Tag Archives: regulation

Albemarle Prefers Pigs over Pinot

By. Neil Williamson, President

Albemarle County has a large number of wineries and vineyards as a part of its agricultural economy.  The Monticello Wine Trail, which includes all of Albemarle, produces roughly 1/2 of all the wine produced in the Commonwealth.

According to the Washington Post:

Virginia ranks fifth in the nation in the number of wineries — with more than 255 — and is the nation’s fifth-largest wine grape producer, officials said. According to a 2011 economic impact study, the wine industry contributes almost $750 million to the state’s economy on an annual basis.

More than 1.6 million tourists visited Virginia wineries in 2013.

Albemarle County’s official website includes a page to “Discover your Albemarle Crush”

pigsWhy then is Albemarle now proposing new regulations that prefer swine over wine?

If the proposed regulations are adopted, a landowner may have a pig pen directly on the property line but a tasting room, parking lot or even a tent for a winery event must be set back 125’.

Rather than valuing the viticultural operations and allowing these rural farms to operate most efficiently (including events), Albemarle is seeking to dictate many of the business decisions including, tent setbacks, hours of operation and even how they bottle their product.

But this is FAR beyond the Supervisors original intent.

Please let me explain.

Last March, the Board of Supervisors determined that they wanted to create a more direct linkage between Albemarle County agricultural use and the ability to hold events at farm wineries, farm breweries, and farm distilleries (FWBDs).

The 1979 Virginia state law, which was designed to promote viticulture in the state, allows farm wineries to utilize leased vineyards anywhere in the state.  Albemarle, seeing to promote viticulture in Albemarle and prevent “faux” farm wineries from becoming by right event spaces in the rural areas, asked staff to address this concern in new event regulations.

WHEREAS, conducting such activities and events on lands designated Rural Area in the Comprehensive Plan and on lands zoned Rural Areas where there is little or no connection to agriculture is contrary to the policies in the Rural Area section of the Comprehensive Plan and the purposes of the Rural Areas zoning district; and

WHEREAS, in order to address these concerns, it is desired to conduct a new study of the relationship between activities and events at FWBDs, their agricultural nature, whether the activities and events are usual and customary as agricultural activities and events, whether and under what circumstances the activities and events are creating adverse impacts on other properties, and the economic impact of any such regulations that may be considered to address these concerns; and

WHEREAS, if the study so warrants, it is desired to consider amending the zoning regulations by strengthening the requisite relationship between agriculture and the activities and events at FWBDs, reasonably addressing any adverse impacts by performance standards or other means identified in the study in order to protect the public health, safety or general welfare, and to address any other issue identified in the study deemed to be necessary and appropriate. Emphasis Added – nw

Staff used the last line in the last Whereas to be a blank check to impact the very business operations of the FWBDs.

While the Free Enterprise Forum is understanding of mandating 5 acres of on site planted acreage to hold events, therby tying agriculture to the events,  the balance of the proposed ordinance goes too far:

1.  Increasing setbacks from 75’ front/25’ side/35’ rear to 125’ from property line.

This relatively arbitrary increase seems to be directed at mitigating impact on the neighbors.  Proper enforcement of existing regulations would seem to be a better less property rights limiting manner to achieve the same result.

In addition, when queries via email regarding agricultural setbacks the Zoning Administrator:

There is no Albemarle County zoning setback for those things [livestock].  We also don’t have setbacks for fencing in general.

Clearly, if enacted as drafted the setbacks portion of this code would significantly favor slopping hogs over sipping hops near the property line.

2. Mandating and not defining “regular hours open to the public”

The concept behind this suggestion is good; any winery seeking to hold events should have enough wine to sell to the public regularly.  Unfortunately, the concept does not hold up to close examination.  Today there are nearly 300 Napa Valley (CA) wineries operating on a ‘By Appointment only’ including such industry stalwarts such as Opus One and Duckhorn Vineyards.  There are a number of high end wineries with significant production in Virginia operating under a similar business model (RDV, Boxwood Estate, etc.).  One local winery (Mountfair Winery) is now closed to the public selling the majority of their production via their wine club.  From their website:

Mountfair Vineyards A private club winery! Mountfair Vineyards, nestled at the base of the Blue Ridge near Charlottesville, is a family owned and operated Club Winery serving our club members through appointment and special events. Mountfair is no longer open for regular tasting room hours.

Considering the reduced neighbor impact of an appointment only winery, why should Montfair (or other properties like them) be excluded from holding events?

This market reality raises the question why Albemarle would seek to require wineries that need not be open to make their business model work open their doors to hold events.

Further, a lack of definition of “regular hours” allows the zoning administrator (and her successors) significant latitude in their interpretation of the code.

3.  Punishing the Sunday Bride – Curfew on amplified music.

Currently there is no curfew on amplified music beyond the noise ordinance.  Staff heard loud and clear (pun intended) in the Joint Board of Supervisors/Planning Commission meeting that current practice is to stop all amplified music at 11 pm on Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights.  Rather than accepting a self imposed industry practice and adopting it as code staff selected 10 pm on Sunday night to be the cut off.

One winery, who has been commended for their noise cancelling practices, indicated 20% of their wedding business is Sunday weddings.  If we assume the wedding season runs from May – October (6 months), allowing an 11 pm Sunday cutoff would amount to 24 additional hours of operation (if all dates were booked).  Why not accept the market reality and be done with this – enforce the noise ordinance without punishing the Sunday bride.

