Planning Commission Rejects Interstate Interchange Development

John Savage before the Planning Commission.

The Albemarle County Planning Commission was unmoved by the idea of developing the Interstate highway interchanges in the county’s rural areas at their meeting March 20 and directed the planning staff to drop the idea.

County planners presented a report on available light industrial land in the county as a preliminary to the discussion of whether uses not allowed at rural interchanges should be introduced.

Planner Andy Sorrell said the planners expect the county will need 18,000 new jobs by 2030 and that 3,000 of those will be industrial or quasi-industrial. It was not clear how those figures were derived. They extrapolated from that that somewhere between 200 and 557 additional acres of land zoned for light industry will be needed, depending on whether you plug-in a requirement for 1,000 or 2,800 square feet per employee into their planning formula.

Some 674 acres zoned light industrial now are vacant, Sorrell said, but only 12 parcels are larger than 10 acres and only two are on the order of 25 acres. Most businesses would be satisfied with parcels in the three- to five-acre size, Sorrell said, providing a redundant electricity supply and high-speed Internet access are available to them. He said the “target industries” for county economic growth are in the financial services, information technology, defense and security and biomedical and health industries, but that was a specific as information got on what sort of companies were desired or what their actual needs would be. Sorrell said that suitable property for rezoning to light industrial lies just south of the Charlottesville/Albemarle airport and in the vicinity of Hollymead.

White Hall District Planning Commissioner Tom Loach asked if the report had looked back at predictions of need made in the past and how those had borne out. “No,” answered Sorrell.

Loach noted that the Board of Supervisors has rezoned 137 acres from light industrial to commercial in recent years as property owners hope to get higher prices for their land.  Three out of four of the target industries could also be accommodated on what the county has zoned as commercial land, he said. Some 1.5 million square feet of commercial space has already been approved by the county but remains unbuilt from lack of demand, he noted.

“We had an applicant two weeks ago who wants to rezone her light industrial to commercial because she has no interest in her light industrial land,” he said.

Planner Elaine Echols briefed commissioners on the conditions at the county’s rural I-64 interchanges, including corners of the interchanges at Pantops/Shadwell and at Rt. 29 where rural zoning is opposite corners slated for higher development. Development on South Lego farm on the southwest corner of the Shadwell exit would be difficult and expensive because of access costs. A new bridge into the property would be necessary and parcels would have to combined.

At the Rt. 29 exit, property west of the Virginia Eagle Distributing Company is a possibility, but access issues also complicate that area. The plausible route in is up a ravine there, but rules say it can’t be disturbed. If the area currently zoned for “regional service” were enlarged further west, additional access points could be possible. Planners recommended expansion, but the property owner is not interested in the idea, Echols reported.

Echols said the former Blue Ridge Hospital complex on Rt. 20 south has possibilities, but the University of Virginia, which owns the tract, is not interested in planning new uses for it and wants to retain its designation as “institutional.” Other possibilities include land around Snow’s Nursery on Avon Street or on the north side of the National Ground Intelligence Center grounds off Rt. 29 north. But they remained only hypothetical options because planners were trying to meet requirements for industries they couldn’t identify.

This left the discussion focused on the rural Interstate interchanges. The Boyd Tavern exit has “environmental issues,” Echols said. “It’s very rural and not many uses could go there.”

The Ivy exit is “even more rural,” she said, and “its roads are narrow and less accommodating.”

“Crozet is different,” said Echols. “It has good access to Rt. 250 and is adjacent to an industrial use.”

But, she added, “A decision was made in the Crozet Master Plan that the area would not be made part of the Crozet Growth Area. There are lots of concerns by the community of Crozet that this remain rural.”

It could have uses supportive of agriculture or forestry, she suggested, such as distribution of local products. The county’s Comprehensive Plan does not promote those uses now at the interchanges, so introducing them would require a change to the plan, she said. She gave as examples slaughterhouses, sawmills, show grounds, contractors’ or landscapers’ storage yards, mini-warehouses and packing plants. Planners would recommend that uses have low traffic impacts, not require public water or sewer, not disturb historic or natural resources and meet Entrance Corridor guidelines, she said.

“The Crozet interchange should not be on this list,” responded Loach. “This issue was already addressed and ratified by the board [of supervisors]. The board has a contract with the people of Crozet. This area is in the [Rivanna reservoir] watershed.” He paused to read from county rules protecting the watershed. “You would have to break your own rules. The [Crozet] community did what it was supposed to do [in revising the Crozet master plan in 2010] and we shouldn’t be fooling with our natural resources.”

Noting that Echols had said that new users would be “small,” he asked, “What is ‘small’?”

“We need your guidance on that,” she answered.

“We added light industrial at Clover Lawn for nursery services,” he said. “The ACME Visible lot could be a contractor yard. It was used for that during the filming of Evan Almighty. These uses are already accommodated in the Crozet Master Plan.” He was also skeptical that slaughterhouses are not large water users.

“We’re looking for love in all the wrong places,” said Scottsville District Commissioner Richard Randolph. “I can’t see any compelling economic reason why the interchanges should be called out for light industrial uses. One of the hallmarks of our region is that it is really beautiful to come into. I would hate to see in 20 years that our interchanges are replaced by congestion and development, and also the reality that we could introduce pollution and reduce beauty. I don’t see a pressing reason for it.”

