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The Albemarle County Board of Supervisors has been asked to give up some of the control it has over an appointed body empowered under Virginia law to raise money to finance projects that spur business activity.
“The ability of the Albemarle Economic Development Authority to play a key role in economic development has been constrained at least in part by the current county regulations,” said Rod Gentry, the authority’s chairman. “The EDA’s operating documents require virtually everything the EDA does to be first approved by the Board of Supervisors.”
The authority was created in 1976 to help pay for industrial developments through the issuance of bonds. Its seven members are appointed by the Board of Supervisors to four-year terms.
As part of an ongoing effort to build the county’s tax base by attracting more businesses, Albemarle officials are examining whether the ordinance that enables the authority can be changed to speed up the timeline for its activities.
“Although the EDA can be a tool for economic development, a lot of the policy direction is going to be established by the Board of Supervisors,” said County Attorney Greg Kamptner.
Since 1980, Albemarle has had a policy of restricting development to the 5 percent of the county designated for growth. For much of that time, supervisors resisted creating an economic development department.
However, supervisors hired Faith McClintic to serve as the county’s first economic development director in 2015.
Kamptner said the county may need to change some of its regulations in order to ensure local government is ready when a business wants to expand or relocate within its borders.
“Businesses expect ready-to-go properties,” Kamptner said. “They want by-right development and preferably they want site plans already approved. They want to be able to move in.”
On the other hand, Kamptner said many do not want the county to lose its identity as a place that places a high priority on the rural area.
“There is always that concern about preserving who we are,” he said.
Kamptner said that, up until now, the EDA has operated underneath the Board of Supervisors even though it is technically an entity separate from county government.
That means the authority cannot approve its own by-laws or establish its own strategies without approval from a majority of supervisors.
McClintic said that could hurt Albemarle’s economic development efforts.
“If there was a key property that the county wanted to secure and preserve to ensure that property was utilized and that is critical to our redevelopment efforts, the [authority] would have to come and ask for the Board of Supervisors to execute that purchase, which then becomes a public discussion,” McClintic said. “The timing by which that transpires could certainly mean the loss of that opportunity.”
McClintic added that scenario is not realistic at this time because the EDA does not have the funds to purchase property.
Supervisor Ann H. Mallek said she is skeptical about amending the ordinance and wants to make sure industrial parks will not be placed in the rural area.
“Hypothetically, once we take away the approval process that we have now, how do we ensure that decisions made by the EDA do reflect the Comprehensive Plan?” she asked.
McClintic said that would not happen and that any properties purchased by the authority for industrial use would have to comply with the Comprehensive Plan and the zoning code.
“The ordinance that we’re talking about here and the amendment only enable the economic development authority to operate as the state code designed it to do,” McClintic said.
Kamptner said supervisors also could place restrictions on the kinds of facilities that could be financed by the authority. He also pointed out that supervisors appoint the authority’s members.
Another supervisor also expressed skepticism.
“This is very clearly a significant evolutionary step in the EDA,” said Supervisor Rick Randolph. “We know the business community is very eager to see the EDA unleashed and to operate as a fully functional EDA. But this board is charged with greater responsibility on an operational standpoint.”
Randolph said one way to build trust would be to allow supervisors and planning commissioners to sit on the EDA board as non-voting members.
Not all EDA members were supportive of the changes.
David Shreve, a member of the Advocates for a Sustainable Albemarle Population board of directors, said the county should perhaps find other ways to reduce delays.
“If we can focus on those, maybe that’s where we can make the most and best improvements,” Shreve said. “I’m not all that anxious to eliminate political barriers because I think that’s what we want. We want the voice of the people to be brought into play here.”
Supervisors made no decisions about how to proceed. The item will go before the board at a public hearing in September.
County Executive Tom Foley said he would help prepare more information about what the EDA could do if the ordinance was amended.
“This is a huge change in Albemarle County, so what you hate to do is have some people think it is something that is not,” Foley said.