Thanks to a simplified review process, it soon may be easier and cheaper for some residents in growth areas of Albemarle County to develop on steep slopes. At the same time, other, more-sensitive slopes will get additional protections.
“There are probably individuals who are re-grading their yards, putting in sheds and terracing their lawns without appropriate building permits because it is a hassle to get,” said Bill Fritz, the county’s chief of special projects. “Hopefully, by making the ordinance easier to comply with, people will comply with it.”
Earlier this week, the Planning Commission recommended approval of ordinance changes reclassifying critical slopes in the growth areas as either managed or preserved. In addition to simplifying the permit process, the ordinance will cut costs to both the county and residents.
“We won’t be processing waivers. Instead, we can focus on reviewing the projects,” Fritz said.
The staff report estimated the ordinance would save taxpayers overall about $25,000 to $55,000 a year because costs associated with special exemption requests would be eliminated.
Morgan Butler, an attorney with the Charlottesville-based Southern Environmental Law Center, said he wanted to see improved protection for preserved slopes in the ordinance.
“The uses allowed on the preserved slopes are too expansive, to the point it would be a misnomer to call these preserved slopes,” Butler said. “Both groups of slopes would actually be easier to disturb.”
“Under the proposed ordinance, you can do more things by-right that you couldn’t do now,” Fritz responded. “Other things — you have to get a special-use permit, which is a higher [standard].”
Fritz acknowledged that some standards are raised while others are lowered, whereas Butler found the protection standards were largely lowered.
“Looking at the list of uses allowed by-right on preserved slopes, most of them were allowed regardless of whether there is another reasonable location for them on the parcel,” Butler said.
The staff report noted that the ordinance does not change the size of regulated areas and there is no increase in application costs.
A series of maps was generated showing which areas would be designated as managed and which as preserved. All critical slopes in the growth area would be renamed as steep slopes.
A preserved slope may include a water feature, a part of a larger hillside, a resource, or of great value to the entrance corridor, among other factors.
A managed slope may be an unnatural slope, a small or fragmented area, or within a previously approved single-family residence lot, among others.
Butler also raised a concern about previously approved rezonings and a potential loophole given to them by the proposed ordinance.
“It would be going too far to now give all previously approved rezonings blanket permission to disturb critical slopes unless the board very clearly and explicitly demonstrated that intent when it approved the rezoning,” he said.
Butler encouraged the commission to seek stronger language in the ordinance to ensure protection of critical slopes. Nevertheless, he said he supported the goals of the ordinance.
The Planning Commission recommended approval of the ordinance changes and directed staff in its next draft to give further review to the feedback received, including the matter about grandfathering prior rezonings.
The steep slope ordinances will next be reviewed by the Albemarle Board of Supervisors at an upcoming meeting.