As more people choose to call Albemarle County and Charlottesville home, both localities are seeking ways to preserve existing open spaces and ensure that the growing number of urban residents have clean water and green space to enjoy.

“Growth will be directed to the Development Areas and the County’s Rural Area with its agricultural, forestal, historic, cultural, scenic, and natural resources will be preserved for future generations,” reads the goal of the growth management chapter of Albemarle’s Comprehensive Plan.

“The City of Charlottesville will be a green city, with clean and healthy air and water, sustainable neighborhoods, ample open space and natural areas that balance increased development and density in residential and economic centers, and walkable, bikeable and transit-supportive land use patterns that encourage healthy lifestyles,” reads the beginning of the environmental chapter of Charlottesville’s most recent Comprehensive Plan.

With a combined population of more than 150,000 in 2018, it is instructive to look back to see how an older generation of citizens and elected officials contended with the issues of a growing population.

For nearly 50 years, Albemarle County has pursued a policy that seeks to preserve open space and protect the rural areas.

Virginia law requires every locality’s planning commission to “prepare and recommend a Comprehensive Plan for the physical development of the territory within its jurisdiction.” As the county created its first such plan in 1971, officials were in a defensive mode.

At the time, the population of Albemarle was 37,780, while Charlottesville’s was 39,916. The city had been growing by legally taking land from the county.

“All the counties in Virginia were very afraid of a city annexing their property, and a lot of decisions were based on defending the county from annexation by the city,” said Sally Thomas, who served on the Board of Supervisors from 1994 to 2009.

The 1971 Comprehensive Plan had actually assumed an Albemarle population of 185,000 by 1995. To accommodate that many people, this plan called for 20 development areas, 14 of which would be known as villages. The urban area and the five communities were to have had up to 37,000 acres dedicated to development.

However, as that decade continued, many in the community came to the conclusion that that much growth would have an environmental impact.

“I think you can’t separate water from land, when you talk about rural protection in Albemarle County,” Thomas said. “What you do on the land affects the runoff, which then affects the quality of the water that receives that runoff, and that, in the case of the [South Fork] Rivanna Reservoir, is a watershed of about a third of the county.”

For nearly 50 years, Albemarle County has pursued a policy that seeks to preserve open space and protect the rural areas, shown here in white.

Despite lingering tension related to annexation, Albemarle and Charlottesville joined forces in 1972 by creating the Rivanna Water and Sewer Authority to treat drinking water and sewage from both urban areas.

In 1980, officials in Albemarle made the decision to reduce development rights in most of the county’s 726 square miles in order to further preserve water quality in the many waterways that flow downhill from the Blue Ridge Mountains into the South Fork Rivanna Reservoir. The dam that created that waterway was completed in 1967 and the reservoir began filling in quicker than expected due to sedimentation caused by development in the watershed.

Supervisors initiated a “comprehensive rezoning” in 1980 to create a rural areas district. Many large properties were granted “development rights” which allowed further residential development. There were several lawsuits but courts upheld these.

“That counts for why you can drive along the roads in the countryside and see quite a few houses along the road, but they’re all separated. They each have their two or five-acre lots, and then, in the background, there is not much development,” Thomas said.

Where we are now

1995 has come and gone, and Albemarle’s population didn’t get quite as high as projected. The U.S. Census recorded 99,236 county residents in 2010 and the Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service estimated that the population in 2017 had climbed to 107,697.

The threat of annexation stopped in 1983 when the city and county agreed to a revenue-sharing agreement that remains in place to this day. Charlottesville’s gross area has remained at 10.4 square miles ever since, though the 2017 estimated population is 49,132.
The county’s growth management policy remained in place, though the developable areas were adjusted over time.

As of 2008, there was a total of 22,300 acres in the county’s one urban area, three communities and one village.  That’s according to a presentation given that year by David Benish, the county’s chief of planning.

In general, the location of growth areas in the county is connected to where public water and sewer lines have been installed and are approved by the Board of Supervisors.

“If you have public water – particularly if you have public water and public sewer – you can have high-rises, you can have dense development that you can’t have if you’re depending on a well and a septic tank,” Thomas said.

The 1982 update of the Comprehensive Plan removed the villages of Ivy and Stony Point from the development areas. Getting water and sewer infrastructure to Stony Point would have been prohibitively expensive. Ivy was removed because it was largely already built out and additional development could have affected the water supply.