Albemarle wineries and cideries (more than breweries and distilleries) have a long history of being good neighbors and benefiting the local economy with their events.  Albemarle can tie the event ordinance to the land but should step away from the mission creep of dictating the business activities on the land.

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: http://www.droid-life.com/2014/08/13/t-mobile-identifies-data-hogs-p2p/



Economic Development Via Regulatory Reform

By. Neil Williamson, President

employmentopportunitiesLocal economic development is about much more than just businesses moving into an area.  It is also about jobs and adding a new enterprise to the community.  While there are many paths to enhancing the local climate for economic development there are even more ways to create a regulatory environment that is openly hostile to such opportunities. 

Yesterday, a bipartisan group of Virginia’s congressional delegation (Griffith, Hurt, Kaine, Warner) introduced legislation designed to reform the federal permitting process.  The Augusta Free Press reports:

…introduced the Commonsense Permitting for Job Creation Act (H.R. 3434 and S. 1914) in both houses of Congress.  This bipartisan, bicameral legislation will address regulatory problems that have impeded prospective economic development sites like Berry Hill Mega Park in the Danville-Pittsylvania County area.

When local entities work to secure a site preparation permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to attract job-creating manufacturing firms, the Corps has often been reluctant to issue the permit if there is a lack of a company that has publicly committed to the site and prepared detailed blueprints.  A company will understandably not establish a facility at the site without an approved permit, but a permit cannot be approved without a company willing to locate at that site, creating an unfortunate stalemate situation.  The Commonsense Permitting for Job Creation Act specifies that the lack of a committed end-user company should not be a reason to deny a permit that meets all other legal requirements.

This “commonsense” federal legislation got me thinking about how local regulatory reform can improve economic development. 

Does the amount of time it takes to move a project from concept to moving dirt matter to a potential employer?

Should those charged with increasing the locality’s economic vitality spend a portion of their time looking inwardly to improve the permitting and approval process?

Based on our dozen years in the region, there is little or no uniformity to the regulatory environments of Central Virginia municipalities.

We regularly hear horror stories of projects that are taken to the brink of their very viability by overzealous (and often incorrect) interpretations and implementations of permitting.  We also have heard of local building officials giving contradicting interpretations.

We also hear of reasonable regulators who work with applicants to see that the letter of the law is followed and the project remains viable.

There are also significant differences in the time it takes to gain approvals from the localities.

If localities could identify procedural changes that could reduce the development process timeline without sacrificing public input or project quality, would they do it?

One such example is allowing the special use permit process and the site plan approval run concurrently.  Many Virginia localities do this now.  The reality is that these days many special use permits have a condition that the final site plan must come back for final approval to the Planning Commission.  Considering the significant amount of detail now required for SUP, adding the site plan approval (as a concurrent approval option)  could reduce the regulatory calendar by several months.

Of course there are some in the community that see the labyrinth of regulatory red tape as an opportunity to slow or halt increased economic development. 

The question each locality must answer is what level of economic vitality are you seeking and are your municipality’s ordnances, policies and procedures “shovel ready” for such opportunities?

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.

Greene BOS Considers Food Trucks

By. Brent Wilson, Field Officer

food truck fidel gastroMobile Food Units, more commonly referred to as “Food Trucks” have gained in popularity over the last seven or eight years.  According to IBIS World Market Information Service:

The Food Trucks industry has only grown in strength over the past five years, and is one of the best performing segments in the broader food-services sector. The industry’s remarkable rise began in 2008, just as the recession hit, as hundreds of new vendors recognized changing consumer preferences favoring unique, gourmet cuisine. Cities such as Portland, Oregon, Los Angeles and Austin sought to differentiate themselves by crafting laws and creating areas specially designed for mobile food trucks. While the recession put the brakes on the broader food-services sector in 2008-09, it was in fact a boon for the Food Trucks industry as consumers sought to maximize their disposable income by indulging in small conveniences such the affordable gourmet food

In the past few years more and more mobile food units have been food truck crab-cabappearing in Greene County and this has lead the county to propose a revision to their zoning ordinances, Articles 8, 9, 10, Business B-1, B-2 and B-3, and Articles 11 and 12, Industrial (Limited) M-1, and Industrial (General) M-2, Article 22 Definitions to include mobile food units as a by right use. This led to the Greene County Board of Supervisors to review the proposal at their October 14th meeting.

Bart Svoboda, Greene County’s Zoning Administrator/Planning Director, reviewed the proposed ordinance (OR#14-005). He indicated that he looked at Albemarle County and other counties in the valley to see how they handle this issue. The current rules that address brick and mortal restaurants don’t work for portable food units. The new ordinance would be used for wheeled, towed or pushcart stands. Greene has towable trailers which have their own power generation and water supply. The rules are different because the set-up is different.

food truck_redboneThe new ordinance proposes safe parking be provided, not the side of a roadway. It will allow one vendor to have three locations with approval of the owner of the sites. The Health Department must approve the operation especially for disposal of waste. A dining space no larger than 10 feet x 10 feet is to be allowed and that it is required to be packed up and cleaned each night. The unit is to be at least 100 feet from a residential use – away from homes. The recommendation is to offer a one year approval and that it must be updated annually.

