County Proposes Criteria for Growth Area Expansion

Map of Albemarle County showing its five growth areas (the “Neighborhoods” are grouped together as one).

Albemarle County is in the midst of updating its 20-year Comprehensive Plan—a process similar to Crozet’s own Master Plan development but on a much larger scale—and is preparing sections on housing, land use, recreation, transportation, and economic development, among others. The plan is dubbed “AC44” (for twenty years hence) and is currently in Phase 2, “setting goals and objectives.” County planners are considering a set of topics that touch on the county’s development areas, which has caught the attention of Crozet citizens concerned about the direction of future growth.

The county has five development areas: Pantops, Places 29, the Village of Rivanna, the Southern and Western Neighborhoods, and Crozet. These designated growth areas add up to 5% of the county’s total land mass (37 out of 689 square miles). Each has its own master plan, and they are where the county directs its future residential and business growth. One Comp Plan Phase 2 topic titled “Draft Criteria for Development Areas Expansion” lays out how planners would evaluate where, how, and when expansion could and should occur.

“We need to consider the possibility that at some point the current Development Areas may no longer have sufficient capacity to accommodate future housing and employment needs,” reads the topic introduction on the county website. When this happens, development areas such as Crozet will be candidates for an expansion of their borders, allowing residential and commercial development into areas formerly designated as rural. 

County planning document showing Crozet’s projected Town and Neighborhood “activity centers,” areas that are expected to be the focus of future growth

Ten criteria for considering how and where to expand the Development Areas are presented in AC44, framed in terms of assessing whether these conditions already exist in a potential expansion area: transportation, school capacity, public water and sewer, community facilities and services, natural resources, location in a water supply watershed (to be avoided), land use density expectations, access to recreation, minimal impacts to nearby properties, and existing by-right zoning in rural areas.

In a July 12 Zoom meeting of the chairs of the development area community advisory committees (CACs) plus interested members of the public, county staff listened to commenters describe their concerns and ideas about the plan. Crozet resident and former Planning Commissioner Tom Loach pointed to the results of a recent Crozet survey in which 90% of respondents said they did not support expansion of the growth areas. “In the county, 15 to 20% of development every year has been in the rural area—they just approved 650 acres for a solar farm,” said Loach. “So, if we’re going to expand the growth areas and not protect rural land anymore but instead turn [it] into a land bank for development, I wouldn’t look to Crozet to support that.” 

Lonnie Murray, the current Planning Commissioner representing the White Hall District, questioned the county’s buildout analysis and its notion of maximum buildout and capacity, and wondered how the county judges being “out of space.” “How are we dealing with the potential for redevelopment of [places like] Albemarle Square and Fashion Square Mall and Rio Hill?” he said. “Those places are just big, empty parking lots right now.”

County planning document showing criteria for where and how development areas could be expanded

“That’s a great point,” said acting Planning Director Kevin McDermott, who facilitated the virtual breakout room on growth area expansion. “That’s one of the tricks to looking at expansion—if we start allowing expansion then that may reduce the incentive to develop within the development area at the densities that we’d like to see.”

The county’s buildout analysis for next 20 years says that current development—both planned and under construction—is sufficient to cover projected population growth. 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 approved new development projects at a rate of only 58% of their potential maximum. 

Other assumptions made in the analysis are that all of the currently “approved” units in the development pipeline will be built (not true in the case of Old Trail), and that all property owners with parcels whose land value is greater than the value of an improvement on it (like a house) would be willing to sell, and that property would be redeveloped at greater density.

Former county supervisor Sally Thomas recalled the original, “good effects” of limiting the growth areas that were offered back when they were created. “To have transportation available, for example, is much more possible when you’re not stretching out across the countryside,” she said. “And it’s pretty well proven that additional development doesn’t guarantee lower cost housing, because people still develop what they can to the maximum. Expensive infill is not as cheap as taking green space and converting it, but it’s more effective in terms of having things close—it’s not a kindness to put affordable housing too far away for people to be able to get themselves to work.”

County planning document showing criteria for when development areas could be expanded

Crozet CAC member Michael Monaco asked whether a “neighborhood activity center” that is designated on the Crozet map in the area of the Harris Teeter on Rt. 250 would be an obvious candidate for expansion. “As there is an activity center there, does that play into considerations for the expansion of the growth area as well?” he asked. “In 20 years, are we going to see development around that—a de facto growth area—because it’s abutting a neighborhood center?”

“I think it’s definitely a consideration,” said McDermott. “One criterion we talked about [for expansion] was whether a place is adjacent to an activity center that has access to community services, amenities like shopping. That would probably be the type of area that would rise up in priority for potential future growth. But there are also other things that we want to be protective of, and sometimes those are adjacent to those neighborhoods as well.”

Roger Schickedantz, director at the Charlottesville architectural firm William McDonough + Partners, wondered what assumptions are being made about how to decide what is “dense” in a particular location. “I’m just wondering if anyone is thinking about areas such as West Main Street, which now has five- or six-story buildings on it,” he said. “When these activity centers are being proposed, are they at all being considered with an even higher density? I mean what if you [built] a 20-story building in a center, rather than low-rise buildings? How do you determine what those criteria are?”

McDermott said the county’s measurement of “activity density” includes the numbers of residents and jobs in an area. “I don’t think we’re moving to 20-story buildings here in the county yet, but one of the criteria we would look at if you’re doing a certain type of development, we would allow you to go up over what may be currently permitted in the zoning,” he said. “We could allow some different height buildings, maybe as much as 10 stories. I think 10 sounds really high right now, but it’s one of the things we’re looking at.”

Planning commissioner Murray suggested stepped goals. “Maybe I’ve played too many computer games with my kids, but I think about the idea that you have to reach certain achievements before you can go to the next level,” he said. “The biggest criterion for me is, have we met the form? Have we met those goals in Places 29, for example. Have we met walkability? Are things like underground parking becoming standard? If we haven’t met the form of the growth area that we’ve been striving to achieve, haven’t met that threshold, then we shouldn’t be proceeding to the next level.”

Mary Katherine King, chair of the 5th & Avon Community Advisory Committee, said she had recently learned from water and sewer authorities about the timeline for new water infrastructure. “I now understand that if, for example, we’re going to expand even a tiny percentage of a growth area, it could take up to 20 years for the planning, funding, and construction of water facilities,” she said. “So, if we don’t have some criteria like we’re developing today to [begin to] identify where that’s going to be, we’re never going to have the infrastructure ready in time for when we need it.”

McDermott agreed. “In all honesty, of the list of criteria we have here, water and sewer tends to be one of the biggest limiting factors [to development],” he said. “We do not have the capacity to expand in almost any area around our current development areas because the water and sewer facilities aren’t there, and that would be one of the most expensive things we need to do to allow that to happen. 

“What we’re trying to do with this [AC44] plan is not to say ‘Okay, here’s where there’s going to be all this new development,’” said McDermott. “We’re hoping that by the end of this plan, maybe we start to know where that development might happen in 15 to 20 years, so we can start thinking about that now.” 

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Lisa Martin joined the Gazette in 2017 and writes about education and local government. She also writes in-depth pieces about division-wide education issues and broader investigative pieces on topics from recycling to development to living with wildlife. Her Coyotes in Crozet story won a 2017 Virginia Press Association “Best in Show” award for the Gazette. Martin has a Ph.D. from the University of Texas, taught college for several years, and writes fiction and poetry. She co-authored a children’s trilogy about two adventuring cats, the Anton and Cecil series, which got rave reviews from the New York Times Book Review, Kirkus Reviews, Publishers Weekly and others.


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