Albemarle PC reviews tool to measure policy effects on equity, climate action

The development of a new Comprehensive Plan for Albemarle County puts equity and climate action as major drivers of government policy. At their meeting on May 23, the Planning Commission reviewed a new mechanism that will be used to help guide decisions.

“Understanding the purpose of equity and climate action ties back to our county mission overall,” said Jesse Brookins, the county’s director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion for Albemarle County. “To enhance the well-being and quality of life of all community members through the provision of the highest level of public service consistent with the prudent use of public funds.”

Brookins said the county needs to hold itself accountable in terms of how equitable county services are delivered. 

“In addition to that, having that consideration for climate change and how it would exasperate many existing challenges faced by our community and how responding effectively to climate change can benefit the community overall,” Brookins said. 

Enter the Equity / Climate Action Tool. Brookins said its purpose is to incorporate different perspectives while policies are crafted and adopted. He first began with a definition. (view the presentation

“The term equity describes the continuous process of action, reflection, and analysis of what is fair and just for all,” Brookins said. “This term is distinguished from equality. Whereas equality means providing the same to all, equity is a process that acknowledges an unequal starting place and continues to correct and address the balance.” 

The four aspects of equity according to the presentation (view the presentation)

And then there’s climate action, as defined by climate protection program manager Gabe Dayley.

“Climate change refers to drastic shifts to global weather patterns including increasingly extreme weather events due to average warming over time of the Earth’s surface temperature,” Dayley said. “And then climate action has kind of two main aspects. One, the technical term that’s used is mitigation and that really refers to reducing the severity of climate change by reducing greenhouse gas emissions.” 

The second aspect is adaptation and resilience, which Dayley said means preparing to withstand the increased severity of weather events. 

The tool asks several questions of a potential policy or new initiative. Here’s the broad overview.

“Do policies, programs, and projects align with climate action or equity?” Dayley asked. “The tool contains three preliminary questions and seven main questions.”

Dayley said the first three questions are a gut check.

“The first one just asks if there is an awareness of preexisting disparities and potential climate impacts in the community that intersect with that issue of the topic that is being addressed?” 

Then there are more deeper questions which seek to get further into the issue. Each answer is scored from 1 to 3 with 1 representing the status quo, 2 meaning an incidental impact, and 3 believed to have a meaningful impact. 

In addition to the score there would also be a written justification for why this score was given as well as how the score could be improved. 

“We also don’t want this to be critique for the sake of critique,” Dayley said. “We want this to improve the work that we all do in local government.” 

The first time the tool will be used is in development of the Comprehensive Plan. 

Commissioner Julian Bivins (Jack Jouett) said he was on board with the idea of a tool but has concerns about the practicality of the exercise. 

“This sounds like a fantastic sort of Ph.D seminar that you’re putting together,” Bivins said. “What’s the decision matrix on either what the Comprehensive Plan should do and what we would expect the results of the Comprehensive Plan to be. But what I haven’t seen and perhaps at some point you will be able to point out with some examples is how we would get to that score 3 position and what would that look like?” 

Bivins pointed out the most recent greenhouse gas inventory conducted by Albemarle indicated that 52 percent of emissions come from vehicles and 39 percent comes from heating and cooling buildings. He added that the Comprehensive Plan has many strategies to address that but the county isn’t fully in control. 

“We don’t own the transportation network,” Bivins said. “It’s going to say a bunch of things about where we can develop. We’re not even developing at the type of density at this community that would allow us to mitigate some of those two issues right there. And so, I’m trying to understand what’s the big lift from this other than it’s the appropriate thing to have.” 

Commissioner Luis Carrazana (At-Large) acknowledged there is a lot to do to develop the tool but said he was having difficulty seeing how there would be any outcomes. 

Commissioner Karen Firehock (Samuel Miller) said she works on these issues in her job as director of the Green Infrastructure Center. 

“I am really glad that our county is not shying away from the word equity,” Firehock said. “As we’re seeing at the Governor’s level, as well as some of the other localities in Virginia that we’re not going to hide under a rock and pretend that everything was always equal.” 

Firehock said she is hopeful that the work will result in outcomes that help guide policy. But she pointed out there will always be conflicts when there are competing goals and strategies. 

Commissioner Fred Missel (Scottsville) said he felt the purpose of the tool needed more clarity and explanation. 

“In my mind, a lens is something you can either use to see something closer or more clearly with and if I’m doing that I need to know what I’m focusing on so I’m not quite sure from this discussion yet what we’re focusing on,” Missel said. “What is that target that we’re looking to see more clearly with the lens?” 

Missel said the county also has to consider what the land use implications will be. Will it result in  more in-fill development? Development of more land that’s currently preserved? 

“Does that mean initiatives or incentives for developers to preserve certain areas to increase the open space that’s part of a Neighborhood Model District zone?” Missel asked. “All of those big questions about what does this really mean?” 

Missel also suggested the lens could add more time to the development review process. 

Commissioner Lonnie Murray (White Hall) had a suggestion. 

“It would be great to see some current policies run through this to see how they score,” Murray said. “Today someone mentioned land use valuation. I would love to see that if this a new program that we were passing today, how would that score?” 

Land use valuation is the practice where rural landowners are assessed a lower property tax rate if the land is used for a bona fide agricultural purpose. 

Brookins said he appreciated the feedback and he and Dayley would return with more information. 

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 May 30, 2023 edition of the program. To ensure this research can be sustained, please consider becoming a paid subscriber or contributing monthly through Patreon.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: