Members of the development community, environmental leaders and Albemarle County officials came together last week to discuss proposed changes to the development review process. The adjustments are intended to streamline the process by which projects are reviewed.
“It’s really about trying to shorten those timeframes, avoid those regulations that are not necessary, continue to maintain opportunities for the public to be involved and, overall, to maintain community quality,” said Wayne Cilimberg, Albemarle’s director of planning.
The hope is that the proposed process would provide clear expectations of the applicants and, in doing so, not only render decisions by the county in a more timely manner, but reduce the number of application re-submittals, which cost projects time and money.
“Because our application requirements are not tightened down, we find that there are things that are not provided [by the applicant] that are needed, but we’re not hearing about it until 46 days into the process,” said Cilimberg, regarding the inefficiencies of the current process. “We really would want to avoid that.”
The proposed review process for proposals that go before the Planning Commission and Board of Supervisors would require applicants to submit a pre-application form with basic information about the project. Applicants would then be required to attend a pre-application meeting with county staff to identify areas of the initial project proposal that may require modification.
Following the pre-app meeting, the full application could then be submitted that addresses any comments made by the staff. Once an application is accepted, a community meeting would be held to give project neighbors an opportunity to learn about the proposed development.
Although the added steps are designed make applications easier to complete and more efficient, some felt it would be counterproductive.
“I think the pre-app, as presented here, is going to have a list of requirements to be prepared for that are just adding another level [to the process] and I don’t know what the real benefit is,” said Jo Higgins, a former planning commissioner and owner of Project Development, LLC.
Others echoed that opinion, seeing the extended procedure as burdensome, especially to those who are seeking permits for small projects.
“[Staff should] have the discretion to waive certain requirements when [they] think it’s appropriate,” said Valerie Long, an attorney for the law firm of Williams Mullen.
Some, however, see the changes as beneficial to small project applicants, citing the complicated nature of the current process.
“I hear it an awful lot from the small-business owner who just needed a special-use permit because he wanted to do something, to extend his building or whatever, and he talks about the bureaucracy and amount of time it takes to get through that process, how difficult it is to understand,” said Albemarle Supervisor Kenneth C. Boyd.
In addition to the legislative review changes, Albemarle’s chief of special projects, Bill Fritz, also discussed the ministerial changes, or staff-level review, for site plans that he presented to the Architectural Review Board earlier in the week.
The changes would integrate the ARB’s review of projects earlier in the site review process in order to facilitate project decisions. As with the proposed legislative changes, concerns were raised as to how best to educate the public about the procedure and its changes.
“Why isn’t there something on the website that explains what you’ve explained to us?” asked Higgins, who noted that development progress is often delayed by confusion within the community regarding projects.
In response to the feedback regarding user-friendliness, Cilimberg noted that in the proposed changes the language of the ordinance would be adjusted to be easier to understand and issues of clarity in the application process would be addressed.
“We understand that, both with the legislative and the ministerial, these are rather significant changes,” Fritz said. “We want to take some time after it’s adopted to make sure that we get the documentation right and the information out there.”
The Albemarle Planning Commission has set a public hearing on the proposed changes for July 17.