The Albemarle County Board of Supervisors has approved the hiring of two additional planners to help deal with higher workloads caused by a favorable economic climate.

“The problem that we have seen is that the workload is significantly increasing, making it difficult for us to maintain deadlines and quality,” said Mark Graham, the county’s director of community development.

“With the workload increasing, there has been no increase in the number of review planners or intake staff in the last five years,” he said.

The county also will hire temporary workers to assist with customer service as various applications are filed.

Planners process items such as site plans and land subdivisions but also prepare materials for review by the Planning Commission and the Board of Supervisors. There are also initiatives such as the ongoing review of the county’s farm wineries ordinance.

“As the applications increase, the capacity for all these other tasks diminish,” Graham said.

Graham said Albemarle had about 85 full-time positions in the community development department in fiscal year 2008.

“Then we saw a significant drop as we adjusted our staffing levels to meet the drop in the work-load,” he said. “By the time we got out to fiscal year 2011, we were down to 58.”

The number has slowly risen to 66.5, but Graham said two additional planners would help. He said applications per planner have doubled in the last five years.

Graham said staff turnover also has become an issue. In the last fiscal year, nearly a fifth of department employees left.

“We have to at least suspect that some of this is caused by [the fact that] we’re churning out more work than the staff can handle,” he said.

Graham said the cost of the planners could be offset by community development fees that already have been increased.

Supervisor Rick Randolph said he was “sympathetic to the argument” but suggested an informal committee be put together to study ways to make the department more efficient. He said development activities may soon subside.

“There is a high tide right now of applications,” Randolph said. “Maybe the fees need to be adjusted.”
Randolph was the lone vote against authorizing the new hires.

Supervisor Ann H. Mallek supported the request.

“There are so many things on our Comprehensive Plan list and our legislative list which will save us time if we can only get the work done to get them fixed,” Mallek said. “I would disagree about postponing this request.”

Supervisor Diantha McKeel asked if a move to a form-based code would allow for more streamlined review.
“If we were going to move more to something like that, that might help your staffing slightly,” McKeel said.

Graham doubted they would save a great deal of time.

“The form-based codes can actually be complicated to administer,” Graham said. However, he added that a comprehensive rezoning of multiple properties at once could reduce the need for review of future applications.

Supervisor Brad Sheffield asked if the two new planners would be able to work on issues such as small-area planning throughout the county’s urban area.

“Some of us feel that needs to go on so we can be ready for Smart Scale projects,” Sheffield said, referring to the Virginia Department of Transportation’s new method of funding projects.

County Executive Tom Foley said moving forward with the two planners would stabilize the department, which is facing several retirements in the future.

“We do feel like we’re in a position now where this is just going to take care of the workload and put us in a position to be successful going forward,” Foley said.