Tag Archives: regulatory hurdles

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


The Economic Development Snowstorm

By. Neil Williamson, President

As I write this, social media is all a buzz regarding projected significant snowfall for the region late this week. It seems as though that despite the differences in the various predictive models (European, American, etc.) all have some amount of snow in the forecast.  Latest update, they have just named the storm “Jonas” (hopefully not for the Disney movie based boy band).

A “Storm of the Century”, especially in the Mid Atlantic states requires a specific environment to occur; the same is true for local economic vitality.

The jet stream must have the just proper bend to bring the storm up the coast, but not the warmth to the region; localities must have a clearly stated vision, and actions to match, to let businesses know they are welcome to come or to stay and grow here.

Possible East Coast Storm Setup

To achieve a super storm,  the atmospheric  temperatures must be high enough to allow water to condense and low enough to support snow formation; the regulatory environment must be high enough to provide a quality community but low enough to allow businesses to responsibly grow here.

A great deal is being made of the ice damming effect on this storm; just as the storm needs the ice dam to fully develop absent a trained workforce economic development will not reach its full potential.

Possible East Coast Storm Setup

If there are not specific humidity levels just prior to the storm’s arrival, it does not materialize; if there is not land ready and permitted for business use prior to the prospect business expansion, economic development goes elsewhere.

Just as the winds can’t be too high to push the storm through too quickly; citizens must recognize and acknowledge the value of new (or expanding) business, new tax revenue, new jobs and economic advancement or such advancement will be pushed away.

Unlike the super storm formation, local government controls many, but not all, of the economic development environmental conditions.

How do you think Central Virginia’s local governments measure up?

Are they creating a positive economic development environment?

What letter grade would you give your locality?

Just as with “Jonas” – time will make the results readily apparent.

Respectfully Submitted,

Neil Williamson

Neil Williamson December 2 2015 Albemarle BOS meeting Photo Credit Charlottesville TomorrowNeil 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 Credits:   Charlottesville Tomorrow, The Weather Channel, Snipview.com, quazoo.com

Regulatory Hurdles and Lack of Infrastructure Hinders Fluvanna Economic Development

By Bryan Rothamel, Field Officer

In an effort to become more educated about the economic development process, the Fluvanna County Board of Supervisors  were briefed about what goes into site selection and site analysis for prospective businesses.

Joe Hines from Timmons Group, gave the presentation about general information that goes into site selection and specifically looked at one property in Fluvanna.

The bottom line, Fluvanna has no property that is close to being ready for a large outside business to develop.

In Hines’ presentation he gave examples of large projects that have either looked at Virginia or committed to move to Virginia. They included projects like Amazon and Caterpillar.

The property in Fluvanna that was examined was the old Cosner location. It is over 100 acres with a potential buildout for 706,000 square feet over multiple buildings. The property was rated to be the lowest tier preparation for potential businesses.

It lacks studies and permits, but the major drawback is no public water or sewer. The entire development, as with everything in the Zion Crossroads area of the county, would have to be on wells and septic.

Welcome to Fluvanna CountyLocalities can proclaim a desire to lower their residential tax burden but then stop development by slowing the process.

“Either you get it or you don’t; you’re for it or you aren’t,” said Hines.

The county can help make land in the county more appetizing for business. Besides building water and sewer infrastructure, the county is in the process of developing economic development strategy.

The county already has transportations and utility infrastructure in the Zion Crossroads area.

“This is a team effort,” said Tony O’Brien (Rivanna District) said.

Area residents did attend the presentation about how to ready land for such development. Hines said the area lacks 100 acre lots that are ready for development. Fluvanna is years away having a lot that would be considered ‘ready to go.’

In the Central Virginia area, there were 13 announced new economic development projects. Those projects created 520 jobs with none coming to Fluvanna. Culpeper had the largest bump and that was driven by its location and incentives.

The supervisors will have a water infrastructure planning session on Dec. 17 at 4 p.m.

A decision like building water infrastructure will be costly and won’t have return of investment for over decade, at least. If it is anything like the last major capital project for the county, the high school building, it will cost political capital also.

“You could be making a decision that will cost you your seat,” said Hines.

The county is studying ground water availability in the area also. Supervisors are expected to discuss water infrastructure in total on Dec. 17. The James River Water Authority, a joint venture with Louisa, is also an option for the county.


bryan-rothamel.jpgThe Free Enterprise Forum’s coverage of Fluvanna County is provided by a grant from the Charlottesville Area Association of REALTORS® and by the support of readers like you.

