Albemarle County Planning Commission discusses Comprehensive Plan

Virginia law assigns a locality’s Planning Commission the primary responsibility for creating and maintaining a Comprehensive Plan, but many communities hire consultants to help with the heavy lifting. 

Charlottesville hired Rhodeside & Harwell to complete the city’s plan after the Planning Commission got bogged down after two years. Nelson County has hired the Berkley Group to review their Comprehensive Plan. 

Albemarle’s current Comprehensive Plan update is being managed by staff with assistance from the firm EPR. The Planning Commission got a check-in at their meeting on September 27, 2022 that served as their most extensive conversation on the plan review in a couple of months. They had previously been briefed in late July on several options to proceed with alterations to the growth management plan.  (See also: Albemarle Planning Commission reviews seven options for growth management

“Throughout the AC44 process, we’re using two main lenses to guide our work which are equity and climate action,” said Tori Kanellopoulos, an Albemarle County planner.

The first topic was a review of something called the Framework for an Equitable and Resilient Community. This was put together after a series of public comment periods and roundtables over the summer.

“Additionally the framework was developed based on the input from community members, the AC44 working group, and the Planning Commission, as well as a review of goals in the current Comprehensive Plan and research of best practices,” Kanellopoulos said. 

The Board of Supervisors will be presented with the draft framework at a work session on October 19. 

Another study underway is an analysis of how much available land remains for development in the current growth area boundaries. 

“And as a reminder, the purpose of the build-out is to understand the maximum theoretical build-out potential based on land use designations of our current development areas and consider if the maximum potential build-out is sufficient to accommodate projected growth and demand in the next twenty years,” Kanellopoulos said. 

View the nine-page framework document here (Credit: Albemarle County / EPR)

Also feeding into the framework is input received at a series of community roundtables held last month. Kanellopoulos summarized some of what was heard on the topic of housing. 

“There’s a need for housing that is affordable to people employed in Albemarle County who also want to live here,” Kanellopoulos said. “Community members should be able to age in place and have housing accessible to all abilities. Housing needs the infrastructure to support it. And there’s a concern that many community members who want to live in Albemarle County and continue to move away because they are unable to stay or return to the county.” 

Vlad Gavrilovic with the firm EPR went next to explain the draft framework, and how it will help to get the concept of equity into the next Comprehensive Plan. 

“Really this framework is a bridge,” Gavrilovic said. “It bridges Phase 1 and Phase 2 of the Comprehensive Plan document. Phase 1 is about growth management and incorporating the direction from the Board that we received and Phase 2 is about turning that input from the community into a policy direction for all the different chapters of the plan.” 

There are four themes in the framework. Their titles are “A Green and Resilient Community” and “A Welcoming and Equitable Community” and a “Thriving and Prosperous Community.” Another is “A Connected and Accessible Community.”  

“What we heard is that there’s a real desire to have better connections throughout the community, especially biking, walking, and transit,”  Gavrilovic said. “It relates to this theme that we heard also of being able to age in place, having transportation options for all ages and abilities.” 

The Albemarle Planning Commissioners were asked whether they thought this framework was worth pursuing, what’s missing, and whether they thought it was ready to forward to the Board of Supervisors. 

Our first comment comes from Luis Carrazana, the at-large member of the Planning Commission. He said it was not too early in a high-level discussion to talk about metrics. 

“I don’t see where we’ve looked at strategies to measure success or to measure how we’re doing with some of these goals,” Carrazana said.  “So how do we measure looking back eight years ago, what are we doing well or maybe we just do more of it, right, if we’re doing it well, but we need to improve, and what are we not doing well? And perhaps what we need is a different strategy.” 

For instance, Carrazana pointed out a statistic in the build-out analysis that projects in development areas are only being filled in at 58 percent of their potential capacity. 

“So that’s an important measure,” Carrazana said. “There’s a lot of these areas where we can do similar type measures that will help us identify our strategies in the future. Maybe we shouldn’t just keep doing the same things over and over again.” 

Carrazana said the document also could use examples of what has worked, such as successful mixed-use communities. He also said the document should point out potential conflicts but does not  necessarily have to reconcile them. 

“There are some things we’re not doing very well and housing is one and transit is another,” Carrazana said.

Commissioner Julian Bivins said he is concerned that the plan could end up becoming useless as a force to guide the future if it attempts to please all stakeholders. 

“The intimate conflict of us holding on to this rural community versus this hopefully dynamic development area, how we move through that successfully…   will be a huge sort of magic trick in my mind, simply because when I’ve heard discussions around similarly-typed things, we always come to a negotiated outcome in which no one wins,” Bivins said. 

Commissioner Lonnie Murray introduced a concept he felt was missing from the framework.

“One of the things I would encourage is that I think we need to look at the concept of ecological density and encouraging ecological density, particularly in our growth areas, that do more with less in terms of ecological services,” Murray said. 

Murray pointed to the example of the Dell stormwater pond on Emmet Street at the University of Virginia as an example of a place that is able to provide habitat to species. For those unfamiliar, the Dell is a daylighted stream.

“Prior to this daylighting,  it was really a wasted field of grass,” Murray said. “They took the stream, brought it to the surface, they planted it with 100 percent native plants, they put in a nice pond, and it’s an attractive feature for the community who likes to go to the pond and walk  around it.” 

The Dell is also adjacent to the new University of Virginia Contemplative Commons Center, which is currently under construction on the site of a former parking lot.  

Bivins took issue with the following sentence under the theme Green and Resilient Community. 

“As part of the commitment to resilience, the County has encouraged sustainable and regenerative agricultural practices, and these have in turn been supported through a robust local food system making abundant healthy food choices available locally,” reads the sentence. 

Bivins said he did not think that was accurate because very little food is produced in Albemarle but instead has lots of boutique farms. 

“As exciting and as good language as that is, it is not going to happen,” Bivins said. “I went and looked at the 2017 census put out by the U.S. Department of Census of Agriculture is Albemarle County is one percent of the Commonwealth’s agriculture.” 

The next Census of Agriculture will take place this winter with data being released in the summer of 2024. 

Commissioner Karen Firehock also thought the language needed a reality check.

“The more I read of this entire document, the more I thought this is a lovely fantasy place that I would love to visit one day but I just, it was almost like too much,” Firehock said. “And I’d rather us sound a little more humble, like we aspire to utilize local food.” 

Firehock also had this overarching observation.

“The county is creating a city around a city with our urban ring and we’re struggling because it was a suburban development pattern and now we’re trying to make it an urban one,” Firehock said. “We lack the powers our neighbor has right here because we are not a city.” 

Bivins said he would like to see more economic activity in some sections of the rural area. 

“I think there is some role for crossroads communities,” Bivins said. “I think there is some role for reinvigorating Esmont. I think there is some roles in reinvigorating the path that used to go from Scottsville to Staunton.”

Bivins referred to a 19th century turnpike that used to connect those two communities. There is a paper written in 1975 that’s worth reviewing for anyone interested in the concept and the history

If you are in this story and I have quoted you, I please let me know if I took you out of context. I strive to capture people’s ideas accurately, and am always willing to be corrected and clarified. I also make a point of trying to point people to the entire recording so they can listen to the conversation. For instance, this one is on YouTube.

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