The session was opened to the public but there were no one wishingFood truck oscar myer to speak. The session was then brought to the supervisor’s discussion. Supervisor Davis Lamb (Ruckersville District)  asked what happens if a vendor wants more than three locations. Svoboda said that the vendor would need to make a second application for another three spaces all approved by the owners. Supervisor Bill Martin (Stanardsville District) asked how the mobile unit would be handled if the owner of the parking area is a brick and mortar restaurant. Svoboda stated it is up to the owner of the property to grant permission to the mobile unit owner – they would have the right to decline the request of the mobile unit.

Chairman Jim Frydl (Midway District) asked Svoboda how this would be handled at a vineyard. Svoboda answered that the zoning of the property would determine if it would be allowed or not. At the county fair which is held on property that is zoned A-1 a food truck would be allowed because of the condition of the fair which overrides the A-1 zoning of the property where the fair is located. The food truck couldn’t set up on the fairgrounds without the fair going on, since it is zoned A-1. Supervisor David Cox (Monroe District) asked if food trucks would be allowed on school property and the answer was no since it was not one of the allowable zones. But they could locate as close as the nearest zone in the revised ordinance.

Chairman Frydl’s last comment was that a fFrydl Campaign photoood truck probably compliments many of the businesses that might host a food truck. Also, the county would have no liability if there are any injuries caused near a food truck – this would be the responsibility of the individual causing the accident. Finally, he has asked several restaurant owners if they opposed food trucks and the answer was no as long as there were rules similar to what is proposed in the new ordinance. At this point the discussion was closed and the revision to the ordinance was approved unanimously.


The Free Enterprise Forum’s coverage of Greene County is provided by a grant from the Charlottesville Area Association of REALTORS® and by the support of readers like you.

Brent Wilson is the Greene County Field Officer for the Free Enterprise Forum a privately funded public policy organization.

Photo Credits: Pintrest, Vintage Virginia, Frydl Campaign

Signs of Anti Business Bluster at the ARB

By. Neil Williamson, President

What started as a small matter of replacing Crozet Volunteer Fire Department’s aging channel letter community announcement sign has morphed into a debate over the future of business signage in Albemarle County’s Entrance Corridors.

According to Albemarle’s website:

The Albemarle County Architectural Review Board (ARB) is appointed by the Board of Supervisors and is charged with the responsibility of regulating the design of development within the County’s Entrance Corridors. Entrance Corridors are streets that provide routes of tourist access to the County and to historic landmarks, structures, and districts. The goal of this regulation is to ensure that new development in these corridors reflects the traditional architecture of the area and that development within the corridors is orderly and attractive.

While the impact of such regulation may seem small, and well it should be, Albemarle has perverted the original intent of the EC legislation and restricted 21 roadways as Entrance Corridors.  It is our understanding that once the John W. Warner/Meadowcreek Parkway is completed the number will advance to 22.

With 21 Entrance Corridors, Albemarle spends a vast amount of money and staff time aggressively examining the architectural design, landscape design, color scheme, lighting and signage of all parcels sharing a boundary line with the EC or within 500 feet of the EC.

The result is any restriction placed on the Entrance Corridor effectively covers a majority of the county’s commercial activities.

With this as a backdrop, the ARB discussion of electronic signs was especially interesting.  Albemarle Zoning Staff reminded the ARB that any such sign would require a special use permit and no such application has come forward to date.

The staff was aware that the Crozet Volunteer Fire Department (CVFD) planned to submit an application in the near future.

The CVFD uses their existing sign to get the word out about fire prevention, promote CVFD fundraising and community messages.  The existing sign is pictured below and predates the EC legislation:


Signage technology has changed a great deal since CVFD first erected this message board.  Recognizing this digital-sign-example.jpgadvancement and noting the age of the current message board, CVFD came to the ARB with an idea – an electronic message board; similar in style to the one pictured to the right.

It is important to note, the Free Enterprise Forum does not have an opinion regarding the CVFD potential application – or any other application for that matter —  we use this as an example of our concern for the significant policy decision the ARB is considering.

In early October the ARB determined some new guidelines to use regarding digital signs and message boards

The ARB held a work session on design criteria for electronic message signs. ARB members made the following comments on the “Characteristics and Criteria” table presented by staff:
1. Eliminate the criteria regarding daytime and nighttime intensity limitations.
2. Add a note indicating that standard color guidelines apply, including the limitation to three colors.
3. Add a criteria indicating that graphic images will not be allowed on the electronic message portion of
the sign.
4. Graphics are prohibited in the electronic message portion of the sign.

This week Eric King from Watchfire Signs, a digital sign company met with the ARB and explained the state of the industry.  Somewhat surprisingly, he indicated that appropriate regulation makes for good signage as no one wants to be Las Vegas (unless of course you are Las Vegas).  King also said “Unreasonable regulation is harmful to tax generation as commerce will go elsewhere.”  He also alluded to constitutional questions regarding commercial free speech.

He raised a number of concerns regarding the proposed regulations.  One of the great benefits of the digital signs is the ability to readily change it and to include graphics.  It seems like Albemarle’s ARB was opposed to both of these advancements.

King said, “If you restrict color and eliminate graphics, you effectively ban digital signs”.

