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Supervisors approve changes to site-plan review process

Another item in Albemarle County’s economic vitality action plan has been achieved.

Earlier this month, the Board of Supervisors voted to approve changes to the site plan review process.
 
“The whole process is a cleaner process that I think will save a lot of time for staff and the public,” said Supervisor Dennis S. Rooker.
 
In January 2010, the Board adopted a plan that directed staff to find ways to reduce government regulation and speed up the development process. One of staff’s missions was to revise the way site plans make their way through county government.
 
“The primary focus of the conversation in our mind was around the Architectural Review Board regarding their review of the application,” said Bill Fritz, the county’s director of current development.
 
The ARB does not currently have the opportunity to review a site plan until it nears final approval. Under the new rules, the ARB would take a look at an initial site plan and would provide guidance on the configuration and location of buildings.
 
“One of the problems has always been for an applicant to go through the process of site plan review and then find out the ARB wanted the applicant to do things that they should have been told about earlier,” Rooker said.
 
The ordinance changes would also encourage developers to come in for a conference with staff before submitting an application. Fritz said this step would save time by eliminating review by a site plan committee. The applicant could also get a permit to begin grading after the initial review is concluded.
 
“Now you can’t get [a grading permit] until you have every ‘i’ dotted and every ‘t’ crossed,” Fritz said.
 
After a final site plan is submitted, the ARB would get a second review in order to weigh in on building mass and design issues.
 
Under the amended ordinance, the Planning Commission would no longer review site plans, unless the applicant appeals a denial issued by staff or the ARB.
 
Rooker, a former planning commissioner, said he supported that change.
 
“Too often you create a false sense among the public that they can come to a site plan review and they don’t realize it’s a ministerial decision, not discretionary, if they meet all the requirements,” Rooker said.
 
Supervisor Duane E. Snow, a former member of the ARB, also supported the changes.
 
“Having them involved right at the beginning is going to make a large difference to the applicant,” Snow said. “I’ve had some things I’ve disagreed on with the ARB, and I think what you’ve done here is address that.”
 
However, Supervisor Kenneth C. Boyd was concerned that the ARB would gain more power though the ordinance changes.
 
“They can control where the buildings are placed, the shape they are, the size they are … where the parking is,” Boyd said. “That’s a lot more powerful of an unelected body then I would like to see out there. Those people should deal with landscaping, colors, and things like that.”
 
When Supervisor Ann H. Mallek pointed out that reviewing aesthetics was the function of the ARB, Boyd indicated his displeasure.
 
“I’d like to see that changed,” said Boyd.
 
“I disagree,” Mallek said.
 
Fritz said the role of the ARB would not change as a result of the changes, despite Boyd’s concern.
 
“We did not change in any way, shape, or form the authority of the ARB,” Fritz said. “We simply changed the point of time they provide comments.”
 
Boyd said he wanted to revise the ARB’s guidelines in the future.
 
“We are leaving an awful lot of discretionary decisions to an unelected body, and that just really bothers me a lot,” Boyd said.
 
Rooker observed that Boyd did not have the votes on the  board to direct staff to conduct that work. He also pointed out that Supervisors recently amended the county’s process for sign review in order to provide more certainty to developers.
 
“When I look at the change in the community over the years, I attribute a lot of the change and the improved aesthetics in this community to the ARB,” Rooker said.
But Boyd maintained that other people disagree.
 
“A lot of people who talk to me think that Stonefield is an abomination with the big white [buildings] right on the highway like that,” Boyd said. “People have different opinions about what’s attractive and what’s not.”
 
The amendments will take effect on Jan. 1.