By Sean Tubbs

Charlottesville Tomorrow

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

The

Board of Supervisors

has weighed in on changes being proposed to the process in which applications make their way through Albemarle County’s Department of Community Development.

Staff has been slowly implementing recommendations made by the

Development Review Process Task Force

, a group formed in March 2006 to study ways to streamline how site plans, rezoning, special use permits and other land use requests are handled by county government. The group issued a report in May 2007, and many of the ideas have been implemented.

“We’ve got simple and direct language in our ordinances, we have checklists and flow charts for all of our application processes,” said

Mark Graham

, the county’s director of community development.

However, an action plan for economic development

approved by the Board of Supervisors in January

asked for more of the recommendations to be expedited. Specifically, the plan sought ways to reduce “unnecessary and burdensome regulations and shortening approval times.”

Graham gave supervisors an update at their meeting on Wednesday, June 2, 2010 and described many of the other ways in which staff is seeking to refine the process, and to explain steps that have already been implemented to provide more certainty and transparency.


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Mark Graham’s and Bill Fritz’s presentation from June 2, 2010

For instance, reviews by other government agencies such as the

Virginia Department of Transportation

now occur at the same time as the county’s review. These multiple reviews are coordinated and applicants can track their progress

using the county’s website

.

Graham noted that his department has been working towards a goal of completing reviews within 21 days for 90% of applications for site plans. His department will soon be providing that information to the public on a quarterly basis.

“[Staff] review times are not the issue,” Graham said. “What we’re finding is that it’s really about approval times.”

One idea being suggested is to allow more applications to be handled administratively, perhaps by applying the same method by which cell towers are approved to other land use applications.

Structures above a certain size must receive permission from the

Planning Commission

and the Board of Supervisors, but those under a certain threshold only need approval by staff if all conditions are met.






One of the goals of streamlining is to reduce the amount of subjectivity in the process. Graham showed this chart during his presentation.

Graham said many approvals are delayed because applicants don’t provide all of the correct information. He said the

Architectural Review Board

can delay final approvals if they seek revisions from a project, and that by requiring the Planning Commission to adopt waivers can also add to review time.

“Whereas administratively you might be able to [get] a decision on the spot, it could take up to two months to get that scheduled at the planning commission,” Graham said.

Supervisor

Dennis Rooker

said he supported this concept, but was concerned about applying this approach across all development reviews.

“If we have a broad number of things that all of a sudden move to administrative approval, can we have public protection built in through standardization of conditions so that we are continuing to achieve a reasonable balance of trying to improve the speed of applications and to take out waste [from the process]?” Rooker asked.

Staff  is continuing to review how procedures for critical slopes, home occupations, rural churches and signs are approved.

Graham reminded the board they have already adopted changes to the entrance corridor review process

.

Bill Fritz, the county’s chief of current development, briefed supervisors on potential changes to the site plan and subdivision application process. Changes coming include a new concept where plans are reviewed as one project, rather than splitting the review into preliminary and final stages. Another change would be the encouragement of meetings between the public and applicants as close to the beginning of the review process as possible.

“We actually think that may have some benefits over the public hearing process that occurs now because at the planning commission, the public comments are limited to three minutes and there is no dialogue back and forth,” Fritz said. “We’re hoping at that meeting we can get a dialogue going between the reviewers, the public and the applicant.”

Fritz said that an applicant may consider amending the plan to satisfy the concerns of abutting land owners even if such changes wouldn’t be required by code.

Another change is that applicants could gain the ability to begin grading on a site before the site plan receives final approval if they demonstrate compliance with county regulations. That concerned Supervisor

Ann Mallek

.

“I’m very concerned about a lot of dirt being turned over and then somebody goes out of business,” Mallek said.

Fritz said the exact details about what would be required before early grading begins have not yet been worked out.

In order for the changes to take effect, the board must adopt new ordinances which will involve input from the planning commission, the ARB and the public. The next step is to obtain more public input through roundtables before the ordinances are rewritten.  Fritz said this process could take between 12 and 18 months if public roundtables are held.

Supervisor

Ken Boyd

said he thought a year and a half was too long.

“We’ve got to figure out ways to do things quicker,” Boyd said. “We can’t just drag these things out forever. But I don’t want to give up the public roundtables.”

Mallek, who served on the development review task force before being elected in November 2007, said she was pleased the process of streamlining is continuing.

“It’s not the length of the number of questions [applicants must answer], it’s the fact that when you get all the answers, you know if you have a go or not,” Mallek said. “The certainty is important, but one thing that is important to me is that we don’t go ahead [with a project] unless we have the studies that we need, that you have got the compliance that you want.”

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