At-Large commissioner Bruce Dotson said, “This question comes about because we are looking at the interchanges as opportunity areas. The question is, could these uses go anywhere in the rural areas or do they need the interchanges? They might go anywhere if looked at specifically.”

“I worry about the slippery slope,” said Loach. “I worry about when you ask what is ‘small’ and there is no definition. It’s the industrialization of the interchanges.”

“I agree,” said Jack Jouett District commissioner Mac Lafferty. “I was stunned to see Crozet included. We have a ratified plan. I would like to see it taken out [of consideration].”

Julia Montieth, who sits on the commission as a non-voting representative of the University of Virginia, said, “I agree about the slippery slope.” She also expressed worry over traffic congestion at the exits.

Rivanna District commissioner Calvin Morris shifted attention back to the Shadwell interchange. Could the east side of Rt. 250 from the interchange to the intersection with Hunter’s Way get added to the Pantops Growth Area, he wondered. The growth area now stops on the north side of Interstate 64.

When public comment was opened, county spokeswoman Lee Catlin first stepped forward to say, “The reason this is here now is not staff discretion. The economic development plan’s fourth goal has proposed modification of the rural interstate interchanges. It was the direction of the board.”

Next Crozet Community Advisory Council member John Savage stood to read the CCAC’s formal resolution hostile to any change in the rural zoning at the Yancey Mills interchange.

Mary Rice then told the commission, “I am very opposed to any intense use of the Crozet interchange or anything opposed to the Crozet Master Plan. We have learned that we need to be as specific as possible. What is ‘low traffic’? What is ‘minimal impact’ on a historic district? We need specificity from the get-go.”

Next came Jeff Werner of the Piedmont Environmental Council. The planning staff is using “hand grenade estimates,” he said. He noted that a county study of light industrial land needs done in 2007 used 500 square feet per employee as it baseline figure. “Look at what’s been approved. There’s 133 acres of planned LI south of the airport. Why is the land planned for LI not being developed? Maybe we need to change something else. Speculators think they can make more money if they develop it a different way.”

A speaker addressing the Rt. 29 interchange said, “It’s a marquee intersection. Light industrial will need big, flat pads. That land is telling you that is not what it wants to be.” He said that area should have “neighborhood model development that has live, work, play” features.

Morgan Butler of the Southern Environmental Law Center said, “With 675 vacant acres, there is no pressing need to go outside the growth areas. The county has excess commercially-zoned land. . . .There is no need to let commercial uses creep into rural areas.”

CCAC member Mary Gallo told the commission, “We’ve done two iterations of the Crozet Master Plan. We had trust issues with the county. To rezone outside the Growth Area would be another violation of trust.” She called for the Exit 107 interchange to be taken out of consideration.

Neil Williamson of the Free Enterprise Forum said, “North Fork [research park] is not price sensitive to entrepreneurs. I’m not certain that we need more LI land. We need jobs. There isn’t existing LI land that fits that economic model.”

With public comment finished, Loach responded to the jobs issue. “Crozet has added commercial centers in recent years. The Lodge at Old Trail will add jobs. My point is that we’ve seen it in Crozet because we done what we were supposed to do. We’ve preserved rural areas and made the growth area a desirable place to live. Every proposal that has been consistent with the Crozet Master Plan has gone through. My concern is we are going in a direction we have not tramped before. I believe the Crozet interchange should be removed.”

And he made a motion to do that. It was seconded by Lafferty. Morris asked if a review of zoning at Shadwell could be part of the motion’s instruction. Loach and Lafferty accepted  that.

Rio District commissioner Don Franco said, “I don’t think there’s a need for this motion. We should just direct staff.”

“I support the motion,” said Randolph. He said that the Ivy and Boyd Tavern exits should also be withdraw from consideration. Loach and Lafferty accepted his amendment.

At that point county Director of Planning Wayne Cilimberg went to the public microphone and said, “I think Don had a good point. Your appropriate role is to tell us how to go forward. Crozet, Ivy and Boyd Tavern should stay as they are and we should investigate Pantops/Shadwell.”

“The public is asking this body to once again say that we don’t think the Crozet interchange needs further consideration,” said Morris.

“The county has a contract with Crozet,” agreed Lafferty. “[Interchange development] keeps popping up but we keep saying that the master plan says we are not going to develop that interchange.”

Franco responded, “We do not need to make a recommendation to the board.”

“This interchange has been like the walking dead,” said Loach. “It keeps coming up. You shoot it. You stab it. You do everything to it. It gets back up. If you don’t cut its head off, it bites you. I think we should protect rural areas and that starts with the interchanges.”

Franco asked for a show of hands among commissioners to show who supported Loach’s motion. All hands went up but Rio District commissioner Ed Smith’s.

Loach withdrew his motion.

“I haven’t seen any thing tonight that says we need more LI land,” said Franco, “but I’d leave it as an open question.” He said cases proposing new uses in the rural areas should be looked at individually and in detail for location and scale.

“I worry about definition creep,” said Loach.

“I’m concerned about making 20 year predictions,” said Dotson. “We need to track important issues frequently. We don’t have enough information to make 20-year decisions.”

“The takeaway,” said Franco, “is that we probably have enough LI land for 20 years, but we’ll look at it again in five years.”