Albemarle Supervisors Ann Mallek & Dennis Rooker

The basic economics lesson of supply and demand has been on the mind of Albemarle County supervisors struggling with proposed changes to light industrial zoning regulations.

The three-year review process came to a conclusion this week at Tuesday’s Albemarle County Planning Commission meeting and Wednesday’s Board of Supervisors meeting.

Supervisors voted 5-1 to change the county’s light industrial zoning standards with a goal of increasing flexibility and gaining some control over the land’s non-industrial uses.

“One of the problems is that the industrial property was being converted to retail by rezoning or to office,” said Supervisor Dennis S. Rooker at a meeting last month.  “Part of the idea was to preserve our existing industrial property for industrial uses.”

Albemarle staff presented information showing that the county has 1,687 acres of land zoned industrial today.  Of that amount 620 acres allows for offices, much of it in the University of Virginia’s business parks. 

Since 2005, 187 acres of light industrial land have been lost through the board’s decisions to rezone property — at the request of its owners — to instead build retail, offices, and housing.

According to a staff report, the zoning changes would “collectively remove certain barriers and provide industrial uses, including the county’s target industries and smaller scale ‘mom and pop’ enterprises, greater location opportunities.”

Not everyone believes the changes will work, however.

“Being in the business, I think I know the marketplace, and I can assure you light industrial in Albemarle County, with the way your ordinance is written, can’t happen,” said developer Wendell Wood to the Planning Commission on Tuesday. 

Stiff opposition from developers like Wood convinced the board to delay by a year the commencement of most contentious of the changes.

Supervisor Kenneth C. Boyd, the lone vote against the proposal, cited concerns about the rights of existing property owners who will now have to get special approval to build offices unrelated to industrial activity. 

“I am not doing this just because Mr. Wood has brought [concerns] to our attention,” Boyd said last month.  “What’s been brought up is that we are going to be shutting down a lot of opportunities.”

Specifically, Boyd said the changes would cost the community jobs.  On Wednesday, his debate with his colleagues picked up right where it left off last month.

“Why do you think it’s our job to tell them what they can and can’t do with their property, don’t you believe in personal property rights?” Boyd asked.

“You don’t believe in zoning,” Rooker responded.  “Telling people what they can do with their property is zoning.”

Rooker pointed out that it was Boyd’s 2010 Economic Vitality Action Plan that put county staff to work assessing the availability of light industrial land.

“You have flipped over, because you started out talking about how we needed more light industrial property,” Rooker said. “Then at the last meeting you finally said there isn’t any demand for it, and that’s why these people want to build offices.”

Wood is one of the property owners that wants to retain that flexibility for any office by-right, as opposed to through a special use permit.

“You need to allocate some land light industrial in an area that’s affordable for someone to do it,” Wood said.  “And you need to do it today before that area becomes populated and all the citizens come down and oppose you.”

Supervisor Duane E. Snow suggested a compromise that would approve the bulk of the ordinance changes recommended by staff, but delay the office restrictions.  The net effect, a one-year window for property owners to submit a plan for offices and secure vested rights before the ordinance takes full effect in April 2014.

“I appreciate what’s being done with the ordinance and I think we need to…preserve the opportunity to maintain cheaper property so that we can bring certain types of businesses in,” Snow said.  “I’m also keenly aware of those that have investments in current [light industrial zoned] property … that if we change the rules in the middle of the game that’s going affect them dramatically.”

Supervisor Ann H. Mallek expressed her frustration that the proposal was not going to take full effect sooner.

“You need to either do this the way it is written or vote it down,” Mallek said.  “You cannot undermine everything…in order to do something for everybody.  I am desperately sad that this thing seems to be under attack.”

Boyd said he did support eliminating residential and retail uses from industrial land.  Separately, the board voted unanimously in favor of another ordinance which will allow more light industrial uses in commercial districts.