As it updates its Comprehensive Plan, Albemarle County is considering adding language that would allow more agricultural uses in its urban areas.
Currently, all forms of agriculture are permitted in rural zoning districts, but in urban residential areas livestock is forbidden and gardens are allowed only as an accessory to an existing structure, namely a house.
On Tuesday, the Albemarle Planning Commission discussed how best to approach amending the Comprehensive Plan, including what, if any, livestock should be allowed. Some members recommended that the city of Charlottesville’s position on urban agriculture be examined as a model.
“Perhaps we should align policy with the city because it’s been about one-and-a-half to two years since theirs was implemented and it seems to be pretty successful,” suggested Julia Monteith, the senior land-use officer for the University of Virginia and an ex-officio member of the commission.
The city policy allows residents to have chickens, bees and a maximum of three miniature goats, but does not allow roosters and requires that male goats be neutered. In addition, gardening is permitted as a property’s primary use.
In response, some commissioners cited several potential aspects of livestock that could adversely affect the well being of members of the community.
Commissioner Tom Loach argued that any policy should include minimum land square footage requirements specific to each animal.
“If I was somebody who carried around an [epinephrine auto injector] because I would go into anaphylaxis if I got a bee sting, I don’t think I’d be overjoyed if I’m on a small yard … and my neighbor decides he wants to have bees,” Loach said.
Some at the meeting felt that the enforcement of potential regulations would only further strain the resources of county staff, especially animal control, which currently employs only three trained officers.
“The current level of staffing in zoning and animal control is not adequate to deal with the current number of violations that exist, [and] allowing livestock in residential areas will likely increase the number of complaints and violations,” argued Amy Coffman, a local resident who told the commissioners about former neighbors whose guinea hogs had created an odor problem for her neighborhood. “At this time, the county is not in a financial position to hire more zoning and animal control personnel to deal with additional problems.”
Others felt that the access to local food would be an attractive benefit for people looking to move to the area.
“If our goal is to increase density, then ultimately to get rural residents to live in urban areas, we need to provide the amenities that they had in the rural area,” said Natural Heritage Committee chair Lonnie Murray, speaking in favor of the issue. “Providing access to local food in the growth area makes it more possible for people to want to live there.”
Several commissioners agreed that additional regulations would tax the county’s limited resources, but also saw an opportunity to promote sustainability in the general community.
“If we don’t make any rules it’ll come back to bite us,” said Commissioner Russell Lafferty. “But I believe that more and more people should learn how to sustain themselves in a time where food and fuel is going to get more and more expensive and less available to all of us.”
Commissioner Richard Randolph pointed out that the financial aspect of the regulations could be used to ease the burden felt by county staff.
“I’d like to see any of the fees that are associated with this program … go directly into the enforcement side so that there is money there and hopefully over time, if this takes off and grows, money would grow and thereby we would have a means to address the … overstretched county administration,” Randolph said.
Although several community members in the audience had expressed interest in allowing livestock, the commissioners were still unsure of the level of community support for the issue.
“We’re hearing from one side tonight, those people who are in favor of this,” said Loach, who also noted that it would be helpful to hear an opinion from animal control regarding the matter. “A survey-type of thing [should] go out to some urban residents so we could get … some feedback from those who’d be most affected.”
There was general agreement among the commissioners that further allowances in the county Comprehensive Plan should be made for gardens, including allowing them as primary structures, but set a more cautious tone for the issue of livestock.
“I am 100 percent in back of agriculture per se,” said Chairman Calvin Morris. “But I would go very, very slowly when we’re looking at introducing animals into the development area.”
Using comments from the meeting, county staff will seek to draft parameters for urban agriculture to be reviewed by the commission.
CORRECTION: This story has been corrected to reflect that the City of Charlottesville allows up to 3 miniature goats, not 2 as presented in the Albemarle County staff report.