The Albemarle County Planning Commission has signaled its willingness to support changes to the process through which rezoning and special-use permits are handled by county government.
In January 2010, the Albemarle Board of Supervisors adopted an economic vitality action plan that directed staff to find ways to make it easier for businesses to expand in the county. One of the directives was to streamline the legislative review process by which all discretionary land use decisions are made.
“The focus was on codifying our expectations, being clear on what we need to have in the process to serve the applicants best,” said Wayne Cilimberg , the county’s director of planning, at a Tuesday work session.
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One of the main goals is to get projects to public hearings as swiftly as possible.
Cilimberg said that may be accomplished by ensuring applications are as complete as possible from the beginning.
“The proposed process changes are to require pre-application meetings [with staff] and for the applicants to provide a completed pre-app form for those meetings,” Cilimberg said.
Within ten days, the applicant would be notified if their submission would be accepted. If not, a checklist would be provided telling the applicant what information is missing.
Applicants would also be required to hold a meeting with neighbors within 46 days of submitting the application. Staff would attend this meeting in order to observe and to inform their review.
Commission Chair Cal Morris said a community meeting early in the process could be invaluable because developers would have a chance to explain their intentions to neighbors. He cited a meeting earlier this month in which the New Hope Community Church deferred plans for a 400-seat sanctuary and soccer fields on Piney Mountain following opposition from neighbors.
“A lot could have been avoided if the developer had just taken the time to meet with the neighbors,” Morris said.
Valerie Long , an attorney with Williams Mullen who represents many developers, said she did not believe many in the development community knew of the proposed changes. She asked that a roundtable be held to further flesh out the ideas.
“It could be fairly quickly scheduled to make sure people understand what’s being proposed,” Long said. “There are actually a couple of things in here that are significant changes that I think I’m not sure others in the development community are aware of.”
Commissioner Don Franco , a developer, said he understood how many applicants and neighbors could be confused by the process. He suggested the community meetings focus heavily on what is in the county’s Comprehensive Plan .
“That meeting with the public first and foremost [should be] to educate them on what is allowed to be done on that property and what the comp plan calls for,” Franco said.
Commissioner Russell “Mac” Lafferty said he supported the goals, but was concerned that the community development department did not have the resources for the additional work.
“It seems like we’re always cutting back on staff, and now it looks [like] we’re going to be requiring more time from staff,” Lafferty said.
The commission also discussed land-use applications that are not subject to discretionary review. Under a by-right submission, any application that meets the technical requirements of the zoning ordinance must be granted.
County staff is seeking changes to streamline the ministerial process as well. There too, they are recommending a pre-application process.
“It will be reviewed within ten days to identify any major issues that may exist with the issue and also to identify what waivers may be necessary,” said Bill Fritz, the county’s chief of current planning.
Site plans would only go before the Planning Commission if a developer wanted to appeal a denial by staff.
Another proposed change is a reduction in the amount of detail required for minor site plan revisions in order to speed the review process.
“Right now if you have a Hollymead Town Center site and you want to change a loading bay, you have to show the entire site even though it has nothing to do with the loading bay,” Fritz said.
“This would allow us to target and only show the changes in the area where they are actually occurring.”
Fritz is also recommending the Architectural Review Board be involved early in the site plan process.
“This makes the ARB a member of the site plan review committee and we believe that engaging the ARB early would potentially reduce applications and submissions,” Fritz said.
Commissioner Richard Randolph was concerned that the Planning Commission’s role was simply being moved to the ARB.
“From the applicant’s standpoint, they still have to run the gauntlet through another body that is asking very detailed and pointed questions,” Randolph said.
Commissioners signaled support for both sets of changes which will come back before the commission at a public hearing in July. That will be followed by a public hearing before the Albemarle supervisors sometime before the end of the year.