By Fania Gordon & Sean Tubbs

Charlottesville Tomorrow

Thursday, April 9, 2009

What specific steps are necessary to improve traffic flow on US 29 through Albemarle County’s northern development area? How much will these improvements cost, and how will they be funded? Will our quality of life be impacted if the transportation infrastructure called for in the Places29 Master Plan are not built?


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Chapter 8 of the Places29 Master Plan depicts the 29 corridor as a priority area for transportation improvements


Those were some of the general questions at the heart of the Albemarle County Planning Commission’s March 31, 2009 work session on Chapter 8 of the Places29 Master Plan. Chapter 8 addresses how infrastructure is to be developed over the next twenty-years as the Places29 area is redeveloped. The discussion was held before the implementation details were handed out to Commissioners, and thus their conversation was not significantly informed by details of costs and the specific timing of improvements.

Albemarle’s Chief Planner, David Benish, presented the chapter to the Commission and told them that many of the improvements were necessary whether or not the Places29 Master Plan is adopted.

“Many of the projects that are identified in this section of the plan are needed to serve existing and approved developments,” Benish said. In the past several years, the Board of Supervisors has approved rezonings for the Hollymead Town Center, the North Pointe Development, Albemarle Place and other projects which will bring more homes and businesses to the US29 corridor. Benish said Places29 also has to address traffic flow for drivers who use US29 to travel between different parts of Virginia.

Benish said by encouraging the Neighborhood Model form of development, Places29 seeks to reduce traffic congestion by providing homes close to workplaces, increased corridors for transit, and parallel roads to remove local traffic from US29.

Benish laid out five projects that he said were essential to the US29 corridor:





The “Uptown” priority area called for in the draft Places29 Master Plan

Places29 also features two priority areas for redevelopment. Benish said the County would like to concentrate its efforts to improve infrastructure in these areas. The two areas are in between Hydraulic Road and Rio Road, and the Hollymead/Airport Road areas (known as the “Uptown” area in Places29). In other parts of the Places29 area, future County planners would be given guidance to discourage redevelopment elsewhere.

“Decisions on development proposals [in non-priority areas] should be made with an understanding of the level of investment that is taking place to support development in that area. The notion is that most of our resources and efforts should be focused on the necessary capital improvements to support the two priority areas,” Benish said.

Benish said that funding for any improvements will be limited, but that Chapter 8 lists potential alternatives that the County could explore. He said the Board of Supervisors and the public would eventually have to weigh in on that decision.

“But we believe it’s very important in the master-planning process to identify the needs and the priorities and they can inform what are the priorities that need to be addressed, and then we can look at what funding mechanisms are best available to address those priorities,” Benish said. More details on funding will be discussed at the April 14 work session.

Wayne Cilimberg, Albemarle County’s Director of Planning, said that the community would continue to struggle with the funding issue for many years.

“I think when you see the [implementation table], you’re going to see a lot of projects there,” Cilimberg warned. He said that as the Places29 Master Plan is revisited five years after adoption, some of the later projects may become unnecessary.

“Let’s face it. For 50 years so much of what we’ve had in our plans have been about roads which are relying on automobiles, supporting the growth that’s occurring,” Cilimberg said. “Getting away from the auto as the reliant transportation mechanism in the future through some of the land use we could accomplish might mean some of those road projects that are later in the list don’t have to happen.”

Commissioner Don Franco (Rio) asked for more information on Benish’s claim that the Neighborhood Model would reduce demand on area roads. What kind of reductions could be seen, he asked. Benish said those reductions would be seen over the long-term as the “transportation deficiency” in the existing road and transit system is addressed.

“It’s difficult to say for sure whether the form of development that encourages walkability or transit is absolutely going to translate into a five-year delay of a project or not, but we believe that once a robust transit system is in place that we’ll be able to capture far more than the model would allow us to capture,” Benish said. He added that the “big 5” projects are necessary regardless of whether Places29 is adopted.

Commissioner Linda Porterfield (Scottsville) pointed out that the alignment for the proposed Berkmar Drive Extended runs through the rural area. She asked if Places29 could include language that says that would change in the future if a developer to pay for the road project. Chairman Eric Strucko (Samuel Miller) told Porterfield that the Planning Commission has consistently recommended against such an expansion.