ARB Chair Bruce Wardell had more questions than answers in this work session indicating his need for the county attorney’s opinion on some of the matters raised.  Wardell also said, “If we allow 21st Century technology, it seems a bit hard to restrain using 19th century law.”

ARB Member Marcia Joseph took a different tact, she wanted to make the digital signs appear just as a fixed sign would and be regulated the same.  In her argument she cited the need for fairness for all those businesses who already have approvals under the existing guidelines.  The Free Enterprise Forum finds this argument to be rather circular seeing as businesses existed in the entrance corridors prior to the creation of the ARB and the body had no problem creating a new set of rules that made doing business more difficult to new comers – why not make it easier?

Albemarle County seems to have a need to understand economic development is more than a department it is a philosophy.  While we understand the need to regulate the size of signage and the speed of content changes, we fail to see the benefit with maintaining antiquated sign regulations that no longer fit the industry.

This business visibility issue is not the straw that broke the camel’s back regarding economic vitality – but it is a sign [pun intended] of how far we have to go before existing businesses, and start ups feel welcome in Albemarle County.

Respectfully Submitted,

Neil Williamson, President


20070731williamson Neil Williamson is the President of The Free Enterprise Forum, a public policy organization covering the City of Charlottesville as well as Albemarle, Greene, Fluvanna, Louisa  and Nelson County.  For more information visit the website www.freeenterpriseforum.org

Albemarle Knows Best – Comprehensive Plan Mission Creep

By.  Neil Williamson, President

Through the use of zoning, architectural design guidelines, regulations and overlay districts, local governments already control the size, appearance and type of activity conducted on any given parcel, now in Albemarle they want government to dictate when the market is ready for a permitted activity (see first bullet below).

Please let me explain.

One of the primary philosophical issues with government comprehensive planning is government comprehensive planning.  While state code mandates that all localities have such plans and they be updated every five years, the level of detail of these plans differs widely.

Albemarle County has been engaged in this comprehensive plan update for well over two years.  Late on Wednesday evening, the Albemarle County Board of Supervisors will hold a public hearing on the proposed Comprehensive Plan.  After the public hearing, they plan to hold future work sessions, where public comment may or may not be permitted prior to adoption of the plan.    We strongly encourage the Board to accept public comment prior to each of their work sessions.

The Free Enterprise Forum has been engaged in this effort since the beginning and continues to find significant issues.   Here are just a few:

  • In what can only be described as government overreach, page 7.34 outlines that Albemarle should only approve a permitted land use “when a significant unmet need can be established for this type of use”.  This concept is outlandish and fundamentally flawed.  While government can, and should, consider the impacts of uses on the larger community, the business decision of need or viability should be placed squarely with the landowner who is taking the risk.
  • In addition to being a planner employment act (calling for significant increase in planning staff), the comprehensive plan regularly fails to recognize property rights and the positive stewardship of private property owners.
  • Last year at the Planning Commission, we led the fight with Monticello and successfully got the “veiwshed” preservation regulations removed from the document.  Surprisingly despite that very public victory, the plan still calls for enabling legislation for new overlay powers designed for “scenic protection and tourist enhancement”.
  • In the mid 200s, the community was engaged in a rancorous debate over property rights and mountaintop “protection” ordinance.  The ordinance effort failed yet is mentioned in the 2014 Comprehensive Plan no less than four times.
  • The transportation chapter cites a reduction in Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT) as a goal.  This is nonsense.  The goal should be efficient and effective transport not a multimodal anti-mobility metric.  Conceptually, this misguided goal would be met if no one ever went anywhere.
  • The number one objective in the Economic Development chapter [the shortest chapter in the plan] is to “Ensure that economic development goals are supportive of the County’s Growth Management Policy and consistent with other Comprehensive Plan goals”.  This is a misplaced priority.  Objective 1 should be focused on making sure there is work for those who want to work.
  • Strategy 1d in the Economic Development chapter is “Encourage all businesses to adopt environmentally sustainable business practices”.  Such a strategy may be appropriate in another chapter but I am at a loss to understand how this will help economic development.  It seems like a “feel good” tack on that has no nexus to economic vitality.

With much of the community now focused on the Western Bypass public hearing next week, the Free Enterprise Forum anticipates few speakers on this critical five year philosophical planning document.  Absent significant public outcry, the Supervisors will choose not to review the plan chapter by chapter but to enact it with little or no changes.

Considering the perceived import of this plan if the BOS fails to fully vet the document, that’s planning to fail.

Respectfully Submitted,

Neil Williamson, President

clip_image0024.pngNeil Williamson is the President of the Free Enterprise Forum, a local government public policy organization located in Charlottesville.  www.freeenterpriseforum.org

‘Rezoning Ransom’: Repeal cash proffers

Rezoning Ransom OpEd Headline Daily Progress 3 March 2013This editorial first appeared in The Daily Progress on Sunday March 3, 2013.  The full “Contradictory Consequences” white paper can be found at www.freeenterpriseforum.org under the reports tab.  The Free Enterprise Forum is a privately funded public policy organization focused on local government in the Central Virginia region.


By. Neil Williamson, President, Free Enterprise Forum

There are times you have to say no to one thing because you said yes to something else. Such is the case with cash proffers.

