Albemarle Planning Commission reviews “Activity Centers” in AC44 discussion

The Albemarle Planning Commission had the chance earlier this month to weigh in on four of what planning staff are calling “toolkits” to help frame the ongoing review of the Comprehensive Plan. The overall process is called AC44.

“Tonight we’ll be going over four very dense and important topics that in a way really set the direction for everything else we’ll be talking throughout the comp plan,” said Kevin McDermott, the county’s interim director of planning. 

In June, Albemarle released detailed documents on those four topics which I’ve previously written about in other stories. 

The Community Advisory Committees had their opportunity to review the documents in July as I wrote about later that month. On August 8, the Planning Commission had their turn. 

“So tonight what we’re doing is trying to set the direction for how our team can get into the details of how the county might want to grow into the future,” McDermott said. 

The four toolkits emerged during the first phase of the Comprehensive Plan which took a look at the long-standing growth management policy that reserves around five percent land for intense land uses. Development in the rest is kept to a minimum to preserve agricultural land and to concentrate county infrastructure in specific areas. 

The broad question to the Planning Commission was to see if staff should pursue some of the ideas that have made their way so far, or just follow the direction of previous Comprehensive Plans. 

“They are topics that could support the growth management policy with coordinated land use and transportation planning.” said Tori Kanellopoulos, a principal planner with the county. “They are also ways the AC44 Framework can be applied and they are topics that cut across many planned chapters.” 

Let’s go through some definitions of what is in these toolkits.

“Activity centers are locations in the development areas that either now or in the future have a mix of residential, business, and recreational uses, and have a higher intensity and concentration of uses than surrounding areas in underlying land uses,” Kanellopoulos said. 

These are to be walkable and supported by transit. The current Comprehensive Plan has the equivalent “Destination Centers” but these Activity Centers would be further delineated by “neighborhood,” “town,” and “destination” types.  There would be fewer of them as some areas have not developed as originally plotted out by planners. 

One Commissioner supported the reduction.

“We already have, I believe, way too many centers,” said Commissioner Karen Firehock of the Samuel Miller District. “There are C’s everywhere. Awash in C’s!” 

Firehock said the county also needs to play a role to make sure infrastructure is in place to make centers attractive to people and developers. 

At-Large Commissioner Luis Carrazana agreed with Firehock.

“I think we dilute what we already have if we start to create and have too many of these C’s, so we need to be more intentional about where we’re going to have them so that we can think about infill, we can think about adaptive re-use and densify the ones that we do have because it will be better for our infrastructure,” Carrazana said. 

Carrazana’s day job is in the Office of the Architect at the University of Virginia. 

Jack Jouett District Commissioner Julian Bivins said this exercise provided an opportunity to review other previously planned centers to see how they’ve turned out. 

“Stonefield is smack in the middle of a big center but it’s so hard to get to unless you drive,” Bivins said. “So the whole idea is that the Centers still feel very automobile-centric.”

Some of the existing centers have been detailed in the various master plans that Albemarle has adopted to guide development.

Another Commissioner whose day job is related to development at the University of Virginia said these types of plans are important. “Having a sort of an overall understanding of a concept plan as it relates to these different centers is important,” said Fred Missel, the director of development at the University of Virginia Foundation.  He’s also the Scottsville District representative on the Planning Commission.

White Hall District Commissioner Lonnie Murray said he would want the existing Community Advisory Committees to weigh in on what centers should be eliminated. He also floated an idea that was studied by Albemarle County fifteen years ago that was not implemented.“

We should really consider transfer of development rights as a mechanism for flexibility that would allow us to preserve larger areas and shift that development where we want it,” Murray said. 

Commissioner Nathan Moore of the Rio District said he was supportive of activity centers but was concerned that much of the discussion was based on what he viewed as low participation rates. (See also:Albemarle County releases results of Comprehensive Plan survey, June 30, 2023)

“Hearing from fewer than a 100 people in person out of a county of 100 and some thousand, it does bother me a little bit,” Moore said. “I want to think about how we get more people engaged in this kind of discussion.” 

So that’s one out of four toolkits. I’ll have more from the other discussion in future editions of this newsletter. 

On a larger note, the Board of Supervisors will be briefed on the same four toolkits at a meeting in September. 

The Planning Commission will get into more details on these topics in three other work sessions scheduled for this year. But will you? I’m looking for comments from people about this process. 

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 August 22, 2023 edition of the program. To ensure this research can be sustained, please consider becoming a paid subscriber or contributing monthly through Patreon.

Additionally, this was posted during a time I’ve upgraded to a new WordPress theme. Some things may not look as they should. But, it’s a fun experiment!

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