One of the recommendations from Albemarle County’s recently completed
Resource Management Review
was that local government should cultivate an economic development philosophy that actively seeks new business in order to grow the County’s tax base. Coincidentally, at their February 11, 2009 meeting, the same day it received that recommendation from outside consultants at the Commonwealth Educational Policy Institute (CEPI), the Albemarle County Board of Supervisors also considered the final draft of the Comprehensive Plan’s section on Economic Development Policy. The policy was last updated in 1995. Business Development Facilitator Susan Stimart and other County staff
have been working with
the County Planning Commission in drafting this policy. The Board gave every indication of their approval, but technically voted to defer the decision to the next meeting in order to incorporate all of the technical and grammatical changes suggested during the meeting.
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Changes to the Economic Development Policy have been in the works for two years. Staff were charged by the Board back in 2007 to address three specific tasks in the new Economic Development Policy: encouraging agricultural vitality; zoning for light industrial land; and providing workforce development. The objectives and strategies of the policy, although not exclusively focused on these three issues, was written with them in mind.
Agricultural revenue has been steadily dropping in Albemarle County for the last several decades, but there is reason to believe that specialization in niche markets may boost the profitability of farms. The Economic Development Policy commits the County to a more assertive role in agricultural development. One strategy is to “increase the promotion of local agricultural industry consistent with the goals, objectives and implementation strategies of the Comprehensive Plan.” This role includes enhancing the local food infrastructure in the area, providing informational assistance to farmers and landowners who wish to lease their land for farming, establishing agricultural programs in public schools, and commissioning a new study on the economic health of agriculture in the region.
The goal of increasing light industry generated more discussion. A 2007 inventory of industrial land revealed that there are currently only 111 acres of vacant industrial land zoned for light industry. This has raised a concern that the County will not be able to meet the needs of potential light industrial firms that may consider relocating or expanding in the County. Supervisor Ann Mallek (White Hall) thought that the City of Charlottesville should be included in a study of industrial land, considering indications she has received from a City Planning Commissioner that the City is considering converting land from industrial to mixed-use.
John Chevan, a property owner of land in the Pantops region, made a case before the Board that their stated commitment to providing more light industrial land might lead them to reconsider
a denial of his previous request for rezoning
. Chevan considers his land near I-64 to be suitable for industrial use, but he is technically within the County’s rural area. Supervisor Ken Boyd (Rivanna) asked the Board whether there is reason to believe his denial could be overturned in light of a new Economic Development Policy. Staff suggested that this would have to be done as part of an update to the
Pantops Master Plan
Several specific workforce development strategies are included in the policy. Among other things, there is a program to encourage retirees into a socially-beneficial “encore careers, ” more efforts to foster career-planning in grade schools, apprentice opportunities for low-income workers, and training seminars on job habits and life skills. The highest workforce development priority is simply assessing the current needs of underemployed workers in the county and defining goals and benchmarks to meet those needs.
The Policy received broad-based support from a variety of stakeholders. Morgan Butler, of the Southern Environmental Law Center, was in general agreement with the Policy, but wanted to clarify the definition of “infill” to ensure that this explicitly meant development would be restricted to the designated growth areas. John Lowry, Chair of the Economic Development Authority and potential candidate for the Samuel Miller District seat on the Board, also only had one small change he would make. He requested that the staff position of “business facilitator” be changed to “business director.”
In an interview this week with Charlottesville Tomorrow, the Free Enterprise Forum’s Neil Williamson said that, “Albemarle County’s Economic Development rewrite is a significantly improved chapter [in the Comprehensive Plan] that recognizes the impact of business to this community, and the importance of agri-business to making the rural areas economically viable.”
Williamson notes that the County’s recently completed Resource Management Review calls for a fresh look at the County’s approach to economic development and that he believes there needs to be a “regular review of regulatory policies that exist to assess if they serve their purpose and whether they are being enforced.”
“The comprehensive plan revisions are a step in the right direction, but they need to be followed through with actions throughout County government,” said Williamson.
Daniel Nairn & Brian Wheeler