County Chief of Projects Bill Fritz talks with Albemarle residents at an open house Tuesday

Although Albemarle County has regulated building on steep slopes since 1980, county officials said nearly every request for a waiver to disturb the land has been approved.

In an effort to streamline development in the county’s urban area, an ordinance is proposed that would eliminate the need for waivers, but better protect critical slopes, county staff said.

“Today, if you have a hillside with a 25-percent grade on your property, you can’t build on it unless you pay a fee, apply for a special exception, and receive approval from the Board of Supervisors,” Bill Fritz, county chief of projects, explained to county residents at an open house Tuesday.

Under the new ordinance, slopes would be classified as either “managed” or “preserved.” Slopes that are man-made, have been disturbed in the past, or are located in single family residential lots would be designated as managed, Fritz said. Slopes that are natural or close to bodies of water would more likely be classified preserved.

Residents could build on slopes in the first group without permission within guidelines. Building on preserved slopes, however, would become more difficult.

“You could only build in preserved areas if you got a rezoning or a variance from the Board of Zoning Appeals,” Fritz said. “This better protects slopes that really do need our protection.”

More than a hundred Albemarle residents turned out for the open house. They pored over county maps showing the preserved slopes in green and managed ones in tan.

“I came because I got a card in the mail, and I was concerned I would have to do something to preserve the slopes in my yard,” said Sam Manickam, whose Forest Lakes property had only managed slopes. “Now I feel relieved. This is not critical after all.”

County staff sent out 7,500 notices and spoke with more than 350 people about the ordinance in the weeks leading up to the open house.

“I am very glad we could give people the chance to participate,” Fritz said. “The comments have generally been positive.”

Several members of the public addressed the commission during the meeting to voice concerns and offer recommendations.

“On the whole, the ordinance proposal is very positive,” said Valerie Long, an attorney for Williams Mullen and chairwoman of Charlottesville Regional Chamber of Commerce. “It definitely streamlines the process and provides some certainty to landowners and [developers] about what is expected.”

But, Long cautioned, the commission should take care not to impose new burdens on builders whose development plans had already been approved.

“The slope disturbance on any property that is the subject of an approved application …  should be permitted, regardless of whether it subsequently shows up on the map as a preserved slope,” Long said.

Another attorney, Morgan Butler of the Southern Environmental Law Center, disagreed.

“I believe the Board of Supervisors has approved several developments knowing that they would need to get a critical slopes waiver,” Butler said. Therefore, he felt, it would be dangerous to assume that the board intended all planned slope disturbances to go forward.

A third speaker suggested it might be better to do away with the slopes ordinance altogether.

“What exactly are you getting by doing all of this work that’s better or different than state environmental regulations?” asked Neil Williamson, president of the Free Enterprise Forum.

“If this ordinance is about growth management control … it would be refreshing if that were said,” Williamson added.

The planning commissioners raised chiefly administrative concerns regarding the proposal. A draft of the ordinance reflecting their comments and the public’s input could be subject to public hearing as early as next month.