The Albemarle Planning Commission decided Tuesday to defer its recommendation on proposed changes to the county’s development review process in order to give staff more time to revise the proposal.
The changes are intended to make the review of development plans more efficient by increasing oversight earlier in the process. Among the changes the county has considered are requirements for applicants to submit pre-application forms and hold community information meetings.
“The idea from the beginning has been to try to create a more efficient process for both applicant and staff while maintaining community quality and providing opportunities for public information and input,” said Wayne Cilimberg, the county’s director of planning. “We want this to be value-added; we want to really make the process work to remove the iterations of re-submittals as much as possible and get decisions made.”
Valerie Long is an attorney with the law firm Williams Mullen. According to her, the proposed changes would be unnecessary obstacles in an already difficult process.
“Rather than requiring things to be mandatory, start with trying to fix the process,” Long told the commissioners. “I know how it works, because this is what I do. There’s nowhere on the website that I’m aware of where someone who doesn’t do this regularly can go and understand the process.”
The commission’s review of the changes follows a June roundtable discussion in which members of the community, including Long, provided feedback.
In part due to concerns from the roundtable that the new requirements would be an unnecessary burden on both the applicant and county staff, Cilimberg explained that the mandatory meetings could be waived at the discretion of the planning director.
“There are going to be projects that don’t need the pre-application mandatory meeting” Cilimberg said. “Different cases may need different assistance.”
Cilimberg also noted that, moving forward, staff would be meeting with small-business owners who had completed the process in order to identify confusing aspects of the process in an effort to better assist future applicants.
“We want to talk to some of our … applicants about what they experienced in our process and what would have been more helpful if we had just really been more aware and conscious of how to assist them in the process,” Cilimberg said.
While Long acknowledged that the goal to ensure that an application was thorough is sound, she felt the added hurdles could end up harming future projects.
“The whole point is to shift some of this analysis to the front end so that you can ideally have less delays on the back end,” Long said. “My concern is just getting trapped in adding new procedures that are well intentioned that end up backfiring.”
Neil Williamson, president of the Free Enterprise Forum, said that the new steps would be an encumbrance to applicants and staff alike and would undermine efficiency.
“[Commissioner Russell ‘Mac’] Lafferty has said again and again there’s some issues with staffing and whether or not the staff has the resources to appropriately push through these things,” Williamson said. “Only in government can you add additional time to a process and call it streamlining.”
In response, Cilimberg acknowledged that the process would add time in the initial part of the process, but felt that it would ultimately save resources in the long run.
“It may mean more work for [applicants] upfront, and it’s going to mean more work for us, as well,” Cilimberg said. “It’s work that we feel is value-added because it’s before fees are paid and clocks start where we really establish what’s necessary so that reviews can be much more focused.”
However, some commissioners felt that there were too many unanswered questions to pass along recommendations to the Albemarle Board of Supervisors.
“I’m uncomfortable moving forward until we have some of these [issues] resolved,” said Lafferty. “If we’re going to spend this much time on this one issue, [it shows] how many issues that we don’t understand in this. It concerns me.”
The commissioners will review the proposals further at their Oct. 23 meeting to allow county staff to address concerns and take into consideration public feedback.
Commissioner Richard Randolph felt that the added time could be an opportunity to craft proposals that would better reflect the needs of the county and its residents.
“There doesn’t seem to me any necessity for us to rush this in terms of time horizon, so let’s be deliberative and do it right,” Randolph said.