“This is entering into new territory for Albemarle,” said principal planner Elaine Echols. “The rural areas have been pretty much off-limits for commercial activities.”
Since 1980, the Comprehensive Plan has limited development and commercial activities in 95 percent of Albemarle to preserve the Chesapeake Bay watershed and to support other county goals.
Echols briefed the Albemarle Planning Commission on Tuesday on suggestions ranging from allowing restaurants at “community crossroads,” allowing hotels in certain areas and allowing farms and orchards to hold weddings and other events.
“The new uses in the rural areas need to support the retention of farms, support tourism, preserve historic sites, provide basic services to rural-area residents and keep new buildings and uses at the same scale,” Echols said.
The suggestions resulted from a series of roundtables and are encouraged to promote economic development in the county while also retaining the rural quality of life.
“We’re trying to do events and add-on activities and products because we need to stay in business,” said Sarah Henley, of Henley’s Orchard near Crozet. “This is our home and this is where we need to survive.”
Since the General Assembly passed legislation that prevents localities from making restrictions on events that can occur at farm wineries, each is allowed to charge clients to hold events for as many as 200 people without a special-use permit.
Commissioner Tom Loach said he understood Henley’s desire to earn a living off the land, but that had to be balanced against the property rights of neighbors who moved to the rural area for solitude.
“I’m not sure if we’ve really heard from the bulk of rural residents what they think about the level of commercialization that would be allowed,” Loach said.
Keswick resident Art Beltrone warned that county government is not prepared to monitor noise from events at farm wineries.
“The events are usually on the weekend and there is no [zoning] staff on duty on the weekend,” Beltrone said. “Police will not respond to a farm winery incident if it involves noise.”
In their report, staff said commissioners might consider allowing hotels with up to 50 rooms with a special-use permit. They obtained that number from the number of rooms at Keswick Hall.
“I don’t think I’d want another Keswick on five acres, but [I could support] another Keswick on 500 acres that preserved those 500 so that the land wouldn’t be developed into residential lots,” said Commissioner Don Franco.
“To me, Keswick is too big a standard, and I am more comfortable with the Clifton Inn in the 17- to 20-[room] range,” said Commissioner Bruce Dotson.
Franco said he would want to see lodging become a by-right use as long as certain performance standards were in place. Other commissioners did not agree.
“I feel very uncomfortable with pure by-right at this time,” said Commission Chairman Calvin Morris.
Staff also have recommended that rural restaurants no larger than 2,500 square feet could be allowed at “crossroad communities” if granted a special-use permit.
“The rationale on that has to do with supporting the residents who live there right now,” Echols said. “This would not prevent a franchise restaurant from wanting to request to be located in the rural areas at a crossroads community.”
Franco said he would also want restaurants to be a by-right use in the rural areas.
“Where there’s a little country store, if it were selling sandwiches, assuming they had enough acreage to meet the health department’s rules and regulations, I don’t know that I would force them to go through the special-use permit process,” Franco said.
Staff is also recommending allowing nurseries and landscape services by-right in the rural area, and allowing some industrial uses, such as storage facilities for certain contractors, on a special-use basis.
Commissioner Richard Randolph said he wanted to know what “rural” means in Albemarle County.
“I’m watching a continuous process of the blurring of the distinctiveness of rural,” Randolph said. “What ‘character’ means to each of us on the Planning Commission probably varies, so it would be useful to have a definition of what [staff] means by ‘character.’”
Any changes made to the Comprehensive Plan are just advisory. The Planning Commission and Board of Supervisors will still have to consider changes to the zoning ordinance in order to enact changes.
Echols said if commissioners are interested in opening up the rural area, they should consider doing it gradually.
“When you start entering into this arena, you need to be thinking about what kind of scale of change we are willing to accept and when,” Echols said. “The potential exists to love the rural area so much that you ruin the rural areas by opening it up to too much activity.”