Several Albemarle citizens appeared before the county Planning Commission on Tuesday to express their outrage at the proposed update of the Comprehensive Plan, a document mandated by Virginia law that establishes general planning policies for localities.

“I am appalled at this Comprehensive Plan,” said county resident Clara Belle Wheeler. “Please consider this Comprehensive Plan a work in progress that should progress straight to the trash can.”
Wheeler’s comments were made at a work session scheduled by county staff to provide one more chance to comment on the plan’s natural resources and rural area chapters. The law also requires the plan to be updated regularly.
The county first adopted a Comprehensive Plan in 1971. Nine years later, the Board of Supervisors classified 95 percent of Albemarle’s land as “rural area,” where development is discouraged in order to preserve the environment.
“I was shocked that it’s a goal in the Comprehensive Plan to discourage people from living in the rural areas,” said Audrey Welborn, a county resident since 1979. “My goal is to let people in the county know what’s in these documents because they would be shocked to know what’s being proposed.”
Wheeler was concerned at the idea that county government might be able to restrict the size and number of churches in the rural area.
“Dear Heavenly Father, if you do that, then I will have to run out of this building before God strikes it down,” Wheeler said.
County staff members explained they are actually proposing a liberalization of the county’s rules governing churches.
“We are not looking at closing down churches or restricting how many people can be there,” said Elaine Echols, a principal planner with the county. “We are looking at ways to open up more opportunities there.”
The suggested change would be to amend the ordinance to allow community centers and religious institutions for up to 200 people without governmental approval as long as certain performance standards are met. Legislative approval by the Board of Supervisors would be required for churches larger than that.
“What we’re trying to do is pull back regulations for churches,” said Wayne Cilimberg, the county’s director of planning.
“Having been on the Planning Commission for five years, we’ve had a number of churches come forward for special-use permits and all of them have been handled professionally with the sincere interest in doing the best for the organizations,” Commissioner Tom Loach said. For instance, previous approvals of special-use permits have been conditioned on making sure buildings are compliant with the fire code.
However, one commissioner said he did not think the proposed amendment went far enough.
“I don’t like the number 200 because it infringes on right of assembly,” said Commissioner Ed Smith. “It’s too much red tape for them to go through.”
Several other people spoke out to discuss their opposition to the existence of the Comprehensive Plan.
Charles Battig called the entire planning process an affront to the Founding Fathers by restricting private property rights in the name of environmental protection.
“Nature is not a static Disneyland waiting upon the county planning staff to ‘preserve’ it,” Battig said. “The people who own property have a vested interest in and are their own environmental stewards.”
Jim Moore, a resident of the city of Charlottesville, suggested that the county should change its land-use policies to give more power to approve projects to land owners and their neighbors rather than letting the power solely rest with elected officials.
“I’m well aware of how radical this may seem to people, just as much as population control is radical to other people,” Moore said.
Others spoke out about how the planning process can be used to promote economic development while protecting natural resources.
“If we don’t find sustainable uses for our rural areas, the default use will be real estate development,” said Lonnie Murray, of the Natural Heritage Committee. He added that the county should continue to pursue agricultural tourism as a rural enterprise.
Attorney Maynard Sipe appealed to the Planning Commission to consider language to allow for distilleries.
“They are a very traditional use once common across the landscape,” Sipe said. “It’s been historically shown that before Prohibition there were over 250 distilleries in Virginia. They would enable farmers to find a way to add to their farm incomes.”
Another discussion was whether more businesses should be allowed at so-called crossroad communities. One change is to allow restaurants in the historic buildings as long as performance standards are met.
“Right now, the only restaurants that exist in the rural areas are in historic taverns,” Cilimberg said. “This would loosen up the restrictions.”
The Planning Commission is expected to make a recommendation on the Comprehensive Plan to the Board of Supervisors in March.
After adoption, every change made in the Comprehensive Plan will also have to be reflected in an amendment of the county’s zoning ordinance.