North Garden was removed as a growth area in 1996, again because of the expense of connecting to public water and sewer. Earlysville was removed because it was largely built-out and because the land drains to Chris Greene Lake, which is a backup reservoir.

The development area was expanded between 1989 and 1996 to add Rivanna Village, the University of Virginia Research Park north of the airport, the North Pointe area and Piney Mountain. These areas are all served by infrastructure built by the Albemarle County Service Authority.

Further preserving the rural area

Albemarle’s growth management policy has changed over time to reflect a desire for better water quality.

Albemarle County has many programs that seek to incentivize the preservation of land.

Land use taxation allows property owners to receive a lower tax rate on agricultural land if they can demonstrate it is in active use. The four categories are agricultural, horticultural, forest use and open space use.

“Land used for agricultural use must consist of a minimum of five acres and must meet prescribed standards for a bona fide production for sale of crops and/or livestock or be in an approved soil conservation program,” reads the county’s guidelines.

The forestry classification requires a minimum of 20 acres and landowners must demonstrate they are managing the resources properly.

“Open space requires a property to either be in an Agricultural and Forestal District or have an Open Space Use Agreement with the County, and have a minimum of 20 acres,” said Peter Lynch, the county’s assessor.

There are 952 parcels totaling 77,625 acres within agricultural-forest districts which provide further additional protections to encourage those uses.

“Districts help protect productive farm, forest, and other open space lands which contribute significantly to a communities rural appeal and character,” reads a fact-sheet on the county’s ag-forest program.

“[Districts] also help promote efficient community development pattern by helping concentrate new development in and around existing communities where services can be provided in the most cost effective manner,” the brochure continues.

The 1996 update of the Comprehensive Plan called for the creation of an Acquisition of Conservation Easements program to encourage landowners to extinguish their development rights. This plan also introduced the creation of a Greenways plan.

That lead to the creation of the “Neighborhood Model” district in 2000, which encourages more urban forms to make the growth areas more attractive places to live. This also solidified the concept of having a hard border between the growth and rural area.

“Its whole purpose was to make it possible for Albemarle County to absorb growth without sprawling development all across the rural countryside,” Thomas said. “It was a yin and yang kind of thing, with protection of the rural areas and encouraging development of the urbanizing area as a way of meeting both the interests of people who were fearful of growth and those who were at least characterized as being pro-growth.”

The ACE program was created in 2000, and for many years, the county spent a million dollars annually on the effort.

“In Virginia, you can get quite a good tax benefit for putting your land in a conservation easement, but if you need cash, not just a tax benefit, the program doesn’t mean much to you,” Thomas said.

The program continues to focus on landowners “of modest means” according to the most recent annual report provided by the county. Since that time, the county has acquired easements on 48 properties, 35 of which were on working farms.

In all, the Acquisition of Conservation Easements program has protected 9,284 acres including 1,110 acres of mountaintop land.

“[The ACE program] really enabled me to keep the farm. I would have probably had to sell some of it, because I’m a widow on a fixed income. It’s in very good condition,” said Carol Sweeney of Mt. Eagle Farm, which is 324 acres and has a 6,900 foot border with the Rivanna River.

“I’m 73 and I go down every day to check on my animals and make sure everybody’s fed and cared for.”

In all, the program has protected 9,284 acres including 1,110 acres of mountaintop land. Over 530 development rights have been purchased. That has cost the county $12.4 million in taxpayer funds and the program has been supplemented by another $2.6 million in grants.

When all costs are factored in the price is about $1,817 per acre.

Much of that acquisition took place during the first years of the program, according to program administrator Ches Goodall.

“Until the Great Recession of 2007 and 2008, the county had allocated at least $1,000,000  per year to the program,” Goodall said in an email to Charlottesville Tomorrow. “Since then, County funding and state/federal grants have been cut back to deal with budget constraints, however, the County is committed to supporting the ACE Program going forward as demonstrated by their recent budget recommendations for FY19-23.”

Overall, there are nearly 100,000 acres under conservation easement in the county, held by a variety of sources including the Virginia Outdoors Foundation and the Piedmont Environmental Council.

“The private landowners in Albemarle County have made a significant investment in protected land,” said Rex Linville of the PEC. “Albemarle is the second most highly protected county in Virginia.”

