By Sean Tubbs

Charlottesville Tomorrow

Friday, June 4, 2010

The public and local interest groups have been invited to submit additional ideas on how

Albemarle County

government can boost economic development.  Many people in the environmental protection community, however, expressed concern Wednesday that the economic development action plan before the Board of Supervisors was shaped purely by business interests.

“Some of the general ideas set forth in the plan sound reasonable and may be worth pursuing,”

said Morgan Butler with the

Southern Environmental Law Center

. “But I share the concerns voiced by many that the plan was developed by a group that did not include important segments of the community who could have provided important input.”

After a three hour work session held on the plan, it was decided that educators, environmentalists and others will be invited to attend two roundtables to contribute their input. These sessions, which have not yet been scheduled, will be held in advance of a public hearing on the plan scheduled for July 14, 2010.


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County staff comments on the plan

At the beginning of the work session, County Executive

Bob Tucker

reminded the board they had updated the economic development chapter of the county’s comprehensive in March 2009 following a series of several public hearings.

“[The comprehensive plan] recognizes that existing growth and vitality are required to sustain and enhance the human, economic, natural and cultural characteristics of our community,” Tucker said. “None of the strategies or actions in the draft plan before you are intended to be in conflict with this policy goal.”

Community Development Director

Mark Graham

said he was excited about efforts to increase interaction between his staff and members of the development community.

“We’re just going to be bringing in people from the development industry… to talk about what it takes to get a project to happen to give staff a better appreciation,” Graham said.

The plan calls on Graham’s department to “create certainty in the development review process” by giving applicants firm timelines for project approval. He said some of the specific steps called for in the plan are already being implemented, such as changes to the entrance corridor review process.

“With all of the objectives and strategies in here, we think that they all fit neatly within our existing work program and we’re not going to have to reprioritize any of our efforts in the next year,”  he said.

Mike Harvey, the president of the

Thomas Jefferson Partnership for Economic Development

, said he saw the plan as a way to help create jobs in Albemarle for both low-income workers and people who currently commute to other cities. He also said the county had an opportunity to rebalance its tax base by adding more commercial tax revenue. To get there, Harvey said he needed direction.

“We really need to know and understand what types of businesses we want to focus on here and what we want to become as a county,” Harvey said.


Twenty people weigh in during public comment session

Tom Olivier of the

Piedmont Group of the Sierra Club

said the plan was flawed because it was developed by the business community in a process that was not transparent. He took issue with a statement in the plan’s preamble that the county has a “proven track record” in sustaining natural resources.

“A more accurate statement would be ‘Albemarle County’s natural resources have been greatly reduced by human activities and are undergoing continuing threat due to population growth’”, Olivier said.

Jack Marshall, president of

Advocates for a Sustainable Albemarle Population

, demanded to hear an example of a community in which an expanded commercial tax base led to lower taxes for citizens.

“Your action plan is based on wishful thinking,” Marshall said. “Why haven’t you given the evidence from communities like ours to show that it works?”

Marshall said he supported the plan’s call for increased efforts to boost tourism and agri-business, but said inviting industries to move here would change the character of Albemarle County.

Jeff Werner of the

Piedmont Environmental Council

said he felt many of the ideas called for in the plan could have the effect of undoing the work Albemarle County has done to be an attractive place to live.

“Regulations are intended for the community, and not for the applicant,” Werner said. “So when we say they’re unnecessary, unnecessary to who? The applicant who can’t fill out the forms? Those regulations are for the interest of the community and I hope we don’t lose that.”

However, members of the business community called for swift adoption.

Realtor Mason Graham said she supported the plan because she felt it would increase the amount of revenues available to the county to pay for infrastructure. Jim Kennan called the plan “pragmatic” and said it would have the effect of increasing money for local charities and non-profits.

Dennis Mockler, former head of

Monticello Media

, said it was unfair that many in the community were demonizing business.

“Some people try to portray business as villains out to ruin their communities,” Mockler said. “They overlook the fact that businesses are made up of people.”

Tim Hulbert, president of the

Charlottesville Regional Chamber of Commerce

, said he felt the county has become increasingly friendlier to businesses, but there was more work to do.

“[Albemare County] has the image of not being [business-friendly] and it gets that image because we have regulators who insist on imposing one shade of white over another shade of white,” Hulbert said, referring to the power the appointed

Architectural Review Board

has over buildings in the entrance corridor.


Valerie Long

, an attorney who represents numerous developers in the community, said she felt there have been positive changes that have benefited her clients, more work needed to be done.

“It’s still a very, very challenging process,” Long said. “It’s very expensive, it’s very long, and it’s very frustrating to businesses who want to either expand in our community… or those that do want to come here.”

One specific request came from John Chivan, who called for the board to open up sections of Route 250 to more commercial development. In April 2008,

the Board denied a rezoning application for land he owns near the road’s interchange with Interstate 64

. The land is just outside the county’s growth area.


Board discussion

Supervisor

Lindsay Dorrier

said the plan was necessary.

“The action plan puts it all [economic development efforts] on the table and creates a different atmosphere that Albemarle is open for business,” Dorrier said.

Supervisor

Dennis Rooker

said he was troubled that the action plan for economic development appeared to be in conflict with some of the language in the comprehensive plan.

“I think that the plan should specifically mention that [the plan] should be pursuing objectives consistent with the county’s existing growth management goals,” Rooker said. “I want a process of getting to a plan that I think is a more balanced plan that will be accepted by the whole community.”

However, Supervisor

Duane Snow

said the two documents have two different purposes.

“One is a policy, and the other one is actually a plan for how you’re going to accomplish the things you’ve got in your policy,” Snow said.

“This whole plan is about accomplishment,” said Supervisor

Ken Boyd

. “It’s not about platitudes and comprehensive plans… it’s about meaningfully moving forward with measurable objectives and timeframes, and this we don’t have in the comprehensive plan and this is why this is necessary.”

Rooker called for additional stakeholders to be invited to contribute to the plan so it could be improved.  Boyd encouraged that idea, but didn’t want the process of adopting the plan to be drawn out over six months. He pointed out the details of the plan have been available for over a month.

“People had a month to come back here with very specific recommendations, changes, inclusions,” Boyd said.  However, he was amenable to taking an additional six weeks to gather more input from educators and environmentalists.

“If they want to come together with ideas, roll up your sleeves, I’ll be glad to sit down with you and go through this plan and get it done,” Boyd said.


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