County planners debate decreased resources for community engagement
Members of the Albemarle County Planning Commission expressed concern last week that public bodies created to oversee the county’s master plans will be less effective now that budget cuts have forced them to meet less often.
“This is not a very good idea,” said Tom Loach , chair of the planning commission. “As far as I’m concerned, the advisory council has been indispensible in helping make decisions in my district because that’s where I get my feedback from.”
Lee Catlin, the county’s community relations manager, said the reduction is due to dwindling financial resources and is not a reflection they are no longer needed.
“It was pretty clearly stated during the budget process last year… that support to master planning advisory councils would be reduced,” said Catlin. She said no one from the councils spoke up during this year’s budget process to make the case for sustained funding. As a result, a community engagement position in her office was eliminated, as well as three positions in the planning department.
The Board of Supervisors endorsed the changes at their meeting on September 1.
When both the Crozet and Pantops master plans were adopted, advisory councils were created to provide a way for citizens to have a say in how those plans were implemented. However, their mission has been reduced because of county budget cutbacks.
“Each of the councils [will] meet three times a year,” said Wayne Cilimberg , the county’s director of planning. “There [will] also be an annual meeting of all the councils together.”
The councils are public bodies, and as such fall under Virginia’s open meeting laws which require publicly advertised meetings and the keeping of minutes. No more than two members of a public body are allowed to meet and discuss public business without following those regulations.
County Attorney Larry Davis advised the board of supervisors earlier this month that council members had to be aware of these obligations in any forum where they are meeting when more than two members are present, even if it is at a local community association gathering, a meeting not convened by the county.
Loach said that when the Crozet master plan was originally adopted, the community accepted it because they were told a full-time community planner would assist with its implementation. However, over time that person has been moved to deal with rezoning due to budget cuts.
“If there’s a lot of development activity as a result of either the master plan or the economic stimulus plan, then these advisory councils may need to more regular,” Loach said.
The Village of Rivanna is the latest growth area to have an adopted master plan, but a council has not been created at this time due to a lack of current development there. However, key stakeholders will be invited to the annual meeting.
Commissioner Linda Porterfield said there are already significant problems her constituents and staff, and added it was inconsistent to treat her growth area different from that of Pantops and Crozet.
“We need communication, and if we lose communication, we’re in real trouble,” Porterfield said. She also objected to supervisors signing off on the changes before the commission had a chance to weigh in.
Cilimberg pointed out that the adopted master plan for the Village of Rivanna anticipated a low level of development in the short-term.
“We have a capital program with essentially no money for initiatives,” Cilimberg said. “The Board is bombarded with a multitude of budget considerations and demands and balancing that against a constituency that does not want to see increases in their taxes,” Cilimberg said. “At some point the reality strikes and that’s our reality right now.”
The Board of Supervisors will consider the Places29 Master Plan in November.