In the fiscal year that begins on July 1, 2018, there is no specific line-item in the budget for the ACE program. Instead, the county will use surplus funding from the current fiscal year to pay for any of the five applications that are pending. The capital improvement plan anticipates spending $500,000 a year on the program through fiscal year 2023.


Another way the county has preserved land is through the expansion of the parks system. The past ten years have seen the opening of both the 571-acre Preddy Creek Trail Park and the 600-acre Patricia Ann Byrom Forest Preserve Park.

Of the 3,757 developed acres in the county’s park system, nearly half are classified as “conservation/trail parks.” Another 414 acres are open space.

In recent years, three Albemarle landowners have made sizeable donations of land to the park for future parks but limited resources have prevented them from being opened to the public. These are the 330-acre Hedgerow Park, the 410-acre William S.D. Woods Natural Heritage Area or the 122-acre Buck Island Park along the Rivanna River.

The number one requested parks amenity according to a 2017 survey is the development of new trails. According to the ETC Institute, the next requested features were the acquisition of new parkland and enhancing existing parks. As the Board of Supervisors considers a bond referendum this November, one of the top priority request from the Department of Parks and Recreation is $2.5 million for greenway development.

The City of Charlottesville has also played a role in acquiring county land in order to help build greenway trails. For instance, the city in 2016 worked with the manager of the Dave Matthews Band and Dave Matthews himself to acquire 27 acres adjacent to Azalea Park along Moores Creek. The property had previously been slated for development as it is within the county’s growth area.

The future

The Weldon Cooper Center projects Albemarle’s population will climb to nearly 150,000 by 2045, with Charlottesville’s only estimated to increase to around 56,000. How to accommodate that growth is perhaps the major issue facing the Board of Supervisors.

Development of new homes in the rural area continues as development rights are exercised according to the 2017 annual building report given to the Board of Supervisors this March.  In 2009, 89 out of the 339 new residential units built in Albemarle were in the rural area. In 2017, that figure was 164 out of 851 new homes.

In addition to updating the Comprehensive Plan, the county periodically updates the master plans for its growth areas. Currently, the Pantops Community Advisory Committee is overseeing a revision that will consider recommendations on requests to expand the growth area.

The ETC Institute conducted a survey in 2017 for Albemarle County on the area’s unmet parks and recreation needs.

In previous years, landowners near exit 107 west of Crozet have asked the county to add their rural-area property to the growth area to provide more land for business and light industrial uses. That request came with an offer to donate recreational fields near Western Albemarle High School. Supervisors denied it in part because it is was within the watershed of the South Fork Rivanna Reservoir. No activity is currently pending on the parcel.

“I think there’s always going to be tension regarding how land is developed, and where the public utilities go. It’s an ongoing story. I don’t think it’s ever going to have an endpoint,” Thomas said.

There are also concerns that restricting the supply of developable land inflates the cost of property, thus increasing the price of building housing units.

Some in the community feel the county should do more to identify limits on how many people can live here. Research published in 2010 by the group Advocates for a Sustainable Albemarle Population said the community can only support 37,000, far lower than current number that lives here.

“We are now way past a locally sustainable population size,” said Tom Olivier of ASAP. “If we don’t contain growth, all other conservation efforts will fail.”

Linville said he is concerned about the “slow and insidious creep of sprawl from our urban area.” Over the years, the General Assembly has passed legislation that restricts the ability of localities like Albemarle to prevent certain businesses from operating in the rural area.

“Traditionally, economic use of rural land has been dominated by agriculture and forestry,” Linville said. “The new economic driving forces are wineries and breweries, event centers, and other commercial uses. The best of these uses are closely tied to agriculture, others are simply commercial event centers in disguise.”

Other voices have been more critical of the county’s growth management policy.

“I am very concerned that the 95/5 split is not sustainable,” said Neil Williamson of the Free Enterprise Forum.  “Other localities have growth areas that are greater than half their geographic footprint.  The impact of this government induced scarcity of land increases lot cost and hurts housing affordability.”

Others want the county to do more to preserve unique flora and fauna in the county’s rural area.  The Board of Supervisors will hold a July 5 work session on a biodiversity report produced by the county’s Natural Heritage Committee.

This article was updated on July 17, 2019, to correct the 1970 population of Albemarle.

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Emily Hays

Emily Hays grew up in Charlottesville and graduated from Yale in 2016. She covered growth, development, and affordable living. Before writing for Charlottesville Tomorrow, she produced a podcast on education and caste in Maharashtra, India.