Highlands resident Joe Fore has stepped into former Chair Allie Pesch’s shoes to head up the Crozet Community Advisory Committee (CCAC) for a year-long term that began in May. Fore has been a CCAC member for four years and last year served as vice chair during the wrap-up of the lengthy Crozet Master Plan process. In his professional life, he’s a law professor at UVA teaching legal research and writing, and one of the things he likes most about Crozet’s committee is the citizen engagement.
“I was just blown away by the level of participation [during the Master Plan process],” said Fore. “Frankly I was impressed and surprised that even with the pandemic, staff and the committee members and the public were still engaged, even remotely. I was really proud of the collaboration between the community and the county.”
The CCAC is one of seven county-organized advisory committees whose role is to “provide assistance, feedback and input to County staff and the Board of Supervisors on community and county efforts related to implementation and support of the adopted master plan.” Crozet’s CAC has 15 members who are citizens appointed by Supervisor Ann Mallek to serve a two-year term with a limit of three terms. Anyone who resides in the greater Crozet area may apply to be a member.
“The CCAC is a real model [of cooperation],” said Fore. “It’s not that people in Crozet don’t have strong feelings or disagreements sometimes—they do. But I’m a sucker for de Tocqueville, and I think that the advisory committee represents the best sort of civic participation and public discussion and discourse.” Differences of opinion with county planners were regularly aired during the sometimes contentious master planning process, leading former Board of Supervisors chair Ned Gallaway and others to criticize the CCAC’s comportment, but Fore makes distinctions on those points.
“There were some occasions where some members of the community and even the committee cast aspersions on the motivations of county staff, and I thought that was totally out of bounds and not an appropriate thing to do,” he said. “On the other hand, some [supervisors] expressed doubts about why we, for example, took votes on certain issues, but to me that was just a way of formalizing the committee’s advice. What’s more valuable—just a vague sense of what the CCAC wants or an official kind of recorded vote? I don’t think anybody on the committee has any delusions that we are more powerful than we are.”
Fore hopes to continue the tradition of prior chairs in being “a really good steward of the committee.” “I’d like to run the meetings efficiently and make sure that we have those respectful and great conversations that we always do,” he said. Though the heavy lift of revising the master plan is done, he sees opportunities for the CCAC to continue to contribute.
“The committee may be able to help county staff do more substantive work to implement the master plan,” said Fore. “A few years ago, the CCAC helped with a big community survey that was tangible work intended to help the county, and, recognizing that there are a lot of demands on staff’s time, I wonder what else we could do. For example, perhaps there’s a role for us to help with an inventory of affordable housing in this area, or other work that could check off some of these items from the master plan that otherwise might tend to languish.”
The CCAC is comprised of residents of various backgrounds representing a spectrum of views on issues such as the proper pace and nature of development in Crozet, and Fore sees himself as often landing in the middle. “I see myself as something of a centrist, and I try to be pragmatic,” he said. “[Former chair] Allie did a fantastic job of separating her personal views from her role as the chair. I think that’s important and hope I can do that as well.”
One issue Fore may have to help the CCAC navigate has been spurred by a set of comments that Board of Supervisors Chair Donna Price delivered in an April 5 letter to the Village of Rivanna Community Advisory Committee (VORCAC). The VORCAC’s master planning process was scheduled to get underway after the completion of the Crozet Master Plan last fall, and the Rivanna committee decided to be proactive in engaging with local residents in preparing them to understand and participate in the plan.
To that end, VORCAC members developed a Community Education Program and Fact Sheet for citizens to help them understand basic concepts such as what a master plan does and how zoning ordinances work, etc. They also created a working document that tried to eliminate past ambiguities in their plan and circulated it in their community. These actions were viewed by Price as “out of sequence with how [the master plan revision] should proceed,” and she wrote that “at the present time there are inconsistent understandings of proper charges to the various CACs,” according to her letter.
