The Albemarle Board of Supervisors has endorsed draft changes to the process under which county staff reviews preliminary site plans and rezoning applications.
“This has to do with trying to assure that we have a process in this county that does not unnecessarily make it difficult for development to move forward,” said Mark Graham, the county’s director of community development.
The review was called for in the economic vitality action plan adopted in January 2010 after Supervisors Duane E. Snow and Rodney Thomas joined the board.
Part of the plan directed staff to find ways to reduce the time it takes for staff review of site plans, special use permits and rezonings.
“Time is money for applicants,” said Wayne Cilimberg, the county’s director of planning. “Time is also money for the county. Whatever we can do to shorten the timeframe, there’s a value added for both applicants and staff.”
Draft results were discussed at a joint meeting the supervisors held Wednesday with both the Albemarle County Planning Commission and the Architectural Review Board.
Under the new guidelines, site plan applications will be reviewed within 10 days to determine if they are complete and whether there any major problems. More will be done to inform the public of site plan review to get input early in the process.
“It’s important that we engage the public as early as possible,” said planning commissioner Tom Loach. “It’s been a constant complaint for as long as I can remember that they feel they get into the process too late.”
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Other changes include writing clearer guidelines for what is required before a final approval, allowing grading permits with preliminary site plan approval and eliminating the planning commission’s role in approving site plans
However, the Architectural Review Board would still retain the power to review projects in entrance corridors before they receive preliminary approval.
“These proposals for the site plan and subdivision review process we think will only have a review time,” said Bill Fritz, the county’s chief of current development. “But it could reduce the burden on the applicant in terms of the submittal process.”
“If our objective is to get the process speeded up, then I think we need to examine the process itself,” said Duane Zobrist, the chair of the planning commission.
Supervisor Dennis S. Rooker, who served on the planning commission from 1998 to 2001, said the changes made sense because the commission has often reviewed site plans for which it does not have any authority.
“The planning commission does not have the discretion to ignore statutory requirements and deny [applications],” Rooker said.
Planning commissioner Linda Porterfield said she was concerned the site plan review meeting would not allow for input from the perspective of a particular magisterial district’s needs.
“I don’t want to see you disenfranchise people in this county who are paying a lot of taxes to be here and would like to speak on something,” Porterfield said. She said the commission should continue to play a role in the site plan process.
Supervisor Ann H. Mallek said a very specific set of guidelines would need to be published in order to ensure the process provided for quality developments.
“The application [needs] to already meet a very high standard before it would qualify for this [streamlined] process,” Mallek said.
Commissioner Don Franco, who is himself a developer, said he was concerned the changes would simply shift more work onto the ARB.
“I get concerned that this is either an expansion of the ARB’s power or it puts a lot more grayness in the situation,” Franco said. “Architectural standards, if they are allowed to [be applied] to site plan review, then there’s really no end to what might be required of the applicant.”
But ARB member Bruce Wardell said that his body’s job is to make sure development along entrance corridors that affects the public sphere meets the county’s standards of quality.
“Our discussion is [should] there be a way not to add another layer but to get whatever expertise and input there is sooner in the process so that the planning commission or staff can benefit from that,” Wardell said.
Other proposed changes would include requiring a pre-application conference prior to submittal of rezoning and special use permit applications.
These meetings are currently not required, but they are already allowed to occur.
“Developers who actually reach out to neighborhood organizations… those guys are way ahead because they’ve been in a non-confrontational environment to get really good suggestions,” Mallek said.
Staff will continue to work on an ordinance amendment to make the changes. The board will get a full progress report on the economic vitality plan at their first meeting in September.