To expand growth areas or not to expand? Albemarle CAC members weigh in 

Albemarle County is in the middle of a review of its Comprehensive Plan through a process known as AC44. The update is currently in phase two and the process is intended to help prepare Albemarle for a population with significantly more people. 

The Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service at the University of Virginia projects a 2040 population of 138,523 with that climbing to 155,102 ten years later. That’s up from a current estimate of 115,495 in July 2022.

Since a countywide rezoning in 1980, Albemarle’s growth management plan has permitted and encouraged development to be within roughly five percent of the county’s 726 square miles. These have master plans and each of those is to be overseen by an advisory body known as a “community advisory committee” or CAC. 

A map of Albemarle County’s designated growth areas from the toolkit on Draft Criteria for Expanding the Development Areas

On July 12, 2023, Albemarle County held a virtual meeting with all of CAC’s. 

“Welcome everyone,” said Serena Gruia, the public engagement coordinator for Albemarle County. “We’re going to get started shortly here.” 

A meeting for the Comprehensive Plan began with a definition of a Comprehensive Plan.

“The Comprehensive Plan is a 20-year guiding document that describes our community’s vision for the future,” said Tori Kanellopoulos, a principal planner in the county’s community development department. “It includes the recreation, transportation, housing, and job opportunities we want to see. The comp plan is used to inform decisions on funding, plans and programs, capital projects, and review of certain applications. It guides where new development occurs and where public services and amenities are provided.”

The entire AC44 update is expected to be completed by late 2024. A major thrust of this review is to update the document based on direction from other approved documents such as Housing Albemarle, the Climate Action Plan, and the Project Enable economic development plan

The first phase of the plan resulted in something called the Framework for an Equitable and Resilient Community which Kanellopoulos said will guide development of the goals, objectives and action items that will end up in the finished Comprehensive Plan. 

About 650 people responded to the first public engagement of the second phase, as I reported last month. The county now seeks input on what they’re calling tool kits on four specific areas. 

Let’s hear more definitions of what those actually mean.

“Activity centers are places that have a variety of businesses, services, and housing, either now or in the future, where we can gather, shop, stroll and go to meet our daily needs,” Kanellopoulos said. 

These activity centers are separated into “neighborhood”, “town,” and “destination” centers.” These are all expected to be walkable but vary in size. 

“Crossroad Communities are places in the rural area that have included a historic small scale commercial center, typically at a road crossing, which may or may not still have active commercial uses or community gathering spaces,” said county planner Ben Holt.

There are currently seven of these in the rural area. They are Advance Mills, Batesville, Covesville, Free Union, Greenwood, Proffitt, and White Hall. Holt said the current zoning code does not have the tools to authorize any new uses. He added there are many other potential locations that could have this designation added to serve as community hubs, mostly around existing institutions such as schools.

“This strategy could support more equitable access to services and amenities in the rural area,” Holt said. 

Another item discussed during the work session were rural interstate interchanges which have so far been prevented from further commercial development. 

The final toolkit ponders what the county might consider when it’s time to expand the growth area based on a review of how much has been developed over time.

“The 2015 [Comprehensive] Plan estimated that about 11 percent of the development area’s land had capacity for development or redevelopment,” Kanellopoulos said. “With the 2022 land use build out analysis, the estimated remaining development area land is about seven percent.” 

The existing Comprehensive Plan contains language about monitoring use of growth area land but does not have criteria about where potential expansion might be.

Participants in the virtual open house had the opportunity to enter specific rooms to choose one of the four areas to discuss and give their views. The most popular was the one on criteria the growth area expansion. 

Kevin McDermott, the acting planning director in Albemarle County, oversees long range planning and transportation. He said the growth area may need to eventually be expanded to provide more places for housing and space for places for people to work. The framework created in the first phase has some guidance for how to proceed.

“That includes identifying natural resources to protect and those are often outside the current growth area so we need to be conscious of that as we’re looking at areas to develop,” McDermott said. “And establish expectations for development patterns so that we know what kind of land uses we’re going to get in those.” 

McDermott said factors to be considered include transportation capacity, school capacity, and access to public water and sewer.

