1

Seeing local planning through Mr. Jefferson’s eyes

Through inheritance and acquisition, Thomas Jefferson once owned 5,000 acres throughout the area along the Rivanna River.  Among the farms below his home at Monticello, Jefferson called one property Pantops, from two Greek words meaning “all-seeing.”

At Tuesday’s Albemarle Planning Commission meeting, all the “seeing” was done through the eyes of Mr. Jefferson.  Besides Pantops, where he had hoped to settle his youngest daughter, the meeting’s discussion included other locations visible from the terrace at Monticello and the neighboring Montalto.

As the commission finalizes its Comprehensive Plan update, consideration is being given to significantly broadening the “Monticello viewshed” and the awareness of voluntary guidelines for new development in the area to protect historic vistas.

“Our mission is preservation and education, and of course that includes the preservation of Jefferson’s views, which are integral to the interpretation of the plantation,” said Natasha Sienitsky, the associate director of planning and facilities for the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, which owns and operates Monticello.

“We want to continue to work with the development community to ensure the protection of the Monticello viewshed,” Sienitsky said.

She said the Giant Food grocery store on Pantops has a camouflage roof and Monticello was consulted on the coloring of the new Martha Jefferson Hospital in consideration of the half-million annual visitors Monticello brings to the area.  Sienitsky added that those visitors generate $47 million in local revenues.

However, the current viewshed map in Albemarle’s Comprehensive Plan wasn’t prepared with modern terrain mapping technologies nor does it reflect the views from all of the 2,600 acres owned by the foundation today.

The foundation is advocating for the adoption of a new map and a more formal process that would share voluntary guidelines earlier with applicants for new development and building permits.

“We have found that a lot of times developers are not aware that they are in the viewshed,” Sienitsky said.  “Our guidelines are not onerous and they encourage development to be done sensitively.”

The Planning Commission couldn’t reach a consensus on the matter.  Half the commissioners expressed support for a map with an “all-seeing” view from the foundation’s properties, including Montalto; others wanted new mapping technology applied to just what could be viewed from the home itself.


SOURCE: Piedmont Environmental Council

The matter of “voluntary compliance” was a hot potato for almost all.

Commissioner Bruce Dotson proposed incentives from the foundation for compliance with guidelines, which suggest parking lot locations, building colors, roofing materials, native species in landscaping and lighting choices.

“There could be … a Friend of Monticello’s Viewshed [program] and people get a certificate if they do something and maybe free admission,” Dotson said.

Commissioner Cal Morris disagreed with the idea. “I just see this as a potential hurdle for the developer, or the person that wants to build an individual home, that the person is going to have to stumble over,” he said.  “Things that may be voluntary today are going to be a requirement tomorrow.”

Local developer and Commissioner Don Franco expressed concern that a private organization could create requirements that could be applied in rezoning applications where local officials have some discretion.

“I’m ok with ‘voluntary’ if we all agree that it truly is voluntary,” he said.  “I applaud the effort for them to be able to reach out and get the knowledge out there, I just want to strengthen ‘voluntary’ and make sure it doesn’t become a requirement.”

After the commission’s deliberations, Sienitsky returned to the podium and expressed willingness to compromise on both the size of a priority viewshed and the guidelines themselves.

“I like the idea of strongly encouraging [compliance] within a smaller area and having the larger viewshed for people to just be aware of,” Sienitsky said.  “Monticello has relied for a long time on the good will of the community and I think the community is invested in Monticello’s success.”

However, after more discussion, there was no consensus in the staff’s “viewshed” from the commissioners.

“Do I have some direction from you all as a group?” asked senior planner Elaine Echols.

“No, I think we are split 3-3,” said Morris, who noted earlier that the commission’s seventh member, Rick Randolph, was absent but favored consideration of the larger viewshed.

Albemarle’s planning director Wayne Cilimberg said staff would refine the recommendations itself for the final draft of the Comprehensive Plan.

“I think that at a minimum … what you would like any people who are developing property to do is to consult with Monticello,” Cilimberg said.  “Monticello hopefully can convince them to do a few things to address Monticello’s concerns.”

“The real question is how much further you might want to go in a rezoning,” Cilimberg added.  “We’ll take our best shot at it … and you can take that and decide what you want to do with it.”

Cilimberg also announced a revised schedule for the unveiling of the plan’s final draft and initial public hearing. 

On March 11, the draft will be made available to the public.  Written comments may be submitted by March 19 and then the commission will hold a public hearing on March 26.  A final plan will be recommended to the Albemarle Board of Supervisors, which will hold its own public hearing later this year.

Source: Albemarle County.  Map prepared by Piedmont Environmental Council.