Bryan Rothamel covers Fluvanna County for the Free Enterprise Forum

Photo Credit: Central Virginia Partnership for Economic Development

Playing Chicken with Albemarle ARB

June 2, 2014 Public Comments to the Albemarle County Architectural Review Board (ARB)

By. Neil Williamson, President

My name is Neil Williamson and I serve as president of the Free Enterprise Forum a public policy organization in Albemarle County.

As each of you know, Albemarle County has over twenty entrance corridors and the Planning Commission has recommended additional corridors be added via the Comprehensive Plan.  Albemarle’s number and geographic footprint is far beyond what I believe was the General Assembly’s legislative intent when it created Entrance Corridors.

By code, the properties in these corridors are subject to the additional review of the ARB.  Generally when a project comes before this board for approval it is granted with a number of conditions regarding landscaping, building materials or other ascetic measures.

The Free Enterprise Forum is growing increasingly concerned at the new level of detail that the ARB is now requesting from some but not all applicants.  Specifically, the need for three dimensional (3D) computer renderings seems to be above and beyond the reasonable requests from this  Board.

The concept of “requesting” is interesting considering the powerful dynamic of the ARB’s conditional approval.  I tend to consider these requests more akin to a game of chicken to see who will bend to the others will.

The game of chicken is an influential model of conflict for two players in game theory. The principle of the game is that while each player prefers not to yield to the other, the worst possible outcome occurs when both players do not yield.  In the applicants case this is a lopsided version of chicken as the ARB has very little to lose. While the applicant has often already put thousands (if not millions) of dollars at risk to get the application to the ARB.

Generally  these “requests” are made during the preliminary discussion of an application when a voting member of the ARB states “it sure would be nice if we could see the 3D renderings for this project”.  As an aside, while I have been in the room several times when such requests have been made to applicants, I have yet to find such requests formally recorded in the ARB minutes.

At any rate, at this point applicants find themselves in a position of either accepting the additional time and cost of preparing such 3D models as Albemarle County’s Cost of Doing Business or put their project’s approval at risk if they were to refuse this “request”.

Much like a child with desires for a shiny new technological toy, this Board, absent any expanded authority, has significantly increased the cost and complexity of development.

As applicants generally do not want to play chicken with the ARB, the Free Enterprise Forum “requests” that the ARB formally consider when three dimensional computer modeling is truly needed to understand an application versus simply nice to have.

If the ARB can not clearly delineate between when the pretty pictures are nice to have rather than truly and needed, such “requests” should be eliminated.

Thank you for the opportunity to speak.


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

Photo Credits: readthehook.com, USA Today

Is the Lorax Guilty of Snob Zoning?

By. Neil Williamson, President

Let me open with a disclaimer – I love beach reading. 

I was t"Snob Zones" by Liza Prevost was released Tuesday, May 7 and covers Darien and other New England towns' zoning regs.hrilled to be able to take a few days off with the family for a beach trip late last month.  While some might have preferred the new Dan Brown novel, my  primary book this trip was  Lisa Prevost’s Snob Zoning.

Prevost is an award winning journalist who has written extensively about real estate for the New York Times.  Her articles have also appeared in the Boston Globe, Boston Globe Magazine, More, Ladies’ Home Journal , and other publications.

In this rather well researched, short tome, Prevost outlines specific New England instances where existing residents use restrictive local zoning to eliminate the potential of “undesirable” affordable housing.  

Every reader will examine this book with their own perspective but many passages reminded me of the Charlottesville region, or where some would like it to be.

“As the wealthiest town in Litchfield County, Roxbury (CT) can financially afford its pull-up-the-drawbridge mentality.  The wealthy weekenders pay far more in taxes than they demand in services, thereby making up for the town’s nearly nonexistent commercial base.  the top ten taxpayers on the town’s grand list are, in fact, homeowners. ‘That’s our industry,’ says Gary Steinman, a biomedical engineer who operates a consulting practice out of his Roxbury home. ‘If we lose our rurality, we would lose that industry.’  But by refusing to make room for any higher density housing, Roxbury is contributing to a regional affordable housing shortage that affects most of the northwest corner.”

Over the last ten years, I have heard countless times that it is the “ruralness” of Albemarle County that makes our part of the world unique.  Preservation of such rural integrity is a priority for the Board of Supervisors even as such rural protection runs in conflict with their housing affordability goals.

This passage was also front of mind this morning as I read Sean Tubbs’ Daily Progress article on development projects in the City of Charlottesville and members of City Council’s concerns over their design and projected populations.

“[City Councilor Dede] Smith also wanted to know what population was being attracted to Charlottesville based on the nature of the new developments.