If a community believes in citizen vetted comprehensive planning, preserving rural areas by densification of development areas and economic vitality, then such a community must say no to the fatally flawed cash proffer system.

In the recently released “Contradictory Consequences” white paper, the Free Enterprise Forum research and case studies explain the impacts of cash proffers. Sold to the public as a way to make growth pay for itself, the unintended negative economic and planning impacts have caused localities across the Commonwealth to repeal this “rezoning ransom” and replace these funds with more dependable and equitable infrastructure funding options. Today, rather than simply recalibrating their cash proffer calculation, as Albemarle County is doing, full repeal is a much more economically and ecologically sensible and sustainable alternative.

Cash proffers are per unit fees “voluntarily” extracted from applicants seeking to rezone their property. In theory, such “voluntary” proffers would be directly tied to the costs associated with the increased density of a rezoning. In reality, cash proffers lower land values, encourage development contrary to comprehensive plans, and create false hope for outside infrastructure funding.

Lower land values, lower property tax revenue – In concept, cash proffers are voluntary payments made by landowners to mitigate the impacts of changing the prescriptive zoning on their property. The concept works best when the rezoned value exceeds the increased cost of the proffer. Such a symbiotic relationship is difficult to achieve with automatic inflation increasing cash proffers and fickle housing markets not keeping pace.

Albemarle Single Family Detached $19,753Townhouse $13,432Multi Family $13,996
Charlottesville No cash proffers
Greene $5,778 per unit
Fluvanna $6,577 per unit
Louisa $4,362 per unit
Nelson No cash proffers

Basic economic theory indicates any increased cost must be paid by an entity that is a part of the transaction. Many believe the increased cost of a cash proffer will be borne by the end user, the new homebuyer. This can only occur in a housing market that has constant upward motion.

If, due to market conditions, the end user is not available to accept the cost of the cash proffer it is the land owner, whose land will be discounted by the increased entitlement costs that cash proffers create. In turn, such reduced land values reduce the locality’s real estate tax assessed value and revenue (absent an increase in the tax rate).

‘By Right’ Development Encouraged Charlottesville and Albemarle are currently updating their State mandated comprehensive plans. These community vetted plans suggest the manner in which the locality wishes to grow in the next twenty years.

In many, if not most, cases the zoning in a locality’s development area does not match the comprehensive plan designation. While the property owner does not have to agree to the comprehensive plan changes, they cannot act on those new designations until they have rezoned the property. Alternatively, if the land owner chooses to move forward with the existing, some might call “stale”, zoning, which likely does not agree with the locality’s comprehensive plan, they can do so immediately without paying any cash proffers.

In 2011, a developer acquired the rights to a project that included property in The City of Charlottesville and Albemarle County. Charlottesville does not have a cash proffer, while Albemarle’s exceeds $19,000 per single family home. After calculating the increased value of the land with the rezoning in each locality, the developer chose to rezone the property that was in the City (without cash proffers) and chose NOT to rezone the property in the county. This calculated decision was based on calculation of the cost (in money and time) of rezoning the County land exceeded the increase value.

Therefore, the land owner is incentivized to not to follow the community vetted comprehensive plan vision but instead to construct lower density, less thoughtfully designed developments. These projects are built to meet local building and zoning code but absent the enhancements and flexibility a rezoning might allow.

False Financial Hope – Forecasting cash proffer revenue is much like predicting snow in Central Virginia, localities do not know when it is coming, how much they are actually going to get or when it will stop. Cash proffers rarely, if ever, total the amounts localities are banking on.

In November 2012, the Albemarle County Board of Supervisors was presented a staff report outlining cash proffers that were in excess of $49.3 million dollars quite literally off the chart.

albemarle proffer 2012 chart with biscuit runAs one looks at this chart (right) and sees almost $50 Million dollars proffered, one might anticipate the cash proffer program is answering the very need it was designed but the Free Enterprise Forum estimates at least 28% of those proffers will never be collected as they are associated with the now defunct Biscuit Run Development.

It is interesting that while the State of Virginia acquired the property for a state park on December 31, 2009, Albemarle County continued to calculate those proffers as receivable in November 2012.

Rural Areas Jeopardized – According to the Piedmont Environmental Council, Albemarle County has in excess of 10,000 units already rezoned for residential development. Why have these not moved forward?

Have the embedded costs of development in Albemarle County, including cash proffers, created a cost burden the market is unable to bear?

If growth trends continue, won’t these embedded costs push residential development out of Albemarle County’s designated growth areas and into the rural areas?

The reality is that cash proffers contribute to the paradigm that rural residential development remains the least expensive, most profitable development option in Albemarle County.

If the cash proffers are pushing development into the rural areas and surrounding localities, what are the community costs of increased traffic, more costly government services delivery, as well as loss of ecologically contributing farmland, and productivity?

Cash proffers have produced a plethora of Contradictory Consequences without achieving significant benefit. Now is the time to repeal this rezoning ransom and replace it with a more sensible and equitable alternative.

clip_image0024_thumb.pngNeil Williamson is the President of the Free Enterprise Forum, a local government public policy organization located in Charlottesville. The full Contradictory Consequences report can be found at www.freeenterpriseforum.org

A Tax By Any Other Name


By. Neil Williamson, President

rose“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet;” – William Shakespeare

Words matter that’s why it is refreshing that as State Senator John Watkins has been discussing his transportation funding solution he has used the term “Gas Tax” rather than the more trendy “user fee”.gas tax 2

By contrast Charlottesville, if you haven’t heard yet, the bottom line on your property tax bill is increasing but don’t call it a tax. 

