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 it. Emphasis 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.
The 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”
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
In last night’s (10/7/08) Albemarle County Planning Commission meeting, Community Development Director Mark Graham presented a proposal to increase fees for subdividing land. Brandon Shulleeta of the Daily Progress has the story:
The Albemarle Planning Commission heard a recommendation Tuesday from county staff to more than triple fees for developers under a subdivision ordinance. But some commissioners said the county should consider increasing the fees more than six-fold.
The rationale for such an increase hinges on the Planning Commission’s desire to recoup all the administrative expenses associated with processing the application from the applicant. In their view, the subdivision of land benefits only the applicant thus the applicant should bear the entirety of the cost of processing the application.
The Free Enterprise Forum philosophically disagrees with this position.
When ordinances and policies are crafted regarding the subdivision of land, the majority of the concerns are for the benefit of neighboring parcels and the community at large. With this as a starting point, the level of complexity of the subdivision ordinance has increased dramatically over the last fifteen years. The Free Enterprise Forum has written extensively regarding the Cost of Complexity and the need for regular regulatory review/reform.
To clarify, the subdivision ordinance is used to exercise a parcel’s “By Right” divisions under the existing zoning. There are very real costs to administering the subdivision ordinance but it is much more than just the landowner that is benefiting from the process.
As a part of this comprehensive fee review, earlier this year the Albemarle County Board of Supervisors enacted new building inspection fees. The Supervisors discussed that the inspections served far more than just the applicant but also protected future owners and visitors to commercial space. The point was that the community shares in the benefit thus the community should share in the cost of administering the inspections.
The Free Enterprise Forum agrees with The Board of Supervisors’ (and staff’s) assesment and suggests the Planning Commission reconsider their proposed cost allocation to more appropriately share the cost between the applicant and the community.
Late Monday evening (10/6/08), Charlottesville City Council unanimously approved a resolution to improve the development review process and, in turn, potentially improve the supply of affordable housing in the city.
Over the last twenty four to thirty six months, Charlottesville Neighborhood Development Services Director Jim Tolbert has been discussing potential improvements to the City’s approval process with the applicant community. He has also been meeting with the Planning Commission Chair, Jason Pearson, to discuss ways to improve the Development Review Process and improve the Planning Commission function. According to the staff report:
This effort has three objectives:
- Focus more of the Planning Commission’s (and staff’s) time on strategic issues.
- Streamline the site plan review process while maintaining adequate oversight.
- Provide incentives for affordable housing
The manner contemplated to address number 3 is elegant in its simplicity and significant in its potential application:
- Ask Council to pass a resolution that guarantees a three week turn around on all site plans containing affordable housing as outlined in the new legislation that has recently been passed. This will be effective if complete plans are submitted and may be suspended if the plans are not complete
- Frame the overall streamlining as an effort to produce economic efficiencies that will enable the development community to offer affordable housing in their proposals.
There is a great deal more in this well thought out Zoning Text Amendment; but the bold logic of the affordable housing provision is evidence of a clear understanding of the needs of the applicant community, their desire to produce affordable housing product and a recognition of the regulatory obstacles to such production.
In a discussion shortly after the vote, one applicant suggested it was likely all his future applications in the city would include the required amount of affordable housing to receive the “fast track” once this measure is enacted. He indicated that with a guaranteed three week approval time frame, his savings on interest (carrying) costs on many projects would make building affordable housing economically viable.
To be clear this is only a first step. The Planning Commission has been charged by City Council to:
initiate a study of proposed amendments to Chapter 34 (zoning) of the Charlottesville City Code, 1990, as amended, to provide for an improved development review process and allow the Planning Commission to focus on other priorities; and
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that the Planning Commission will submit its findings and recommendations to the City Council no later than January 14, 2009.
City Council even took the logical step so often missing in government action to create a deadline as a part of the resolution.
If this process works as envisioned, the City of Charlottesville will have much more efficient plan review and increased affordable housing stock while the Planning Commission can focus on larger issues.
Laudable goals indeed.