Albemarle panel endorses change to farmers’ markets application process

The Albemarle County Planning Commission has endorsed a change to the county’s zoning rules that could potentially make it easier to develop farmers markets, but it is not recommending that the county change its current requirement for a special-use permit.

At its meeting Tuesday, the commission considered two proposed zoning text amendments related to farmers markets. The first would change what materials are required to be submitted to the county when an applicant wants to propose a market, and the second would allow farmers markets to be developed by-right in the county’s rural areas and village residential zoning districts.

Farmers markets currently are allowed in these districts with a special-use permit, which requires the approval of the Albemarle County Board of Supervisors. If the proposed zoning text amendment was adopted and farmers markets were allowed by-right, that means the board would no longer need to vote on farmers markets before they are developed.

In May, supervisors passed a resolution of intent to consider changes to farmers markets regulations and asked the commission to weigh in.

County staff recommended that the commission endorse a change to the county’s current requirement that applications for farmers markets include a site plan, and instead require a sketch plan and information pertinent to the specific site.

Site plans require a more extensive level of review than sketch plans, which a staff report from the meeting noted can lead to some inefficiencies in the review process.

“This amendment also reduces the review requirements for the Site Review Committee. … [T]he current ordinance requires the plan to be distributed to the full site plan committee,” the report reads. “This means that the Albemarle County Service Authority and Architectural Review Board receive the plan even if their review is not required.”

The proposed change would allow the county to request the information it needs without requiring a site plan for every application, said Bill Fritz, the county’s chief of special projects.

“It allows for the right information at the right site,” Fritz said. “If you have a site that requires a full-blown site plan, staff could require that. If it’s a site that already has a parking area and nothing really needs to be done to it, then a very simple sketch plan to document what’s there now is all we really need.”

“I’m very much in support of the proposal you’ve put forward … where the staff can determine the level of detail,” Commissioner Karen Firehock said.

The other commission members concurred with amending the application review process and unanimously recommended that the Board of Supervisors approve the zoning text amendment.

However, the commission unanimously recommended that the board deny making farmers markets a by-right use until there is a “demonstrated need” to revisit the issue in the future.

“‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,’ is my basic attitude,” said Commissioner Bruce Dotson.

Staff did not have a recommendation for the potential change in the by-right status of farmers markets.

“The other portion of this we do not have a recommendation for and that’s the concept of potentially making farmers markets a by-right use in the rural areas and village residential,” Fritz said. “That is somewhat supported by the Comprehensive Plan because it encourages a rural economy. However, it has not gone through the full normal review process that we would do for a zoning text amendment.”

The county’s Comprehensive Plan provides guidance for future land-use decisions. Approximately 95 percent of the county’s area is designated as Rural Area, with the idea that development will be limited in these areas and concentrated in Albemarle’s growth areas.

Commissioners said they wanted to see further analysis of what limits and conditions should be required for farmers markets if they were allowed by-right and not required to have a special-use permit.

“I’m all in support of farmers markets, but in the right place and at the right scale,” Firehock said.

Aspects of farmers markets regulations that commissioners said they would be interested in seeing more information about included size and number of vendors, operating hours, noise, the process for expanding farmers’ markets and the parts of the year the markets would be in use.

The Board of Supervisors previously considered farmers market regulations in 2010, when they added farmers markets to the zoning ordinance as an acceptable land use in the rural areas and village residential zoning districts with a special-use permit.

The board also designated farm stands — which are defined as having just one vendor — as a by-right use. A farmers market, by contrast, has at least two vendors and can have a larger associated structure.