No, your property tax bill will be the mechanism the city uses to collect the soon to be passed stormwater user fee.   

Who will pay the fee?  Property owners based on their percentage of impervious surface.  The city has already used aerial images to calculate your property’s impervious surface. Impervious surface includes rooftops, driveways, paved patios etc.

But wait, doesn’t rain fall on everybody?

Charlottesville WRPPThe goals of the Water Resources Protection Program include “bringing the community together to help protect and improve the city’s valuable natural and man-made resources by protecting public health and safety…”  Aren’t these community goals that should be supported by the entire community?

While some of the costs of the new program can be blamed on the city’s existing, aging  stormwater infrastructure.  The majority of the cost is associated with new TMDL (Total Maximum Daily Load) storm water requirements that are a part of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Chesapeake Bay initiative.   

Back in the old days, when a locality (or State) identified a need in the community and a government solution to that need, the community would fund that solution through its normal revenue stream.

Instead, the city is utilizing enabling legislation to establish a stormwater utility (expect Albemarle County and others to follow) to create a dedicated million dollar a year revenue source for stormwater management.

The city sees significant benefits to the user fee approach —

Providing funding through user fees has many advantages. Charging a fee is fair and equitable since it is based on a property’s contribution to the problem (runoff from impervious surfaces), not simply on assessed value, and includes all properties (including tax-exempt ones). A stormwater utility also ensures that collected user fees are wholly dedicated to funding the WRPP components. Finally, a fee also provides a consistent and stable funding source to ensure that the WRPP is both environmentally and economically sustainable.

It is important to note that the city has been proactive in reaching out to large commercial centers as well as churches (often with large parking lots) to inform them of the fee structure as well as discuss potential mitigation the owners can do on site to reduce their stormwater impacts and their “user fee”.

The Free Enterprise Forum is torn on the user fee concept.  While we tend to like paying for specific services rendered, we see the benefit being provided to larger than just those carrying the cost burden.

One business owner indicated his company owned  several apartment buildings mainly filled with University of Virginia students.  Using the user fee methodology, as schools make up about 60% of the  budget and that his properties do not significantly add to Charlottesville’s K-12 education population, shouldn’t he get a credit on his property taxes?  Of course not, education is a community goal that benefits all – well educated graduates may become future employees (or tenants) for his company. 

Taken to its logical conclusion, couldn’t the same argument be made for the gas tax and the stormwater utility fee.  In the former, an effective and efficient transportation system encourages economic development and improves the quality of life of all citizens regardless of their need for gasoline.  In the latter, environmental improvements included in the WRPP clearly benefit all of the community not just those who own impervious surfaces.

Words matter.  To paraphrase William Shakespeare “A tax by any other name will hurt as much”

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.

“New Normal” Demands a New Affordable Housing Diagnosis

This editorial first appeared in The Daily Progress on Sunday, August 26, 2012


By Neil Williamson, President, Free Enterprise Forum

Over the years, Central Virginia localities have attempted to address the need for affordable shelter in a variety of ways.  Every locality is mandated by the Code of Virginia to have an “Affordable Housing” chapter in their comprehensive plan. The Albemarle County Planning Commission is discussing their plan on Tuesday, August 28th.

The Free Enterprise Forum believes the state mandate for an affordable housing chapter in comprehensive plans is both out-of-date and has created a myopic view of housing.  We encourage the Commonwealth and localities to use a wider lens and seek to understand how local actions, proffer requirements and regulations impact housing affordability across all price points.

The Free Enterprise Forum believes affordable housing must include the region’s significant affordable rental opportunities in addition to affordable for purchase housing.  Housing policy needs to be timely and comprehensive in addressing the needs of residents at all ages, income levels, and lifestyles.

While each locality is different in its approach, the Free Enterprise Forum believes there has been a misplaced emphasis on the supply side of affordable housing; we contend in most localities there could be an ample supply of affordable housing choices if financing and regulatory hurdles could be removed.

Further, as many of these policies were first written at the top of the housing bubble, it would be wise to revisit the concepts and the assumptions with the “new normal” in mind. 

If there is any lesson learned from the latest housing crash, it is that not everyone needs to, or should be, a homeowner.  Homeownership is of great value to a community but it is not for everyone.  National housing experts seem to agree 60-65% homeownership is sustainable.    Most of our localities already exceed this measure. 

What is each locality’s homeownership goal? 

Should a locality have a goal?

homeownership chart

Source US Census 2010

It is important to note that the City of Charlottesville’s percentage of homeownership is significantly lower than the neighboring localities. 

Is this a bad thing?

Much of the City’s housing is rental student housing.  The University of Virginia generally houses just 30% of its full-time students on grounds.  The balance fills rental opportunities in both the City of Charlottesville and to a lesser extent the urban ring of Albemarle County. In addition, the compact design and availability of public transit increase viability of city rentals.