Planning Commissioner Tom Loach (White Hall) pointed out that the Places29 Master Plan anticipates a population increase from  28,000 to 71,000. He asked how much current taxpayers would have to pay to build additional schools, parks and other community amenities to support that population, not to mention roads.

“I like the neighborhood model, but if we can’t afford [it] is there a plan B?” Loach asked. Benish said the neighborhood model isn’t causing the need for improvements. Rather, the County needs to play catch-up to address what’s already been approved. Loach said he understood that, but that the community needed to address more than just roads.

Commissioner Bill Edgerton (Jack Jouett) said he thought that the most important transportation project is outside of the County’s exclusive control.





This plan for the grade separation of
the Hydraulic Road-US29 intersection was produced two years ago by the
Cox Company as part of the Albemarle Place development.

“That’s between Hydraulic Road and the 29/250 Bypass,” Edgerton said. “We’re dealing with the City and the City and the County do not have a history of good cooperation when it comes to things like this.” He asked if the text could contain language to communicate the importance of the project to the entire region. Edgerton also asked if a reference to the western bypass could be removed from the plan. Instead, he called for language in the plan that encourages VDOT to help fund the parallel road network so that through traffic would find US29 less congested.

Commissioner Franco said he needed to see cost estimates before he could fully evaluate the implementation plan.  He added that visions are sometimes considered expectations, so the plan has to be executable. Franco also warned about changing Comprehensive Plan designations in an unrealistic way, pointing out that by-right uses could trump the vision of the plan. He said the

Pantops Master Plan indicated one area for green space on a parcel where a developer is currently planning a set of condominiums

. Benish acknowledged that there is “an inherent level of by-right development in this corridor that is much more significant than we’ve seen in many of the areas that we have planned to date.” Specifically, many parcels are zoned for highway commercial, meaning redevelopment could proceed without any rezoning, reducing the County’s ability to secure contributions from developers for infrastructure improvements.

During the public comment period, Jeff Werner of the Piedmont Environmental Council said the community needed to know that transportation improvements on US29 were necessary whether or not the Places29 Plan is adopted.

“The greatest myth that’s being thrown at this community is that Places29 is making this expensive,” Werner said. “Places29 is first and foremost a transportation plan. Get the street network in place and the uses will follow behind.”

Neil Williamson of the Free Enterprise Forum advised the Commission that charging current land owners and developers to cover the cost of improvements would discourage rather than encourage development in the Places29 area.  Williamson has been outspoken on the costs of the plan describing it as

the Places29 SuperTax

.

“The discussion [at the Development Initiative Steering Committee] which many of you were members of was about making the growth areas more attractive than the development areas.  Adding a new taxation district does the reverse,” said Williamson. He estimated that the total cost of the improvements likely will total over half a billion dollars and he was concerned that residents of the Forest Lakes, Carrsbrook and other Places29 property owners would be stuck with large property tax increases to cover the cost of the improvements.

Morgan Butler of the Southern Environmental Law Center asked if the priority areas could be broken up to address areas where congestion is occurring now. In particular, he said that the Hydraulic Road to 250 Bypass area should be the top priority for improvement, including grade separation.

“Yes, most of the improvements in this area are technically located in the City, but the congestion they would address clearly affects the County and its portion of the corridor and the County and City will need to partner to get these improvements done,” Butler said. He added that the SELC is opposed to including the prioritization of the “Uptown” area because that would discourage the redevelopment of the southern half of the Places29 area.

Planning Commissioners Don Franco, Bill Edgerton and Tom Loach told staff that they needed to see the costs for critical road improvements before they could move forward with this section of the Master Plan.

“This bill is due no matter what, we need to know what that bill is,” said Loach.

Strucko said at some point, the County may need to spend more of its own money on roads. He said the County’s

six-year road plan

is “funny.” He wondered how much public pressure would have to be placed on the County by its residents to start spending its own money on roads to support the growth areas.

“I want to see Crozet’s Master Plan come to fruition,” Strucko said. “I want to see that vision realized because I know the Crozet that’s depicted in that Master Plan… it alleviates the traffic that is on Route 250.”

On April 14, 2009 the Planning Commission will reconvene for a work session to review and discuss the

draft Implementation Table

for the Places29 Master Plan.  The Implementation Table includes estimated costs for projects, parties responsible for funding, issues that need to be addressed and timeframes for projects. There will be opportunity for the public to ask questions and provide comment at this time.


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