Price attached a copy of the county’s Comprehensive Plan timeline that included a plan for “structured CAC [agendas] for the remainder of the 2022 calendar year.” The proposed schedule outlined topics for meetings each month, allowing CAC members to “choose a topic of local interest for either their June or August meeting.” Price also stated that “if there are no development applications within a CAC boundary in need of a community meeting in a month designated for development review, staff [will] reach out to the CAC chair and Board member with a recommendation to cancel the meeting.”
In response to Price’s letter, all seven members of the VORCAC resigned. VORCAC chair Dennis Odinov wrote in a letter to Price that the committee’s early steps were intended to educate residents “so that they can comment on future development in our Village from a base of knowledge rather than emotion,” and he decried the “one way communication from you [Price] that was subtly accusatory in nature with no indication that you understood or cared to understand what we were doing.” “I cannot be effective in the environment that you offer in your letter,” Odinov concluded.
Other members of the committee lamented that the VORCAC “is treated more as a ‘rubber stamp’ to [county officials’] ideas, which seldom reflect the will and ideas of the citizenry,” and that “the takeover of our agenda, the re-defining of our purpose by [county] staff, and your [Price’s] recent out of character communication are the reason for the collapse of the VORCAC.”
Following Price’s letter and the mass resignation, Fore wrote to the Board of Supervisors expressing concerns from the CCAC’s perspective, noting that “the notion that the CACs would be prevented from meeting or from setting their own agenda—even in months when there are no pressing issues from county staff—is a dramatic departure from the way these committees have operated for many years.”
Fore pointed out that the county’s fixed calendar was developed without input from the CACs themselves. “Taken together,” he said in his letter, “these changes make it feel like the CACs are being viewed less as collaborative partners who work with staff and the Board to identify priorities and develop solutions, and more like focus groups who merely choose from pre-selected options.”
Asked for clarification on these points, Price commented for the Gazette that she believed it was “unfortunate that the membership of the VORCAC chose to somewhat abruptly resign rather than continue to engage in communications and dialogue over this situation.” With regard to the potential canceling of meetings, she said, “The operative word here is ‘recommendation.’ A recommendation is just that; it is not a decision. It does not mean that no CAC can or should meet solely because there may not be any active development plan being processed.”
Price said that the structured agendas were part of an effort to improve orienting and educating the appointed members of all boards, committees, and commissions, not just CACs. “The calendar of structured agendas for SOME meetings through the remainder of the calendar year was, at least in part, towards accomplishing the education and orientation objective; and, I believe, in part to help spread out the workload while the [county’s] Comprehensive Plan is under review/revision,” she said.
Price said that topics discussed at CAC meetings “should remain within the structure of their jurisdiction.” Regarding the statement in her letter that the Board of Supervisors is currently evaluating the charters and charges of all committees and commissions to ensure they are operating consistently with county policies and direction, Price said she cannot provide specifics at this time. “We are still simply in discussions about these matters with no definitive decisions being made,” she said.
Board of Supervisors representative Ann Mallek reiterated that CACs may meet even if there is no development review on the agenda. “Over the years, CACs have carried on meetings of interest to the community related to their master plan when there was no staff available,” she said. “The history is impeccable—proper notice was given and minutes were kept and reported to staff for posting on the website. These meetings helped to build community cohesion and conversation when there was not a particular project in mind.”
Mallek said there are plenty of non-development topics that could be on the agenda—for instance, the improvements to Beaver Creek Dam, recreation efforts, festivals, climate change, growth management policy, and more. She also supported the idea of training for new CAC members.
“Improved onboarding of members and background information about government structure and how the departments work was a focus before Covid,” she said. “This used to happen at the all-CAC general meeting in the winter, with breakout sessions for each afterward. When possible, I support returning to that format as a way to introduce CACs to each other and provide detailed learning about essential processes such as FOIA and conflict of interest rules. Feeling alone in your silo raises angst that we can avoid.”
Though Fore did not receive a reply to his email from the supervisors or staff, he does not anticipate problems for the CCAC. “I’m not aware that there’s actually been any change,” he said. “I asked [county planner] Rachel Falkenstein whether, even if there is no development topic or county staff present, we were still free to meet, and she said yes, that’s totally fine. I haven’t been told anything differently by the county.”