For the purposes of this discussion, affordable is defined as dwelling units with a monthly cost equal or less than 30% of the household income at 80% of area median income.  If we use an annual median income of $50,000, 80% of that income is $40,000 which suggests a budget of $1,200 a month for shelter (30%*40,000).  Albemarle County currently defines affordable as “Maximum sales price of $211,250.  Rents would be determined based on bedroom size and tenant-paid utilities; ex. 2br $1,029 maximum with owner paying all utilities”

Failure of Financing – The Federal Housing Administration (FHA) provides financing for the vast majority of “affordable” buyers.  The FHA is reluctant to finance condominium purchases, wary of the restrictions placed on property owners holding such property.  This regulatory roulette keeps many families off what could be their first step on the homeownership ladder.

A recent property search of the Charlottesville Area Association of REALTORS® (CAAR) Multiple Listing Service (MLS) resulted in 582 properties being listed at $175,000 or less.  When condominiums were eliminated from the search, the number of properties available dropped by more than 18% to 473.  If FHA financing regulations were reduced, the number of truly affordable units for purchase would increase without building one “new” unit.

Down Payment Catch 22 – Down payment assistance money is being left on the table.   Financing issues are by far the most difficult to conquer.  Despite interest rates being at a historic low point, the number of folks who can qualify for a mortgage in the current market is relatively small.

With this difficulty of folks being able to qualify for mortgage financing because of  tightening of credit terms, the unintended result is the inability of down payment assistance funds to be distributed to those in need.  In order to qualify for the assistance, applicants must not exceed certain income limits and such a limited income (and a low credit score) will not qualify for the needed underlying mortgage financing.

Cost of “Public Services” Harms Affordability – Most planners agree locating affordable shelter near services makes for more efficient delivery of such services.  To build in such “development areas” requires the unit to hook up to public water and sewer.  The cost of these hook ups is $10,000 each in Greene County (slightly lower in the other localities). 

When presented with this question last year, Albemarle County Service Authority (ACSA) Executive Director Gary O’Connell said that the ACSA is about building and maintaining infrastructure as well as providing water and sewer service efficiently to its customers; affordable housing is not an ACSA issue.

Cost of Community Design Harms Affordability – Many of the localities have pursued a complete street philosophy regarding new neighborhood construction.  A complete street may include curb, gutter, bike lane, on street parking, street trees and a sidewalk.  Each of these mandated amenities comes at a cost, making the delivery of affordable housing even more challenging.

Overlapping/Conflicting Agency Responsibilities Harms Affordability – Super agencies such as Virginia’s Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), US Army Corps of Engineers (ACOE), and Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) often have overlapping jurisdiction with localities and each other, the additional time it takes to sort out this alphabet soup of regulators adds time and cost to every project.

Rental Stock Blinders – While the state code is very clear that rental housing is a part of the housing equation and several localities include the use of “affordable housing” proffers on rental assistance, rarely is such housing considered when calculating the availability of affordable housing.  

A recent review of the Blue Ridge Apartment Council website showed 158 properties currently available for rental under $850 a month.  While no such rental database exists for the outlying counties, it is reasonable to assume a significant portion of the affordable housing in those communities is being provided by private landlords both with and without the use of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) vouchers.  Comprehensive plans must recognize the significant role affordable rental stock has on the market.  In addition, localities should embrace the property owner community and build bridges to better serve these important taxpayers and service providers.

As localities prepare their five-year revisions of their comprehensive plans, the Free Enterprise Forum has several questions related to their housing policies:

  • What is the locality’s goal percentage of owner occupied housing and why?
  • What is a sustainable rate of homeownership?
  • Is rental stock considered a part of the locality’s affordable housing inventory?
  • How is the locality helping property owners achieve affordability?
  • What is the level of community investment dedicated to affordable housing?
  • Is the locality providing financial literacy training?
  • If new affordable housing stock is created how will is stay affordable?
  • Should dwelling units be distributed equally throughout the community or should they be focused close to services (transit, employment opportunities etc.)?
  • Some of the affordable housing stock is of low quality.  This makes it less desirable for purchase and more expensive to maintain.  Can/should affordable housing policies include incentives to upgrade, or replace, substandard housing stock?
  • Can, and should, localities forgive or reduce required fees on new affordable housing creation?

Just as the housing market is dynamic, the discussion of affordability must be an ongoing conversation.  The Free Enterprise Forum welcomes an open, comprehensive discussion regarding how to best support our community’s housing goals.

Respectfully Submitted,

Neil Williamson


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,

Albemarle Downzoning by Definition?

By. Neil Williamson, President

In last night’s (8/21) Albemarle County Planning Commission meeting new definitions language was added to an ordinance that could have a chilling effect on the development of the development area (and the balance of the county).

This definitional modification, which was not mentioned by staff but was brought to light by an alert citizen, was proposed as follows:

Density, gross: The theoretical maximum number of dwelling units allowed per acre within a zoning district
before complying with all applicable regulations pertaining to critical slopes, stream buffers, flood plains,
minimum yards, maximum structure height, and other regulations affecting the development of a site.

Density permitted by right: The maximum number of dwelling units allowed per acre within a zoning district upon complying with all applicable regulations pertaining to critical slopes, stream buffers, flood plains, minimum yards, maximum structure height, and other regulations pertaining to the development of a site.

Now I am not an attorney and I may not completely understand this concept but it is clear this is a MAJOR SHIFT in County Policy – and it only gets a footnote in the marked up version of the ordinance.

