FILE: Morgan Butler, Southern Environmental Law Center

The Albemarle Planning Commission has recommended approval of amendments to regulatory language that will provide more flexibility for development of industrial-zoned land.

“Our objective is to modernize the regulations, hopefully providing greater flexibility for our industrial uses of today, while preserving the integrity of the industrial districts,” Albemarle’s director of planning, Wayne Cilimberg, said.

The proposed amendments stem from a May 15 work session, in which the commission asked staff to focus on updating the zoning ordinance to better reflect current industrial trends.

A significant trend is the blurring of the lines that once clearly distinguished industrial work from office work.

“It’s really the difference between smokestack industry and today’s industry,” Commissioner Bruce Dotson said. “In the early days of zoning, you tried to keep zones separated, but many of today’s industrial activities are indistinguishable from office activities.”

One of the major changes that will give businesses more flexibility is the shifting of certain practices that would have once required special-use permits into a by-right category.

By-right refers to the uses a property can support without special approval. Some critics of the existing zoning ordinance feel the special-use permits are a time-consuming and uncertain process.

“This is good for everyone,” said John Lowry, chairman of the Albemarle County Economic Development Authority. “This goes back to the [2010] Economic Vitality Action Plan, which was a symbolic plan that said Albemarle is open for business.”

Also at its Tuesday meeting, the commission passed a resolution of intent to initiate a separate discussion about how businesses that are currently zoned light-industrial could operate in areas currently zoned commercial. That zoning text amendment will be heard at a future public hearing.

This decision comes after a wave of calls for the county to zone more land industrial.

“In my experience, there’s very little industrial-zoned space in the county,” said Gary Henry, chairman of the Charlottesville Business Innovation Council and executive director of the Charlottesville Technology Incubator. “In my management consulting capacity … there are so little currently zoned industrial spaces that we’re going to write off jobs.”

“Albemarle County has a really small amount of land useful to business labeled light industry,” Lowry agreed.

Cilimberg said staff wasn’t tasked with preemptive rezoning efforts.

“We didn’t go into this effort with the idea of overhauling all of the zoning districts and re-adopting zoning maps, because that was not the direction the board gave us,” Cilimberg said. “They wanted us to create more flexibility within the districts we have.”

Dotson mentioned the goal of balancing industrial uses.

“We want to allow some of the industrial land to be used flexibly,” he said. “But not too much, because we need to keep the industrial land available for true industrial use.”

Morgan Butler, an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, also warned against this.

“We think it makes sense to allow some flexibility in some industrial zones,” Butler said. “But we have to ensure that our industrial zones continue to be where true industrial businesses can locate, and locate affordably.”

“We can’t make it too easy to allow businesses unrelated to any other business already there to locate in an industrial zone,” Butler added.

Dotson suggested that this could be prevented by simplifying the ordinance language.

“The language used to describe all of these different types of businesses can be confusing and difficult to administer,” Dotson said. “Perhaps we should consider allowing 25 percent of the square footage that is developable in industrial space, for example, to be used for offices.”

“And if a business needs more office space, then they can go to two stories,” Dotson added. “This would help protect the industrial footprint, which is one of our most important objectives.”

Butler said that he liked this approach, but argued that staff’s proposed definitions of the types of offices allowed in industrial areas are too vague, and that it shouldn’t be too easy for a business to exceed the 25 percent limit.

“I think that we should consider a special-use permit required to go above that 25 percent,” Butler said.

However, the Free Enterprise Forum’s Neil Williamson said such a process could hurt job creation.

“This is about creating career-ladder jobs,” Williamson said. “Having these businesses obtain a special-use permit makes this harder, not easier.”

By passing the resolution of intent, staff will start to prepare draft ordinance changes for a future public hearing. Both industrial zoning matters will require approval by the Albemarle Board of Supervisors at future meetings.