If you wanted to find out how Albemarle County’s planning goals compare with Charlottesville’s, until now you would have had to compare the two government’s Comprehensive Plans side by side — if you could even find them.
On Monday, the Thomas Jefferson Planning District Commission publicly launched an online database that allows citizens to sift through 82 planning documents in order to find targeted information about the region’s planning objectives.
“Our target audience is pretty much everybody,” said Sara Stamp, a planner with the TJPDC. “We tried to make it a quick reference for anyone who has a desire to seek more information about the goals of the community.”
Over a dozen people attended a TJPDC workshop in CitySpace that offered a tutorial on how to use the database.
The project is one product from a $1 million planning grant awarded to the TJPDC by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The regional planning agency is helping both the city and the county update their Comprehensive Plans while also updating the region’s long-range transportation plan.
“The purpose of these grants was to fund multijurisdictional planning efforts,” said Mandy Burbage, another TJPDC planner involved with the Many Plans, One Community project. “What this grant allowed all of the localities to do was to coordinate their planning effort and engage in more community involvement than they would if they were tackling these plans alone.”
The searchable documents range from the Albemarle County Biodiversity Report from 2004 to the University of Virginia Historic Preservation Framework Plan from 2006. Also included are the 1998 Sustainability Accords, the Charlottesville Area Transit Development Plan from 2011 and the 2004 Jefferson Area Bicycle, Pedestrian and Greenways Plan.
Burbage said the effort is to help ensure that previous planning efforts are not forgotten.
“These are not new topics for this community,” Burbage said. “One of the things that is useful about the database is that in looking at all of the goals around sustainability, we are really able to look beyond the capacity of local government.”
The database itself has over 12,000 records. Searches may be conducted with multiple filters based on 224 topical tags.
“As a research tool, this is phenomenally useful,” said Susan Elliott, the energy program coordinator for Albemarle County.
Elliott said funding for specific projects is often tied to whether a locality specifically identifies it as a priority in a Comprehensive Plan. For instance, a search for “light rail” in the database of plans yields few results.
“That information is actually useful for people because if there is a topic, like light rail, that they want to know more about, that limited amount of information that this search would give back to them would tell them this hasn’t been a large priority,” Elliott said.
City Councilor Dede Smith said she would use the database as she prepares her own research for the Comprehensive Plan update.
“I think this is exactly the direction we need to go with not only planning but programming,” Smith said. “I’m all about data management and accessibility to information.”
Wendy Roberman, a county employee who has worked with many community groups, including Transition Charlottesville, said the database could be a tool to help connect ideas.
“I am going to go home and play with it and look up tags that seem of interest to me,” Roberman said. “Such as, what is already in the plans for more bike lanes? What is in all the different plans for mixed-use neighborhoods? What about urban agriculture in the city? What’s in the works, so we don’t reinvent the wheel?”
Some of the attendees of the workshop had suggestions to improve the database, which planners say is in the beta stages of development despite being opened to the public.
James Quinn, the executive director of the Open Knowledge Collaborative, said he wants the database to show when each plan was posted.
“Knowing when information was collected and when it was created goes a long way towards telling me how useful that information is to me,” Quinn said.
He would also like the database to be linked with maps in order to make the information more understandable by citizens.
Burbage said the next tutorial would be held later this summer at a workshop sponsored by the Center for Nonprofit Excellence.