Less than three weeks after the Thomas Jefferson Foundation softened proposed guidelines sought to protect Monticello’s scenic views, the Albemarle County Planning Commission recommended removing the language from the county’s Comprehensive Plan update.
The voluntary “vista guidelines” were a list of suggested development practices for properties potentially visible from Monticello and were designed to limit visual impacts and enhance the visitor experience at the UNESCO World Heritage Site.
“My biggest concern is that this seems to me like we’re putting a private entity in the road [in front of] anyone else to get something approved, whether it’s large or small,” commission Chairman Calvin Morris said.
The commission suggested limiting the county’s involvement in Monticello vista matters to an informative capacity rather than regulatory.
The foundation previously backed away from maps it submitted which used the latest in geographic information system technology to show the viewshed from all of its property. A new “vista map” focused on just what was visible from Jefferson’s mountaintop home.
“Maybe our strategy [should be] to adopt the [vista] map or put the map into GIS and notify Monticello of any activities within those areas,” Commissioner Don Franco said. “Allow the process that’s been occurring, which is … the developer or homeowner works it out directly with Monticello.”
“Do I really need to run up to Monticello and say ‘Hey, is this visible?’ If they got the permit [notification] and they decide it’s not visible then they can decide not to contact me,” Franco added. “I could see it stopping after creating a notification process.”
Commissioner Bruce Dotson recommended that the inclusion of a statement of focus in the guidelines might alleviate some of the “sting” citizens might feel when discovering their property is in the view of Monticello.
“What we would be particularly focusing on would be big towers, big buildings, big parking lots, and not homeowners’ improvements and things that are already there,” Dotson said. “We’re talking about big, highly-visible things.”
But Franco said that language would be unnecessary if the county were not involved.
Wayne Cilimberg, the county’s director of planning, summarized what future viewshed discussions were likely to look like if the commission were to remove the guidelines.
“At some point there will be a rezoning where the foundation has contacted the applicant and to whatever degree the applicant would be interested in doing some things, the applicant hasn’t done them,” Cilimberg said.
“The Comprehensive Plan will say nothing about whether or not they should have. The Comprehensive Plan will simply say that we made the foundation aware, they worked with the applicant, [and] the applicant didn’t agree,” Cilimberg added.
Additionally, Cilimberg noted that these situations would ultimately end up in front of the Planning Commission and the Board of Supervisors.
“And we won’t be making a recommendation one way or the other for it, because there will be no basis for it,” Cilimberg said. “It will end up being a decision on a case-by-case basis.”
Members of the public spoke against the inclusion of the guidelines.
Charles Battig questioned the expansion of language that is currently in the Historic, Cultural, and Scenic Resources section of the Comprehensive Plan, as well as the Thomas Jefferson Foundation’s motives, calling the move a “land grab.”
“They have the existing language. It’s served well enough. Why expand it?” Battig said. “If they buy another mountaintop, does that mean that they will leap frog their visibility requests even further?”
John Chavan said that the conversation was elevating the Thomas Jefferson Foundation to the level of a government body.
“It feels like you’re dealing with two governments. One is [Albemarle County’s] government and the other is Monticello’s government,” Chavan said. “As is, we’re trying to reduce the hassle for citizens … and this is another new process.”
Ann Taylor, the foundation’s executive vice president, said that Monticello is happy to be a part of the Comprehensive Plan update process and plans to continue reaching out to nearby landowners to avoid creating visual impacts in view from the mountaintop.
“We are all stewards of Monticello and are grateful for the chance to raise awareness about this shared asset that benefits all of us in the community,” Taylor said in an email. “Monticello is at the heart of our tourism industry and contributes to our regional economic vitality.”
“Monticello will continue its long practice of working with our neighbors who are contemplating projects in the Monticello vistas in order to preserve the views from this World Heritage Site,” Taylor added.
The Planning Commission’s recommendation eventually will be included in the draft of the revised Comprehensive Plan the Albemarle Board of Supervisors is slated to consider later this year.