“If the area is located in the water supply watershed which was one of the primary considerations when those development areas were initially developed,” McDermott said. 

McDermott said there are also several examples of “stale zoning” where uses are allowed outside of the development area but have not yet been built on due to a variety of factors.

A big driver in the AC44 process is the need to implement the Housing Albemarle goal of creating more housing across the county. 

“As the cost of housing goes up, we can control some of those factors by allowing additional development that goes beyond the current development area,” McDermott said. “And we don’t want to start losing too many job opportunities in the county because we don’t have places where businesses can come and locate and grow in the county.” 

Another issue with the existing development area is that what ends up getting built is often much lower than what could be built under a Comprehensive Plan that allows for significant density if approved by the Board of Supervisors in a legislative action.

“We don’t get new development that builds out to that maximum build out estimate,” McDermott said. “So often times when a developer comes in to rezone land so they can develop it, ultimately they’re not developing it at the 100 percent of what’s allowed. They’re developing it at about 55 to 60 percent of what’s allowed.”

Discussion

Planning Commissioner Lonnie Murray pushed back on the need for additional space saying that Albemarle’s development area is much larger than the total area of the city it surrounds. 

“Charlottesville is only ten square miles or approximately 6,500 acres,” Murray said. “Albemarle’s growth area is 23,680 acres, or 3.5 times the size of Charlottesville. If we look at Charlottesville I would say that nobody reasonably believes that Charlottesville has run out of space yet.” 

Murray said he wants to see a focus on redevelopment of existing commercial spaces. 

Sally Thomas served four terms on the Albemarle Board of Supervisors during an era when economic development was not encouraged by the county government. She said a reason for the development area has been to direct limited resources into a concentrated area in order to make provision of services more likely. 

“To have the transportation available for example is much more possible when you’re not stretching out all out across the countryside,” Thomas said. “And it’s pretty well proven that additional development doesn’t guarantee lower cost housing.” 

One concern is that if the growth area is expanded prematurely, it will make it less likely that those existing commercial spaces will be redeveloped. 

Dick Ruffin, the chair of the Pantops Community Advisory Committee, said he wants the county to come up with incentives to encourage redevelopment of shopping centers. 

“We already have some potential commercial spaces which are not being developed,” Ruffin said. “We have a large shopping center which is very poorly developed and much better use could be made of it.”

There’s also the question of when the growth area expanded. 

Mary Katherine King of the 5th and Avon Community Advisory Committee said it might take many years for the water and sewer infrastructure to be in place in areas that would need those utilities to support intense uses. She said that’s why it is important to consider the issue now. 

“If for example we’re going to expand even a tiny percentage into an area, it could take for the planning and funding of just water up to 20 years to figure it out how to get it to this new area,” King said. “And so if we don’t know where that is and if we don’t have some criteria like we’re developing today to identify where that’s going to be, we’re going to never have the infrastructure needed to have any type of slight increase in development area because there won’t be common facilities.” 

King said community members should be thinking several decades ahead to prepare for the future. 

“You really have to kind of think about it like what do you children need?” King said. “If I want my children to be able to live in Albemarle County affordably 40 years from now, I strongly believe that it’s our responsibility to talk about this now.”

One speaker who I’ve not yet identified had this comment. 

“Not everybody wants to live in a condominium and the kinds of high-rise, semi-high rise development is really not aspirational housing,” the speaker said. “People don’t come in and want to raise a family in a two-bedroom apartment on the fifth floor.” 

This person also said that the quality of life of existing residents in the development areas will suffer if there is a push for more density in those areas.

Mary Rice said that expanding the growth area around Crozet would make it a less attractive place for people to live. 

“One of the reasons that so many people want to live in the growth area of Crozet is because its surrounded by rural area,” Rice said. “People want that hard edge of being able to just go down the road to the peach orchard. And if you turn the peach orchard into another development its going to be less attractive for people to move there.”

The conversation continues. The Albemarle Planning Commission will take up the issue of the development toolkits at their meeting on August 8. 

The third step of the second phase will see the release of drafts goals and objectives for the Comprehensive Plan. Phase three will see the creation of action steps. 


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 July 25, 2023 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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