Commissioner Porterfield calls for flexibility in locating businesses outside growth area

The Albemarle County Planning Commission’s second work session on September 29, 2008 sparked a vigorous debate about the role the County should play in fostering economic development.

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Susan Stimart

The work session was a chance for Business Development Facilitator Susan Stimart to get County input on her proposed changes to the

economic development chapter of the Comprehensive Plan

, last adopted in 1995. Stimart says her changes encourage the zoning more land for light industrial uses, promotes local agriculture, and addresses the need for workforce development.

Stimart also reviewed current data on the region’s economy before taking the Commission through the specific amendments she is recommending. Commissioners urged her to be less specific and not to mention specific agricultural and workforce programs, given that the Comprehensive Plan is meant to be a lasting document. However, Commissioner Eric Strucko (Samuel Miller) asked for a clearer definition of a business incubator to be included.

On the subject of light industrial land, Stimart said many companies are moving out of the County, or are expanding operations outside the County, because of a lack of appropriate land. She said Von Holtzbrinck Publishing, Speedy Rooter, and van der Linde Recycling are all moving to Zion’s Crossroads in Fluvanna County. Stimart also gave examples of companies that would like to locate here, but cannot find the space. She is suggesting the following change to the plan’s industrial growth objectives:

(Objective II, Strategy 4) Encourage infill development of business and industrial uses in areas appropriately designed in the Land Use Plan,

including consideration of proactively rezoning land as needs are identified through Master Plans and other efforts. Initiate zoning text amendments that further enable and industrial uses of the appropriate zoning districts.

The County set a precedent this year when the Board of Supervisors agreed to preemptively rezone downtown Crozet in order to encourage its development. Director of Planning Wayne Cilimberg suggested the Commission might consider addressing light industrial land as it looks to create master plans for the remaining designated growth areas that have not received that level of planning. Chief Planner David Benish suggested the zoning text amendment might create a new category to allow specific uses.

Commissioner Bill Edgerton (Jack Jouett) suggested adding language to discourage the rezoning of existing light industrial land to other uses. For instance, nearly all of the land where Hollymead Town Center is being built was originally zoned for light industrial.

Commissioner Marcia Joseph (At-Large) asked if the last sentence of Stimart’s changes would allow for more businesses in the rural areas, especially by businesses with uses that are close to agricultural. Earlier this year,

landscape firm Watkins and Company was forced by the County to move into the growth area because it did not conform with zoning regulations

. Benish said that would be one objective of the language change.

Strucko said that he wanted an explicit statement saying that any efforts to make it more flexible for offices and industry would only be in the designated growth areas. That prompted Commissioner Linda Porterfield (Scottsville) to object to how the Comprehensive Plan prevents growth in the rural area.

“We are in a terrible economic slump right now… We as a County have got to try to see if we can come up with ways to help the bottom line,” Porterfield said.

She said she and her husband moved here in 2002 because it is a good place to retire

, and that the County should encourage more people to live here so it can grow. “You want to eliminate any ability for anybody to look at any other land in this County other than the designated growth area. I’ve only been sitting here for nine months but I can’t tell you how many times you guys have looked at me and said to me, ‘It goes against the comprehensive plan!’”

Porterfield called for amending the Comprehensive Plan to promote growth, and that the County has a lot of land that could be developed. She suggested developing around all of the interchanges on I-64, for instance. “I can’t support something that says let’s dump it all in the development area,” she said.

Strucko strongly rebutted Porterfield, and said that by designating growth areas, the County has created the infrastructure to support development.

“We don’t want to sprawl into the rural areas because by sprawling into the rural areas, it changes the character of Albemarle County and suddenly it doesn’t become an attractive place to live,” Strucko said. “By sprawling into the rural area, you have to extend infrastructure, schools get overcrowded, roads get overcrowded,  pollution happens… We worked for a long time to come up with Comprehensive Plan policies that are going to protect our rural areas and our open space. We’ve come up with designated growth areas with good forms that utilize that space effectively and efficiently. There is currently enough land inventory within the designated growth area to handle any kind of economic development… I’m not going to compromise that principle simply to accommodate a relocation.”

When the public was given an opportunity to provide input, Neil Williamson of the Free Enterprise Forum called for stronger language to promote economic development. “There’s no real recognition… of the multiplicity of community benefits that the business community presents,” Williamson said. He urged the County to consider adopting a strategy that would quantify the cost burdens of each new regulation before it is adopted.  Strucko said he could support such a move.

Wendell Wood

Developer Wendell Wood said when the Commission refused to expand the growth area to accommodate some of the land he owns near the National Ground Intelligence Center, they failed to take into account that the land in question is supported by infrastructure with access to US 29 as well as water and sewer lines. He said Albemarle County has “an opportunity to shine” if it can attract more employers such as NGIC. “The rest of the country would die for the opportunity that we are being offered…. Sometimes I have a feeling that it’s like ‘I have mine, and the hell with you’ and I resent that.”

The Commissioners then began to express their distaste for Wood’s comments. When Strucko said he was “borderline insulted,” Wood replied: “Maybe you should be.”  Wood said the Commission is prejudiced against growth. Strucko replied that he does not want sprawl.

“I don’t want to expand the designated growth area just to benefit you financially,” Strucko said.

Commissioner Marcia Joseph said she thought Stimart’s changes are consistent with the general trend towards Albemarle County becoming more business-friendly. She mentioned the hiring of Stimart and

the County’s joining of the Thomas Jefferson Partnership for Economic Development

, but also said that she was not ready to sharply increase economic development areas.

Porterfield said she is opposed to sprawl, but that the Comprehensive Plan ties the hands of people with unique ideas. Strucko said anyone can propose a rezoning in any area, and the Commission could make exceptions if it so choose. In fact,

Will Yancey has proposed idea light industrial business park outside Crozet that is making its way through the planning system

. Porterfield said she wanted to see language placed in the Comprehensive Plan to explicitly promote flexibility.

Commissioner Bill Edgerton said he could not support that. He said changing the Comprehensive Plan is something that would have to be decided by the citizens of Albemarle County. “Until they tell us that the rural area is not the most important priority in the County, we need to respect what the Comprehensive Plan currently says,” said Edgerton. “To put into a piece of the Comprehensive Plan a vehicle to undercut that directive I think would be inappropriate.”

Chairman Cal Morris (Rivanna) asked Stimart if she had the consensus of the Commission. Stimart responded she did. Porterfield addressed the clerk.

“Please indicate in the record that she does not have consensus,” Porterfield said.

A public hearing on the changes will be held before the Planning Commission on October 21, 2008.

Sean Tubbs