What tools do communities in Virginia have for managing growth, and are they effective? A diverse panel of experts addressed these questions at a discussion held at the Senior Center on May 24, 2007. The event was moderated by Morris Sahr, a former chairman of the Fairfax County Planning Commission, who now lives in Charlottesville.
"Who are we really planning for?" asked Sahr to kick off the event. "Are we planning for those of us in the room tonight, or the generations to come? How can you make a decision as to how much you can accommodate with all of the facilities that have to be provided?"
Developer Frank Cox is the man behind County projects like Albemarle Place, the Granger property, and the proposed retail development at 5th and Avon. Reflecting on past decisions by the County Board of Supervisors to downzone rural Albemarle in the great rezoning of 1980, Cox said the evidence indicates that today’s rural area zoning was not doing enough to limit growth. When asked what he would do to protect Albemarle’s rural countryside today, he initially said he would not downzone further, but later clarified that what was needed was leadership to implement the community’s vision, as described in the comprehensive plan, which he thought would call for minimum lot sizes of 50 to 100 acres. Minimum lot sizes today, which were established in 1980, are 21 acres.
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"Albemarle County has been intellectually dishonest with itself for the last fifty years," said Cox about the ability of the Board of Supervisors to implement a vision for protecting the rural area. With respect to downzoning, Cox said, "I think we should have done it thirty years ago. I am not sure that we have the overall political and governmental strength to do it [today]."
Cox didn’t mince words when it came to describing his belief that local government was failing to implement its vision and make the necessary investments in public infrastructure. His Albemarle Place project is currently stalled because of inadequate sewer capacity.
"I go back to the point that we need to implement a vision….My fear is that we don’t have the leadership to hang on to, to describe, to carry out that vision, to inculcate it in not only us….We need to inculcate that vision into a new generation that is coming….In the rural area we are intellectually dishonest. If we want to go back to our comprehensive plan in the way it is described right now, and then translate it into a zoning ordinance that would bring about the actual precepts that are articulated for rural area growth, we would implement a zoning ordinance, a new zoning district for the rural area, that would have one unit per 50 acres, maybe one unit per 100 acres."
Morgan Butler of the Southern Environmental Law Center told the crowd that the essence of planning is to shape the future. "But I don’t think there can be any denying that the decisions we make have an immediate impact as well."
Jack Marshall, President of Advocates for a Sustainable Albemarle Population, said his group is calling for the County to define an "optimal" population. He defined sustainability as "meeting the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs." He says the costs of growth can exceed the benefits, especially as the United States becomes a more populous nation.
"If we are morally committed to being stewards of our own community, then we recognize an obligation to identify an optimal sustainable size for a community," Marshall said. "Without doing that, we grow either by accident or at the whim of those who profit from growth."
Attorney Steven Blaine told the crowd that Albemarle should consider population when planning for the future, to avoid the high rate of growth that has occurred in communities such as Loudoun County. But, he says "smart growth" policies to direct development into key areas is failing in the county.
"Last year, there were 575 home starts in 2006, down from previous years," Blaine said. "But 46 percent of those house starts were in the rural area." [Note: During the first quarter of 2007, only 17.5% of new homes are in the rural area]
The discussion continued on the effectiveness of "smart growth" tools such as Neighborhood Model, how to maintain the region’s quality of life, and what lessons can be learned from counties to the north of Albemarle.
Sean Tubbs & Brian Wheeler