipating that those who may need more than two unrelated persons to affordable rent in the rural areas could be pushed out of Albemarle County and into surrounding localities, one should also anticipate greater difficulty finding labor to fill lower rung career ladder jobs.  This would be a loss for the tapestry of our community.

Enforcement Challenges

In Albemarle County, as in most jurisdictions, zoning is enforced on a complaint basis.  To enforce this ordinance, staff would need to determine who is residing at the residence on a regular basis versus who may be a long term visitor.  In addition, the staff time to conduct site visits to make a zoning determination would not be insignificant.

Seeing as the current regulations, allowing up to six unrelated individuals to define a family,  have been on the books since 1978, it is disappointing that there is no grandfathering included in this proposal.

Rural Landlord Liability

Albemarle County’s Zoning Department takes a very pragmatic view processing zoning violations.  Their goal is to resolve the violation.  If a tenant is violating the ordinance and can solve the problem, they deal directly with the tenant and inform the landlord.  If however, the tenant cannot or will not resolve the issue, the property owner is ultimately held responsible.

The Free Enterprise Forum believes that is a rural area dwelling unit can meet the health department standards for well and septic, zoning should not regulate the number of unrelated persons living there.  In the rural areas, the impact of a family of six is very similar to the impact of six unrelated individuals.

As the Resolution of Intent was passed unanimously by the previous Board of Supervisors, the Free Enterprise Forum requests that the new Board of Supervisors weigh in on this issue before significant staff time is spent researching ZTA 2009-019.

If there are not the votes to support such a change, we encourage the Board of Supervisors to direct staff to save precious (and expensive) staff time and drop the issue.

Respectfully Submitted,

Neil Williamson


20070731williamson 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 and Nelson County.  For more information visit the website www.freeenterpriseforum.org

Albemarle County Applicants and PC Discuss Proposed ZTA

October’s Forum Watch Editorial focused on Albemarle County’s review of Planned Urban Development Zoning regulations that had the potential for rezoned projects to lose the certainty of their zoning determination.

A few weeks ago, when an Albemarle County Planning Commission initiated resolution of intent to change ordinances covering PUDs came forward, the Free Enterprise Forum formally requested that prior to developing the ordinance the development community be consulted.  The Planning Commission agreed and yesterday afternoon (9/30/08), the Planning Commission held a very productive work session regarding vesting and possible changes to the manner in which PUDs are administered.

Albemarle County Community Development’s staff report identified about 60 PUDs that had been approved over the years and might be impacted by the change, the vast majority of these properties, even those that had been built out, were represented at the meeting.  Of these 60, staff anticipated the issues the PC was seeking to solve were evidenced in 2 or 3 (around 10%) of the projects.

In the end, the open working session with dialog between Commissioners and applicants (rather than 3 minutes speeches) fostered greater empathy for both sides of the table.  Such understanding would not have been possible without the development community’s active participation in the process. 

Near the end of the worksession, it seemed that the majority (perhaps all) of the Planning Commission agreed that everyone (applicants, staff, commission, public) is significantly invested in every rezoning and recognized that the high level of detail required by rezonings in the last few years would make many changes very difficult to achieve without other compromises.

Further, the staff explained that under state law even with the Zoning Text Amendment as drafted, the off site traffic concerns raised by a recent “old” PUD (as well as proffers) could not be addressed.

The Free Enterprise Forum anticipates, in the coming weeks, staff will return with a new ordinance that is more tightly defined to address those issues identified in older PUDs that have been problematic for the Planning Commission. 

Both the Albemarle County Planning Commission and the large number of applicants that came forward in this discussion should be celebrated for their openness and candor.  Such open dialog is a all too rare in local government.  The resulting Zoning Text Amendment can only be helped by such positive dialog.