When the Albemarle County Planning Commission meets Tuesday to discuss the future of the county’s rural areas and natural resources, one nonprofit organization wants the commission to consider limiting area population to conserve both.
“While population increase can bring advantages to human settlements, there are thresholds in size at which costs begin to outweigh the benefits,” said Jack Marshall, president of Advocates for a Sustainable Albemarle Population, or ASAP.
The organization was founded in 2002 to study an “optimal sustainable population size” for Charlottesville’s 10.4 square miles and Albemarle’s 726 square miles. Both the City Council and Board of Supervisors contributed money towards five studies that analyzed the relationship between population and environmental health.
“ASAP suggests that past a certain point of population size, a few individuals may profit from the higher growth but all residents end up paying for it with a poorer quality of life, a less healthy environment and higher taxes,” Marshall said at a press conference Monday.
For the first time, ASAP has established a figure of 165,000 people for both communities. Their members claim the presence of more than that will deplete environmental resources.
“No city of any size, even a modest-size place like Charlottesville, is self-supporting from the point of view of biological products,” said Tom Olivier, chair of the Piedmont Group of the Sierra Club. The organization appeared alongside ASAP to endorse the concept of adding population controls to the Comprehensive Plan.
However, the group has not set this figure in stone
“We don’t see this as a hard cap,” Olivier said. “It’s an estimate of our best place to be and we assume that there will be a range around it, and this will vary with time. The idea is that this would provide a criterion when planning decisions are made.”
ASAP’s preliminary figure of 165,000 could be reached within 10 years if current growth rates are assumed.
The Census Bureau estimates that Albemarle had a population of 100,533 in 2011 and that Charlottesville had 43,511 people.
According to data from the Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service, the two communities will hit that target soon after 2020, when projections show a combined population of 161,277. By 2040, Weldon Cooper projects a joint population of 203,359.
Marshall said it was premature to begin discussing the means by which a population cap would be implemented. However, he said methods would largely consist of tools already allowed under Virginia and U.S. law.
When ASAP members were pressed to name some of those methods, Olivier said conservation easements could have a lot of potential.
“People who are conservative, middle-of-the-road, progressive [all] love open space easements,” Olivier said. “If you put in lots of easements, you contain the growth potential of the population.”
One pro-business group takes issue with ASAP’s approach.
“The Free Enterprise Forum does not believe any locality, or other political subdivision for that matter, should have a population control number,” said forum president Neil Williamson in an email. “We are disappointed that rather than focusing on Comprehensive Plan solutions, ASAP once again chooses to promote building the Albemarle moat and pulling up the drawbridge at a specific number.”
However, another ASAP board member disputes that notion.
“This is not just about what we should or can do to make this happen, but it’s as much, if not more so, about what we should refrain from doing and that’s encouraging growth under the mistaken assumption that it’s the only way you can assure prosperity and jobs for the community,” said David Shreve, an economist who sits on the ASAP Board of Directors.
Rich Collins, an ASAP board member and elected member of the Thomas Jefferson Soil and Water Conservation District, said it was more likely that growth would occur in the city. However, he added efforts must be made to protect against large developments.
“Many of us who are city residents, as I am, are concerned as much about the height of building,” Collins said. “It causes us to lose our view of the trees and the hillside.”
Collins said he was hopeful that citizens would embrace the conversation.
“Many people believe that the rate and types of growth that we’re experiencing are unwelcome and are going to cost us more than we’re going to gain,” Collins said. “I think we need to show those people there ways to do this legally, politically, and in a welcoming way.”
The Albemarle County Planning Commission’s meeting begins at 6 p.m. in Lane Auditorium at the County Office Building.