“Who is going to live at City Walk?” Smith asked. “Our number of families is declining in the city and it has been stated as a priority that we would like to at least maintain or grow housing for families.”

Reading between the lines, the question seems to be ‘are the right kind of people going to live at City Walk?’.  Isn’t this the very type of exclusionary thinking that could be called ‘Snob Zoning’?

Is this really what the City should determine or should the land owner, who is taking the financial risk seek to provide what the market will bear?

The concept of using zoning to preclude types of developments, or even specific tenants, is not limited to Charlottesville.  Paula Hawthorne of The Central Virginian reports of resident objections with a proposed Family Dollar retail outlet in Mineral. Under the front page banner headline “No welcome mat for Family Dollar”: 

“Residents Debbie and James Glass are against having Family Dollar in their neighborhood.  “I don’t want it in my backyard,” Debbie said.

Prevost reports such NIMBYism (Not In My Back Yard) clearly fueled the density discussion in Ossipee New Hampshire where the town enacted regulation that was so restrictive the Zoning chairman Mark McConkey said:

“‘I believe the spirit of this ordinance was to deny the opportunity for multifamily housing to go forward in this town.  I believe it is the intent of the ordinance whether it is right or wrong.’

McConkey’s startling admission was as good as a gift, from Viscarello’s perspective.  First thing the next morning, he dispatched a paralegal to Ossipee.  He wanted a copy of the hearing tapes before anything could happen to them.  Two months later, after failed attempts to get the board to reconsider its denial, Great Bridge sued the town in superior court.”

I will not divulge how the court case turned out suffice it to say the twists of the case made for great reading.

Perhaps the most interesting case study in the book focused on Watch Hill, Rhode Island where an area known as Napatree is 90% owned by the Watch Hill Fire District.  The District and another Parcel owner  The Watch Hill Conservancy entered into an agreement with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service authorizing the service to manage the federally protected piping plover population.  According to Prevost:

The fire district and conservancy had taken it upon themselves to hire wardens and put up signs.

This new arrangement was necessary to protect Napatree from overuse.  Conservancy officials pointed to a study’ they’d commissioned that concluded extensive human (and canine) use was harming the dunes, along with the well-being of threatened birds like the plovers…

…If preserving Napatree was a laudable goal, the locals who regularly roamed its shores were not convinced conservation was the sole aim.  “There was a sense that somehow the conservancy and fire district were trying to exclude people,’ says Steven Hartford, Westerly’s town manager.  The warning that “permission may be withdrawn at any time” sounded like some like a threat.  

This is a concern I have often heard voiced in Central Virginia as land owners enter into conservation easements and then find they may not be able to do what they wish with the land due to the restrictive language of the easement.

Often in local public policy, an oversimplification of developer vs. the-lorax-pic09environmentalist is put forth as the story line.  Very rarely are the lines that clear. 

Regularly, the Suessical Lorax imagery is brought forth to cast the development interests in a negative light.  The Rhode Island case was demonstrative of this issue.

“Although he knows that the preservation of eelgrass beds is important for sustaining healthy fisheries populations DeGrooth is openly suspicious of the Watch Hill groups’ push for more control over the anchorage, an area the general public has freely enjoyed access,”They’re using the curtain of environmental protection for a completely different agenda,” he charges. “they are not dumb.  They are very slow, very methodical.””

In many cases, I see folks who feign environmental concern simply to restrict the lawful development of property that they do not own.  Unfortunately, I tend to agree with the author that the NIMBY or CAVE (Citizens Against Virtually Everything) have the political upper hand.  

In his book review, John Ross writes on Reason.com:

Prevost sees little hope of changing entrenched attitudes about multi-family housing developments. “This is a world where facts are irrelevant,” says a demographer she spoke to. “I’ve explained over and over again that workforce housing is not Section 8 housing with welfare recipients packed in there.”

Snobs dominate local politics and are unlikely to embrace relaxed zoning codes any time soon. Change may yet come, though, as the demand for single-family homes subsides. The next generation simply isn’t as enamored of low-density living as baby boomers were.

With a subtitle of “Fear, Prejudice, and Real Estate” Lisa Prevost’s Snob Zones should be required reading for all Planning Commissioners, Zoning Boards, Boards of Supervisors and City Councils. 

Beyond just a great beach read, this book has the potential to make a difference.  By spotlighting these overzealous zoning regulations and the fortress mentality of NIMBYism that created them, readers will likely reexamine  land-use drawbridge regulatory impacts (intended and unintended) on the entire community.

Respectfully submitted,

Neil Williamson

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, Beacon Press