County Looks at 20-year Buildout vs. Population Growth

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New construction in Old Trail this spring. Photo: Lisa Martin.

Albemarle County planners presented a draft of their 2022 Land Use Buildout Analysis to both the Planning Commission and the Board of Supervisors in May and June, and the report’s conclusions were a sharp reminder of the tension between housing needs and the density of development in the county. Developed as part of Albemarle’s Comprehensive Plan review process that begins by looking at its growth management policy, the analysis attempts to address whether current planned construction aligns with the county’s projected 20-year population growth.

Details of 20-year “theoretical buildout estimates” for all building types. Courtesy Albemarle County Planning Department.

To the question of whether the county will have enough housing to support its population twenty years hence, the report’s answer is a provisional “yes,” though the provisions left several board members unsettled. “I don’t think our current growth policy gets at the needs and the demands that we’re seeing,” said supervisor Ned Gallaway. “I definitely think we need to go through this and do a new Growth Management Policy.”

Planning consultant Jessica Rossi of Kimley-Horn explained that the study focused on the county’s development areas only, not the rural areas, to assess buildout potential. “We started by identifying parcels that may have development or redevelopment potential,” she said. “We looked at parcels that were empty with no structure on them, and parcels where the land value was greater than the value of the improvements, which suggests a property could have redevelopment potential. Perhaps the structure on that property has lived its life and is ready for the next use.”

Summary of both current pipeline projects and the county’s “buildout estimate” for future development. Courtesy Albemarle County Planning Department.

The analysts did not do a parcel by parcel study of buildout possibilities, but rather applied its assumptions across the entire set of development areas. “There are things we can’t predict: we can’t predict property owner preferences and how developers might choose to develop a property, [so] what we did was look at the maximum buildout [potential] of the property,” said county planner Rachel Falkenstein. This means that the study used the building densities proposed in comprehensive and master plans, not those that the properties are currently zoned for, which are often much lower.

“Step 2 refined the assumptions of step one to make sure we were ground-truthing properties that were identified for future development opportunities,” said Rossi. “And our third step looked at properties that are already approved or under review and removed them from the model so they would not be double-counted, because we already know what those approval numbers are.”

Initially, the developable acreage for each property was decreased to account for possible environmental constraints, infrastructure requirements, and open space preservation, though this approach was not applied to the demand side of the analysis. “It’s important to note that demand can be constrained due to factors such as land availability, costs to develop, access to infrastructure, and environmental factors, and those constraints were not taken into account in the demand forecast,” said Rossi. “So, we created a maximum theoretical buildout and compared that to an unconstrained demand forecast.”

Details of approved and under-review development projects in Albemarle’s current pipeline. Crozet’s total includes Old Trail’s original estimate of 2,200 max units, which has since been reduced.

The analysis used three sources of population forecasts to 2040 to predict demand, and the projections were relatively consistent across sources. Population predictions ranged from 138,000 to about 143,000 county-wide, as compared to the county’s 2020 population of 112,000. The analysis looked at sales and rental unit pricing, occupancy rates, and recent building trends, along with the population growth estimates, to predict a 20-year residential growth demand of 11,000 to 13,500 units to be built in the county.

As for the supply side, across all designated growth areas in the county, the residential development pipeline currently contains 14,881 units as of February 2022, and the theoretical land use buildout envisions an additional 9,265 units, for a total of 24,146 units as the maximum buildout. As this number exceeds the 20-year demand forecast of 11,500 to 13,500 units, the report concludes that “there appears to be sufficient land available for residential and non-residential growth in the existing Development Areas” over the next 20 years.

However, the model makes several key assumptions that historically have not held true. Chief among these is that development will always be done at the highest density level possible in each area’s land use master plan. The planners themselves reported that since 2016, the Board of Supervisors has only approved new development projects at a rate of only 58% of their potential maximum. 

“We should probably look back at the last 15 or 20 years, maybe see what a 20-year trend is [on density approvals],” said supervisor Ned Gallaway, “so then you incorporate different board philosophies and decisions, but also probably get at what a true max is going to be. I think we could learn from that.” 

“We’re probably not going to come anywhere near that maximum buildout going forward,” said board chair Donna Price. “Is there any reason to believe that the future buildout [rate] will be any better than the past? I think not. In fact, I think it’s less likely in the future, because more development means more people and more people means more ‘not in my backyard’ [attitude]. We hear that with every application that comes before us—people who live in the development areas believe in their mind that it should remain as rural as the undeveloped rural areas. And that’s not the case.”

Price acknowledged that the general reluctance to build densely has serious implications. “If we don’t build in … the development areas as much as we can, we will be into the rural areas much sooner than we anticipate,” she said. “We’ve got to look at ourselves in the mirror, board, because we’re the ones who have to increase the density when we do the approvals.”

Supervisor LaPisto-Kirtley said the forecast was no surprise. “I’ve heard from my constituents saying, ‘Can’t you to stop people from coming in?’” she said. “That’s not going to happen because people are going to continue to come here, and I’ve always told my constituents that in the development areas we will be going higher and denser. I would like it to be along Rt. 29 where we already have the services and infrastructure, but that’s going to be a question for many of us to answer. I think, eventually, we probably will be going into the rural areas.”

Supervisor McKeel expressed her belief that climate migration should be incorporated into any population forecast model, as Albemarle County has a safer climate than many in the country and that factor will attract more new residents. “My gut says, when I look at fires and storms and flooding and everything that’s happening, [that climate migration will be an issue here]. I think [because] we have a major medical center, I think we’re going to start to see climate migration.”

Falkenstein noted that the question had been raised with Weldon Cooper, one of the firms who produced population projections for the analysis. “We asked them that question, and they did not think [climate migration] would substantially impact our population projection aggregators,” she said. McKeel said she respectfully disagreed, and commented further that she is concerned that Albemarle is becoming “mainly a retirement community for rich white people.”

Another concern with the analysis is that some of the currently “approved” units in the development pipeline, taken as fact by Kimley-Horn, are stale numbers. For instance, Old Trail’s initial approval of 2,200 units is still included in Crozet’s buildout estimate, even though Old Trail has said in recent years that it will likely only build out to 1,200 units.

White Hall board representative Ann Mallek said the board needs to show “respect” as they move forward. “The presentation said we just need to get used to more density because we’re going to be Arlington in 50 years,” she said. “I don’t think anybody in our county today wants to be Arlington in 50 years. We have residents now who need better places to live, but there is no connection between loosening our regulations and getting more of the kinds of housing that we need for sure.” 

Mallek also spoke of respect for existing residents, in addition to projected ones. “There also are 110,000 people, or 50,000 or so families, who have already made the greatest investment they will ever make in their home, and they have rights too,” she said. “So, balancing all of those rights of current people versus the future people who are going to come is a real challenge, and also understanding that we may not have space for absolutely everything. I can only represent the people who are my constituents, and many of them are still completely reeling from the high speed of growth that’s happened in the last 20 years. So I look forward to lots more detail going forward.” 

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