The rationale for including this revised definition is a still unpublished Virginia Supreme Court Decision that indicated the town of Occoquan “could not require a special exception to disturb critical slopes for residential development to achieve the density permitted by right.  The definitions clarifying that the “density permitted by right” under the County’s zoning ordinance is the density achieved after complying with all of the other regulations pertaining to development”.

How is this not a down zoning?

When staff was questioned about the impacts on by right development and it was suggested this would reduce the number of by right units in the development area.  Albemarle County Planning Director Wayne Cilimberg indicated this was not the intent of the language.

Wait a minute, let’s look at a conventional, by-right development in the development as an example.

A ten acre parcel in the development area that is zone R-4 (4 units an acre) Gross density= 10 x 4 = 40.

If three acres are in critical slopes the new “density permitted by right” is (10-3) x 4 = 28.

Net density lost = 12 units.

Now the planners suggest you can request your “lost” density be returned  along with the critical slopes exception application.  But in order to enforce the concept of “critical slopes” your by right density must be reduced.

So, if enacted, the ordinance will make landowners petition government for theoretical development rights that they have today.

The proposed new definitions are nothing short of a regulatory taking of property rights.

The Free Enterprise Forum believes rather than twisting their ordinances to permit regulating “critical” slopes, Albemarle County should eliminate critical slopes in the development area from any restrictions, other than those directly related to a stream bed.  This would mitigate the largest number of slopes and truly protect those slopes that most greatly contribute to the health of the community’s streams and waterways.

We encourage the Albemarle County Planning Commission to consider this alternative track when the Zoning Text Amendment is again heard in October.

If the ordinance as written is  enacted, the Free Enterprise Forum anticipates Albemarle’s County Attorney’s office will be preparing much more than a mere footnote to defend this aggressive regulatory reduction of property rights.

Respectfully Submitted,

Neil Williamson


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.

Greene BOS sets Cap on Rezoning Application Fees

By Pauline Hovey, Greene County Field Officer

Following a recommendation from Planning Director Bart Svoboda, the Greene County Board of Supervisors agreed to set a $12,000 cap on the application process for rezoning at its July 12meeting. On May 24, the board had requested Planning Department staff review the application fees, which are currently set at $2,000 + $100 per acre.

In his research, Svoboda noted that fees “from one locality to another vary greatly,” from as high as $35,605 + $200 per acre and as low as $100. “Based on information and studies conducted by various localities, it appears that the real cost to process a rezoning application in Greene County is in line with the current fee,” Svoboda said in his report. “However, it is apparent that the majority of localities subsidize the application process.”

Based on the current fee, the rezoning application process alone could cost developers tens of thousands of dollars. “If we are in the mindset of promoting business,” Svoboda said during his presentation to the board, “I’d suggest capping it at $12,000.”


Supervisor Jim Frydl (Ruckersville)

Supervisor Jim Frydl (Ruckersville) expressed confidence in Svoboda’s recommendation.

“The fees were revised to cover the department’s time, energy, and advertising,” Frydl said, referring to changes made to the fee structure in recent years. As a result, the potential high cost incurred to apply for rezoning was an “unintended consequence.” Frydl said he believed the director’s current recommendation “is a fair representation of that time and cost.”

Chairman Steve Catalano (at-large) also conveyed his support of Svoboda’s ability to determine the development costs incurred by his department and the amount needed to cover those costs. “At the end of the day, you’re responsible for the department’s self-sufficiency,” he said.

The board approved Svoboda’s recommendation, which will go into effect immediately. This is the first time the county has proposed a cap on application fees.

During a public hearing on a request from business owner Matthew Morris of Mack Morris Heating and Air Conditioning to rezone approximately 4.5 acres of a 9.01 acre tract, the board heard from residents concerned about the impact and “intrusion” on a residential neighborhood. Morris has operated his business in the area since 1985 but wants to expand and build a 10,000 sq. ft. facility on the proposed property. Svoboda reported that the county’s comprehensive plan encourages mixed-use development in growth areas that offer commercial, office, and residential development, and this business is located in the “designated growth area.” The proposed 4.5 acre lot is already designated a mixed-use residential on the future land use map, and the Planning Department recommended approval with acceptance of the submitted proffers. Despite residents’ concerns, supervisors unanimously agreed with the department’s recommendation.

Greene County Commissioner of the Revenue Larry Snow

Greene County Commissioner of the Revenue Larry Snow

In other matters from the board, Supervisor Frydl noted that the board has failed to receive any reports requested from the Commissioner of Revenue over the past several months and expressed concern that supervisors need such reports to determine the number of businesses in the county and which businesses hold licenses or have gone out of business. Frydl said he regards this as a “valid request and a valid report” for the taxpayers.

Since past boards have not requested such reports from various departments and have not followed any protocol in this area, Catalano noted, “We’ve been inconsistent in our requests, so I suggest we put together a list of what the board needs from each department and how often we would require reports” before taking any further action. The end result was the board agreed to hold a future workshop to determine what reports they will need, from what constitutional officers, and how often.


Pauline Hovey is the Greene County Field Officer for the Free Enterprise Forum a privately funded public policy organization. If you find this report helpful, please consider supporting the Free Enterprise Forum. To learn more visit www.freeenterpriseforum.org

(Photo Credits Greene County www.gcva.us)