Albemarle County Planning Commission reviews “reset” of zoning modernization

Tis always the season for serious and seriously lengthy discussions about land use and planning issues in the community, and there’s a lot to get through. With the help of the firm EPR, Albemarle County is in the midst of reviewing its Comprehensive Plan in a process known as AC44. But, work continues on a “modernization” of the county’s zoning code. 

Charles Rapp, the county’s deputy director of community development, said a previous work session with the Planning Commission earlier this year caused staff to rethink their approach. (staff report) (watch the video)

“Taking that feedback from the Commission and staff and everything we’ve learned, we wanted to take an opportunity to reset and think about our approach to this knowing that this is going to be a multi-year endeavor and we need to pair this with the Comprehensive Plan and kind of reassess what sections we’re going to hit and how we’re going to address the different changes so that we do this in a much more comprehensive and effective format,” Rapp said.

Albemarle has hired the Berkley Group to help with the update of the zoning code, In the late winter of 2021, Supervisors asked for the two projects to be done concurrently but principal Darren Coffey said the process may work better if one informs the other. 

“You, the Planning Commission, who are the gatekeepers for all things land use are dealing with two major projects and so by us hitting the reset button and reordering how to do this the right way, we’re letting the Comprehensive Plan get a little bit ahead intentionally,” Coffey said. 

There are several tasks to be accomplished during the modernization of the zoning ordinance, according to Rebecca Cobb, a planner with the Berkley Group.

“One, make sure the ordinance is in compliance with the Code of Virginia,” Cobb said. “And then in terms of modernization, making the ordinance more user-friendly, more user-friendly for staff, for you all, and the general public. So in those terms we want to clarify language. Anything that’s difficult to understand? Let’s put it in plain English for everybody to understand.”

Cobb said there’s a lot missing from the zoning code that does not address modern development standards in part because it’s not been updated for many decades. She said the updated code also needs to implement whatever visions come out of the Comprehensive Plan. 

Albemarle County is in the first phase of the zoning modernization update (Credit: the Berkley Group)

Under this reset, the first phase begins now and will include private meetings with Planning Commissioners. 

“We’re going to be moving into investigations so we’re going to be looking at your ordinance,” Cobb said. “In October and November we will be having interviews and then we’ll have another work session with [the Planning Commission] in December to talk about the diagnostic report.” 

Keep in mind the Charlottesville is continuing to finalize its Zoning Diagnostic and Approach Report. Albemarle will hold an open house in January on its report, followed by more detailed work sessions on specific aspects of zoning. 

Commissioner Karen Firehock of the Samuel Miller District said some items are already in the Comprehensive Plan and likely won’t change. She pointed out a larger issue with how and whether big ideas are implemented. 

“I’m not here to debate our lighting standards on the dais but there’s a history to that,” Firehock said. “The Comprehensive Plan calls for us to update our lighting ordinance. We have a Dark Skies goal. We have all the fodder already in the Comprehensive Plan. That’s not the issue. It’s just that since we’ve did the last Comprehensive Plan, stakeholders have been calling for the county to update their ordinance. They volunteered to help out with roundtables. They’ve gone out and gotten experts in lighting who would cost hundreds of dollars per hour to volunteer their services. And yet the county’s response has been ‘we don’t have time for this.’ And then the Board’s response is ‘is this really a priority?’ which makes people upset because the Comprehensive Plan says that we’re going to do this.” 

One objective from the existing Albemarle County Comprehensive Plan’s Historic, Cultural, and Scenic Resources chapter. (review the whole 2015 plan)

Firehock said historic preservation is another topic with strong language in the Comprehensive plan but with little to no regulatory presence in the zoning ordinance. 

“There have been some folks who would like to see a historic preservation ordinance,” Firehock said. “Right now as I’m sure you know we have no way to protect historic buildings from being torn down.” 

Cobb said there are no specific timelines yet for what specific conversations will happen when but the shape will become better known after the interviews are conducted. 

Commissioner Lonnie Murray of the White Hall District  is troubled by the usage of the word “modernization.” 

“Partially because we just went through a situation where we found out our water protection ordinance was eviscerated through a code clean-up  and modernization process, where neither the Board of Supervisors nor the public understood the clear implication of what that code clean-up was,” Murray said. 

I’m still working out the details on that and more on that topic in the near future. In fact, a lot more on this topic as I continue to produce Charlottesville Community Engagement to keep track of these sorts of things. 

Another member of the Planning Commission wanted more clear integration of the Comprehensive Plan review and the zoning code update. 

“Maybe it’s just my project management brain but I think it would be fun to see sort of an overlapping schedule that had those touchpoints that helped us understand how that process was going to be combined and informing each other,” said Fred Missel, who represents the Scottsville District. 

Before you go: The time to write and research of this article is covered by paid subscribers to Charlottesville Community Engagement. In fact, this particular installment comes from the September 1, 2022 edition of the program. To ensure this research can be sustained, please consider becoming a paid subscriber or contributing monthly through Patreon.

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