Can Charlottesville and Albemarle County agree on priorities?

Let's Talk
Let's Talk is a series of editorials authored by Charlottesville Tomorrow's Executive Director Giles Morris.

Why does Albemarle County pay the city of Charlottesville roughly $15 million each year? It’s a deceptively simple question and one answer is that the County needs the City more than the City needs the County. But there is a better answer.

In the past few months, the revenue sharing agreement has drawn attention, and become a lens on the tension between the taxpayer priorities in Albemarle and Charlottesville. People in the County have wondered what they are getting for their money, and people in the City have pondered, if the right to annex were restored to municipalities by state statute, how much more tax revenue there would be to gain if developments like 5th Street Station and The Shops at Stonefield, among others, came to the City.

The revenue sharing agreement, and all of the other ways the City and the County do business together in partnerships – the Rivanna Water and Sewer Authority, the Jefferson Area Board of Aging, the Charlottesville Albemarle Transit System, the Thomas Jefferson Planning District Commission – demonstrate how entangled our two local governments are, and while it may be interesting to imagine a world in which they compete for resources, that approach would be devastating for the region.

Giles Headshot

The midterm election results are another way into the same discussion. Take a look at Virginia Public Access Project’s map of the 5th Congressional District, and you’ll see the County of Albemarle, the conspicuous blue island near the gerrymandered tail at the top. Now click through one more layer to the County’s voting by precinct … all but the three on the southeast (Stone Robinson, Monticello, and Scottsville) went blue and in the City every precinct went Democratic. More Democratic votes were cast between Charlottesville and Albemarle than in the next seven counties combined. It’s impossible to deny that there is shared political identity.

I said in an earlier column that the future of national politics is going to be created in places like this. One national storyline of the midterm elections was that the ideological and political divide between rural America and suburban/urban America just keeps getting wider. Locally, it would be insane not to pay attention to the tension this puts on the relationship between the City and the County.

Think back to the creation story of Charlottesville Tomorrow and its stated mission to “preserve the distinctive character of the Charlottesville-Albemarle region.” During the 2000s, there was real attention paid to the notion that without careful zoning, our region would turn into another NoVa exurbia. Charlottesville and Albemarle took measures to create a City with a hard edge, preserving as much as possible the rural character of the County and restricting growth to carefully delineated areas near the borders.This became the drive for developers like Wendell Wood (United Land Company) and Charles Hurt (Virginia Land) to gobble up parcels in that area.

The question now: Can we all get along on the Blue Island, or will the County gradually fall away into the Red Sea?

The region became a more and more desirable destination as young professionals and young retirees sought to escape bigger cities. Over the same period, the Coran Capshaw revolution changed Charlottesville, creating a downtown with a standalone identity as a tourism and relocation driver, and, recently, merging the University of Virginia and the City along the West Main Street corridor. The plan, by and large, has worked. And the result is a whole new set of problems. Property values are increasing at such a rate that they are threatening communities, fixed-income retirees and low-income neighborhoods. We have an affordable housing crisis on our hands that has exacerbated long-standing equity issues that reach back to our racially-segregated past.

The question now: Can we all get along on the Blue Island, or will the County gradually fall away into the Red Sea? And the answer depends largely on our ability to create balance between a bucolic County and a rapidly growing small city, one that crosses the county line and includes UVa. Can we provide quality of life for all of our people, regardless of how much money they make or what color skin they have?

The County’s leadership understands that it needs the City to help cope with its own urban growth areas so that it can contend with the rural and suburban problems that stretch across its huge land area and deliver on its own stated priorities, like climate change. Ultimately, that’s what the revenue sharing agreement is about, partnership in a shared future. Meanwhile, the City’s conversations are focused on a new comprehensive plan that will prioritize density and incentivize affordable housing and density. Like most cities in America, ours has been designed for cars and defined by separate neighborhoods that reinforce segregation and inequality. That’s not the way to make density effective or to achieve fairness.

Activists and community groups don’t want to see density become code for displacement. Affordable housing can’t just happen in the City’s historically African-American neighborhoods or on the south side of town. Environmental and quality of life advocates don’t want suburbs, but there is a reason most Americans live in them these days and that most of the people in our youngest political generations have grown up in them. Suburbs are the compromise between affordability, comfort, and space for people who have to work in cities and can’t afford them. They have their own political identities.

Facing this great divide, the question now is whether we resort to NIMBY-ism or we — you, me, City, and County — create new rules that are fair and achieve balance in our priorities and fairness for our people. Our big Blue and Orange neighbor, partly in the City and partly in the County, has a huge role to play. But what will the President’s Office ask the UVa Foundation to do if the City and County can’t agree on shared principles?