As Albemarle County continues to explore the possibility of allowing more businesses to operate in its rural areas, members of the environmental community are urging caution.

“We worked for years to develop the neighborhood model to make the development areas attractive … partly to preserve the rural areas,” said Sally Thomas, who served 16 years on the Board of Supervisors between 1994 and 2009. “Rural areas that develop have unceasing demands on public services.”
Several others echoed that sentiment during a Planning Commission work session late last month on the draft rural areas chapter of the 2013 Comprehensive Plan. That document, which is required by state law to be updated every five years, provides overall planning guidance for Albemarle’s 726 square miles.
In January 2010, Albemarle supervisors voted to enact an action plan to encourage economic development throughout the county. Part of the plan called for staff to find ways to promote agriculture and rural tourism.
Staff is asking the commission to consider the possibility of allowing nurseries, landscape services, and other businesses that support agricultural uses. Additional businesses could include outdoor recreational activities, lodging and the re-use of historic structures for restaurants.
“This is [about] trying to get at preserving resources that make the rural area an attraction,” said county planner Andy Sorrell. “You want to make sure you’re promoting the re-use of the historic buildings and sites.”
Staff has also recommended allowing construction of new structures for rural lodging, an idea opposed by the Southern Environmental Law Center.
“We have serious doubts about the appropriateness of allowing lodging in new buildings by-right in the rural areas,” said Morgan Butler, an SELC attorney. “Expanding bed-and-breakfasts to allow rooms to be in a structure other than a house is one thing, but when we talk about being able to build motels along U.S 250 or Route 20, we’re talking about a purely commercial use that would have a negative impact on rural areas in the county.”
Another change since the last Comprehensive Plan is the proliferation of farm wineries. In the past six years, the number has gone from nine to at least 26. Many have tasting rooms and event halls that provide additional revenue, though some neighbors have complained about noise and traffic that is generated as a result.
“One of the things I think we’re going to need to look at is regulation of secondary impacts of such industries such as the wineries and cideries,” said Commissioner Richard Randolph.
Staff is also suggesting that the farms be allowed to hold events similar to the ones held at farm wineries and cideries. That idea has support from at least one commissioner.
“I think our working farms should be treated the same as wineries and cideries,” said Commissioner Russell “Mac” Lafferty. “By not doing so we are sort of saying that they’re second class.”
The plan may also allow for smaller levels of services for rural communities. For instance, the community center role of churches could be acknowledged, and more business uses might be allowed at what staff describes as “crossroad communities.”
However, staff recommends exercising caution with that approach.
“The central concern with increased commercial and service activities in the crossroads communities is that they not become de facto Development Areas,” reads the draft chapter. Staff recommends limiting businesses to small restaurants, country stores, small-scale offices, day care and medical offices.
The rural areas section of the plan also contains language that states the county seeks to discourage residential development. One commissioner said that might be too simplistic.
“I think we’re being too black and white here because there’s some kinds of residential development that would be OK,” said Commissioner Bruce Dotson. “Rural housing that supports rural enterprise – workers, owners — people whose jobs are in the rural area, we’d like them to live there.”
Commissioner Tom Loach said increased usage of the rural areas will mean a need for new infrastructure.
“What are the expected costs of the infrastructure that you’re going to need?” Loach asked. “The more people you add, the more services and more infrastructure [you need]. If we have inadequate infrastructure now, we’re going to be compounding the problem.”
Jeff Werner of the Piedmont Environmental Council said the Comprehensive Plan should include data about the quality of rural roads and bridges.
“There’s an awful lot of infrastructure in the rural area that is in bad shape and I think that if we’re going to be talking about economic development in the rural area, this is information that needs to be in the plan,” Werner said.
The planning commission will hold an additional work session on the rural areas and natural resources sections of the Comprehensive Plan on Nov. 20.