County Contemplates Development of Interstate Interchanges

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Yancey Mills Lumber Yard near I-64. (Photo: Louise Dudley)
Yancey Mills Lumber Yard near I-64. (Photo: Louise Dudley)

The Crozet/Yancey Mills exit on Interstate 64 could be developed if Albemarle County adopts ordinance changes that would allow formerly untouchable rural area zoning to include “low impact” industrial uses. County planning staff held a “stakeholders” meeting Nov. 28 to get public reaction to the idea and heard from proponents who want cheaper industrial land with highway access and opponents, including members of the Crozet Community Advisory Council, who fear that introducing new types of uses at the interchange would eventually lead to full-scale commercial development.

County planners called the meeting “an important listening opportunity for staff,” and said the goal of the ordinance changes would be to introduce more “flexibility” among allowable uses. Each type of industrial zoning, light and heavy, has by-right and by-special-permit uses, with those available by special permit under light zoning typically becoming by-right in the heavy designation.

All the Supervisors attended the session to listen, but the Board did not come into session and none  spoke during the meeting. Several members of the Planning Commission also attended and the commission did come into session so members could participate.

When asked by a member of the Pantops Advisory Council what the amount of industrially zoned land in Albemarle is, referred to as the “inventory,” and how much of it is vacant, planners drew a blank and said they would have to look that up.

According to a report they prepared in 2009, considered during the recent revision of the Crozet Master Plan, Albemarle has 900 acres in industrial zoning. The report concludes that amount is sufficient to meet future demand but the relative distribution of heavy versus light industrial zoning in the mix might need adjustment. The County’s comprehensive plan dictates that only industrial uses should happen within designated growth areas and not in rural zoning.

Crozet had 63 acres of unused light industrial land to build on at the time the Master Plan was being revised in 2010. The revisions to the plan added 13 acres, eight contiguous to the Starr Hill/Acme properties and five downtown on the 18-acre Barnes Lumber Company parcel that is now for sale. The designation for the downtown property was intended to give potential developers of the lumberyard the flexibility to attract light industrial users who offer employment, such a high-tech companies, to locate there.

In results of a formal community survey and at public meetings held during the planning process, Crozet area residents strongly opposed more development at the Yancey Mills interchange.

The County’s report also noted that since 2005 county Supervisors have agreed to rezone 162 acres zoned light industrial for other uses, mainly commercial ones.

Most of the available light industrial land is in the Rt. 29 north growth area, much of it in the University of Virginia’s research park near Hollymead, planner Elaine Echols explained. Some is also available in the Pantops growth area around the new Martha Jefferson Hospital and along the southern boundary of the City of Charlottesville. The City itself has very little usable industrial land left, about nine acres total but in fragmented sites, their representative said. The Supervisors also recently instructed planners to investigate how to add industrial zoning in Shadwell.

Echols told the meeting that the “County is trying to get away from smokestack industry and toward high-tech industry.” Within the county’s growth areas 46 percent of land is residentially zoned, 26 percent is open space and 28 percent is zoned for commercial or industrial use. In light industrial zoning the many specifically defined by-right uses include furniture manufacturing, food processing and warehousing and storage facilities. By-right uses spelled out for heavy industrial zoning include tire or concrete manufacturing. With special permits asphalt or paper manufacturing, junkyards and body shops are possible. Echols said one goal of the ordinance change would be to “generalize” the usage language.

Director of Planning Wayne Cilimberg told the meeting that planners are considering approaching particular landowners to see if they would be willing to have their current zoning changed to an industrial category.

Business representatives at the meeting said their highest priorities in selecting an industrial  location are “easy access” to both transportation, particularly the Interstate, and a nearby workforce. Other desirables are proximity to the airport and commercial shipping services and, for some, rail access. One businessman said he wishes he could locate in downtown Charlottesville and his employees could walk to work.

Mark Thompson of Starr Hill Brewery said permission for retail operations should be part of industrial zoning. “The new model is not just manufacturing. The Brew Ridge Trail is getting an enormous a number of visitors from around the country and around the world. The new model is to bypass [traditional] distribution models. The developer of a widget wants to sell directly to the consumer.”

Gayle Wilson, representing Buckingham Branch Railroad, urged planners “to pay special attention to land along rail. The wave of the future is to relocate truck traffic to rail. We have a huge opportunity in Albemarle along rails.” But not all land along track is suitable, he cautioned. It must be level enough that products do not have to be first transferred to truck as a step toward reaching a train. Wilson said the railroad has recently acquired two new customers in Augusta County who could have located their operations in Albemarle.

Cilimberg said that rail access is a factor in the county’s interest in Shadwell. Most of Crozet’s industrial zoning is convenient to rail.

Planners are preparing what they call a “target industry study,” due for release in January, and some speakers thought that ordinance changes should be geared toward the needs of the sort of companies the county hopes to attract.

Bill Schrader of Crozet, who serves on the Charlottesville/Albemarle airport’s board, said that the airport has seen a decline in freight business since 2009 and that more needs to be done to attract cargo now being flown out of Richmond.

Commercial real estate brokers at the meeting said land at the U.Va. research park (which is not for sale but for lease) “is way too expensive for many companies” and that the county needs to designate industrial land that it is not later going to rezone away. The real problem, they said, is that the price of industrial land in Albemarle is not “affordable.” A U.Va. representative said the University can not afford to offer land cheaper if it hopes to recover its costs in developing the park.

Jeff Werner of the Piedmont Environmental Council said, “We need to stick to our policy. There is a lot of vacant light industrial land out there. [The problem is that] the land is more valuable as something else than what the county has zoned it for.”

Morgan Butler of the Southern Environmental Law Center said the county should focus on finding new users for plants that have closed, such as the former tire manufacturing plant in Scottsville.

Turning to the Interstate interchanges, Cilimberg said that “low impact uses” would be such things as landscaping companies or businesses that support agriculture. They would not be eligible for access to public water and sewer.

The county has seven interchanges on Interstate 64, four in growth areas—Rt. 29 south, Fifth Street, Rt. 20 south and Rt. 250 at Pantops—and three with rural zoning at Yancey Mills, Ivy, and Black Cat Road in Keswick.

Butler supported the idea of landscape companies, but Werner cautioned, “We do not want to relocate our problem to the interchanges. We are going to have to create a very specific box [of ordinance language] so we don’t ruin them.”

Crozet speakers opposed opening the rural interchanges to new uses, seeing it as a toe in the door to commercialization given the county’s history of changing allowable uses after a property’s basic zoning status had been altered.

“The man on the street believes that any opening is going to lead to Yancey Mills eventually looking like a commercial area like they see happening all along the Interstate,” Schrader told the meeting.

White Hall District planning commissioner Tom Loach said that Yancey Mill already has a lumberyard, an industrial user, and that Crozet residents’ general view of the question is that “We already gave at the office.” He noted that Crozet residents had recently supported the expansion of industrial land within the growth area to meet the perceived need for more space.

Tom Goeke of Yancey Mills said that private property owners in the vicinity of the rural interchanges have made large investments in their homes and did so with the belief that the county meant to stick with the zoning that exists. “The people who live in these areas just don’t want it,” he said.

When Werner asked why it is that vacant industrial land is not being developed, realtors answered again that “affordability” is the issue and that either the existing land has to become cheaper or new cheaper land has to be rezoned.

A public hearing date on new interchange uses is expected to be set for late January.