Albemarle Planning Commission briefed on zoning rewrite

At their last meeting on December 13, the Albemarle Planning Commission got an update on what’s being called a “modernization” of the zoning code. Before we get into the details, it should also be noted that the Rio District has been unrepresented on the Commission since July when Daniel Bailey resigned. 

The zoning work session was kicked off by Lea Brumfield, a senior planner with Albemarle County. (view the presentation)

“The ordinance has not undergone a complete overhaul since it was adopted in 1980,” Brumfield said. “We have made a number of amendments in the intervening 40 years but the  ordinance is in need for an overall reorganization and an overall cleaning up.” 

The intent is to make the code more clear and more user-friendly. Albemarle has hired the Berkley Group to do a lot of the work. The Bridgewater-based government consulting firm is doing similar work in Pittsylvania County as well as assisting Nelson County with its Comprehensive Plan update. 

A summary of the Berkley Group’s findings in the Albemarle zoning code (Credit: Berkley Group / Albemarle County)

Since the beginning of the year, the scope and direction of the work has changed. The original idea had been to make some tweaks to rules such as those for setbacks and to streamline some of the language.

“But following two work sessions in April and June, we did come to the realization that the project needed to be restarted from the ground up,” Brumfield said. 

Unlike the Comprehensive Plan work, most of the work has not been very public. Since a second kick-off meeting in August, the six Planning Commissioners were interviewed by the Berkley Group as were staff.

“Albemarle County staff also gave a tour of the County to Berkley Group staff to help familiarize them with the County and highlight specific development areas, design standards, and uses in the community,” reads a section of Appendix C in the report written for the December 13 meeting (page 83). “Three of the major focus areas visited during this tour was the Broadway Street industrial area, the Brookhill Neighborhood Model development, and the Foothills Crossing subdivision in the Crozet area.”

Representatives from the development community had the opportunity to ask their questions at a listening session on November 10.

“We’ve kind of got three buckets,” said Rebecca Cobb, a planner with the Berkley Group. “We’re going to do investigations, we’re going to develop content, and then there will be adoption. And so for this phase one, we’ve done most of the investigation and you all participated in some of that.”  

There is to be an open house in January for the public to review the work of phase one to date. If you’re interested, reading the summary of the engagement is probably worthwhile to see what those who work with the code most have to say. Here are some highlights from the first of 15 pages of notes. 

“The current ordinance is overly complex and difficult to navigate, making it overly burdensome to administer and unapproachable for community members,” reads the top bullet point. 

“Density and building height should be updated for a growing community that has both urban and rural land,” reads the eleventh.

“The Neighborhood Model District should be reevaluated following the completion of the Comprehensive Plan update process as it is overly difficult to administer and long-term use as its own zoning district may continue to add administrative burdens,” reads the twelfth. 

Here’s some of the highlights as stated by Rebecca Cobb.

“Lengthy approval processes… a desire for more by-right uses… there was also a common thread about increasing density and building height in specific areas… and then re-evaluating the Neighborhood Model,” Cobb said.

The ability to do customized zoning areas through the Neighborhood Model District was adopted by the Board of Supervisors in 2001 as a way to help encourage walkable communities in the development areas. 

Now, so far all of the engagement work on the zoning code has been for developers and other stakeholders in the game. A public engagement plan is in the works and one commissioner wanted to know how success in that realm would be measured. 

“How do we know if we’re successful in those exercises?” said Planning Commissioner Corey Clayborne. “Ten people could engage and we could say ‘we did it,’ right?” 

“We do plan on having some metrics and kind of monitoring and seeing, you know, are people visiting the webpage? How many people responded to the survey?” Cobb said. “And I think the end result of knowing how successful it is if we’re getting information and answers that we can really utilize and make changes in the ordinance. It shows that people are understanding what we’re talking about and we are answering needs.” 

Much of that monitoring will be handled by the county’s engagement staff. This month, two new community coordinators were introduced.

Commissioner Lonnie Murray said he had a concern about some of the tone of the zoning diagnostic. 

“As I go through here, I see a lot of things about expediting or about various policies being barriers to development of barriers to this or that, and I think it’s worth noting that a lot of our policies come about because we explicitly were trying to stop things from happening in certain area and natural resources being affected,” Murray said. “So the fact that it is difficult to build on a critical slope or to build on a floodplain, those are not done to be barriers. They are done to protect a resource.” 

Commissioner Karen Firehock agreed that the county should set a high standard for development in sensitive areas. 

“One of the things I circled in the document was that you made an example of [Federal Emergency Management Agency] and our standards being a little more stringent than FEMA, and that’s an example of ‘yes! That’s a good thing!’ Charlottesville doesn’t mind if you build in the 100 year flood plain. Part of our stringency has to do with the aftermath of Hurricane Camille and the loss of lives. It’s really actually a really bad idea to develop in the hundred year flood plain.”

Firehock also noted that the county is very short-staffed at the moment and efforts to expedite processes may not work if there aren’t people to do the work. She also suggested priorities for what should move ahead faster.

“Some localities have engaged in a different kind of expediting which is greenlighting,” Firehock said. “We’ve lost a lot of our ability to acquire things like on-site water quality treatment for example. But if you do enough of the sort of the ‘green things’ in your application, you can get in a different pile to be reviewed faster.” 

Firehock said that could include permeable pavement and green roofs. 

Two future work sessions with the Planning Commission will take place in the first half of 2023. 

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 December 29, 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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