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County growth options elicit ‘polarizing’ feedback

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This rendering shows apartment buildings in a recently approved development proposal along U.S. 29 near Forest Lakes in Albemarle County. The development was one of several mentioned in initial survey responses as examples of growth that some Albemarle County residents don't want to see.

Some Albemarle County residents are torn about how the county should grow.

The county began surveying the community last month about seven proposed growth management options, part of the first phase of the county’s effort to update its comprehensive plan. The concepts range from reducing density in the county’s development areas to setting standards to help determine whether and how to expand a growth area.

As of Wednesday, 119 people have taken the survey, which closes at 10 p.m. Sunday. Those initial responses, made public this week, show stark divisions in the community. Other chances for citizen input will be available to residents as the plan update moves along.

Charles Rapp, the county’s deputy director of community development, said community comments combined with input from county planning commission members and the Board of Supervisors will help determine guidelines and policies for future county growth.

The policies and guidelines will be used to help plan other parts of the comprehensive plan, including transportation, housing and parks and recreation.

“We could certainly use multiple options,” said Rapp, who also is the county’s acting planning director. “There might be a little piece of one and a larger piece of another.”

Rapp said county staff wanted to see which ideas resonated with the community and then create themes based on what they hear.

The county currently focuses new residential and commercial growth into designated development areas that take up about 5% of the county’s land. The rest of the land is designated as remaining rural. That process began with the county’s first comprehensive plan in 1971.

Boundaries of the development areas have changed over the years but have been stable for the last two decades, said Tori Kanellopoulos, a senior planner with the county.

A county analysis released in May found that Albemarle has enough land in its development areas to accommodate a 23% increase in population over the next 20 years. To do that would require updating the zoning code to allow denser developments and significant redevelopment and infill, among other changes.

The comprehensive plan was last changed in 2015. It serves as the guiding document for long-term land use planning and resource protection. The document is used in making zoning changes and other policy priorities such as growth management.

In the survey, the county asked for comments on possible policy changes and to weigh in how the different concepts support climate action and equity goals as well as projected growth.

Those concepts included:

- adding higher housing density in growth areas, including infill;

- adjusting and reducing maximum densities recommended in the development areas to more closely align with historic buildout patterns;

- new criteria on when, where, and how to expand development areas;

- non-residential development around Interstate 64 interchanges to support jobs growth and economic development goals;

- creating rural villages within the rural area to promote small-scale commercial and service uses to serve nearby residents;

- evaluating whether to adjust current service provisions for development and rural areas

- promoting forestation and regenerative land uses in the rural area to support climate action goals.

Among the seven options, expansion of development areas and reducing densities received the least support, according to the survey responses.

Getting a firm grasp on how to steer the county is a challenge.

“We hear a lot of polarizing feedback,” Rapp said. “A lot of folks support more density and just as many folks seem to oppose it. A majority of these options have both a lot of support and a lot of opposition.”

On Tuesday, a working group assisting county staff with the update reviewed comments, including the nearly 120 survey responses submitted from June 23 to July 7. The responses were compiled by question and didn’t include personal identifying information.

Some respondents believed wealthy county residents were dictating development and they wanted it stopped.

“Stop allowing suburban wealthy NIMBY’s to dictate zoning decisions about density and the critical need for housing types across varied markets,” one person wrote in the survey comments. “Grow [where] you have the reasonable connections to your water and sewer now. More affordable housing stock is the critical component to equity.”

“Please stop listening to the rich people who think their expensive homes will be de-valued by having apartment buildings around,” another wrote. “The majority of people who actually work in this community shouldn’t be prevented from finding housing because of a small vocal minority of NIMBYs.”

Others urged the county to stop approving new developments.

“Too much confusion, traffic and overall lack of vegetation has ruined Albemarle County,” one person wrote. “Too many forests have been removed for massive development. It’s ruined the town. I hate it here and cannot wait to leave.”

Several commenters, who seemed opposed to growth, believed improvements to infrastructure and plans to address school capacity should be made before approving new developments.

The county’s five-year capital improvement program includes $72.7 million for a new high school center and elementary school, as well as $3.5 million to begin designing a second new elementary school. The School Board has backed a plan to build new schools to address overcrowding at Baker-Butler and Mountain View elementary schools. School division staff have said they would about five years to build a new school, which the county has not done since 2002.

Several comments in the survey responses specifically highlighted concerns with additional growth in the Hollymead area along U.S. 29 and in Crozet.

“Allow more growth to the south and the east,” one person wrote. “The north and west are bearing the brunt of it, in an inequitable way. There is not a shortage of land here, there is a shortage of vision.”

County staff will review the options and community feedback with the Planning Commission at a July 26 work session. Then another survey on the options will likely be released.

Rapp said a key task will be to figure out how to support all the different opinions “in a way that comes together as a unified vision.”

Rapp added the county is working to hear from community members through surveys, pop-ups, open houses and roundtables.

The county wants to wrap up its update of the comprehensive plan in 2024. To learn more about the process and take the survey, go to engage.albemarle.org/AC44.

“We really would love for folks to get involved early because that is when the initial concepts get formed,” county spokeswoman Emily Kilroy said. “This is really a great time to dive into some of the background documentation that's available on the web page, and just start sharing your thoughts for the future with us because this is the forming phase. It's a great time to add your voice to the conversation.”

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Katherine Knott is the K-12 education reporter for The Daily Progress. Contact her at (434) 422-7398, kknott@dailyprogress.com, or @knott_katherine on Twitter.

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