Albemarle’s Flexible New Zoning Code More Business Friendly
Like most municipalities, Albemarle County has zoning regulations in place to protect property values, promote public health and safety, and support both residential quality of life and business success. A big part of this is keeping industrial uses separate from residential so that the latter are spared the noise, odor and other unsightly or incompatible aspects of manufacturing or the traffic, congestion and lack of privacy associated with retail areas or office parks. Similarly, commercial zoning traditionally separates uses such as commercial, office space, and manufacturing.
Over time, supply and demand can put pressure on existing zoning regulations. For example, in Albemarle County, almost 200 acres originally zoned for light industrial have, over time, been lost to retail and office space reflecting demand and therefore higher returns on investment in these types of development. This loss of acreage and continuing competition from non-industrial uses (which made it much more difficult for businesses that fall into the light industrial category to find an appropriate location or to expand an existing business) was a big part of the impetus behind the recent zoning law changes.
At the same time that the county had begun to address these problems and inconsistencies in the zoning code, the Central Virginia Partnership for Economic Development identified a list of target industries for Albemarle County, many of which would have been forced to locate in areas zoned light industrial according to the old regulations. These included businesses such as fitness and sports centers, bio-medical device manufacturing, R & D companies and communications and other IT equipment manufacturing firms. This incongruence between the desire to attract certain types of businesses and the lack of places for them to locate, also contributed to the design and implementation of the new code.
In addition to the shrinking space, there was another difficulty with the old code in that definitions did not distinguish between businesses according to their size or environmental impact. This meant that a large manufacturing plant would be categorized and treated the same as a small family operated business with just a handful of employees working with hand tools.
The zoning code did permit exceptions in some limited cases. However, to take advantage of this, businesses had to apply for a special use permit, an expensive process that also takes county staff time and is costly to tax payers.
In recognition of all of these issues, Albemarle County initiated a three year process that ended with making significant changes in the code as it pertains to companies, which formerly were strictly relegated to a light industrial status. The result is a more flexible code that allows for the growth and expansion of new businesses that don’t fit neatly into the retail or office categories, but which, nevertheless, could easily blend in to one of these settings. This is accomplished in part by recognizing the differences between traditional manufacturing firms and those that are smaller with minimal environmental impact creating more opportunities for the latter to find suitable locations.
New Zoning For Smaller Low Impact Businesses When we think of infrastructure that supports business, concepts such as roads, railroads, fiber optic cable or water and sewer may come to mind. However, the zoning for a particular location is also a big part of the infrastructure, since not only does it determine the kind of businesses that will be welcome there, but consequently impacts the whole character of that area.
Carolyn Shears is a commercial
REALTOR® and Senior Vice President with CBRE Charlottesville, and her clients include some of our area’s large employers. Prior to the Albemarle County zoning changes, she was having difficulty finding suitable new locations for several businesses that needed to expand. This experience caused her to recognize the very limited supply of properties that were a good fit for companies like these due to the county’s zoning restrictions. In each instance, the businesses were engaged in work defined as light industrial by the zoning code. This meant any new location had to be zoned for this, even though the manufacturing process of Shears’ clients did not have the type of environmental impact for which the code was originally written.
She cited the example of a manufacturer she worked with during this time which did light assembly of printed circuit boards. Unlike traditional manufacturing concerns which use noisy, heavy equipment and require hard hats and special protective gear, this one had workers sitting at tables using small screwdrivers to do their assembly work. While they may have fit in with a different setting such as some office complexes, because the business description used the word assembly, the company automatically fell into the light industrial category greatly restricting where it could locate.
As a result of these kinds of zoning restrictions, one of the businesses Shears worked with during this time was unable to find a suitable location in Albemarle and, though they didn’t want to leave the area, were forced to relocate to another county. “We lost a good employer when that happened,” Shears said. Of course the county also lost some of its tax base.
Another of her clients stayed in Albemarle and is “getting by,” but the location they found is not the best for their needs, Shears explained.
Impact and Scale In contrast to those situations, today’s new zoning code takes into consideration both the scale of a business and its environmental impact. Susan Stimart, Economic Development Facilitator for the county said, “the old code did not address impacts or scale. A 400 square foot operation was treated exactly the same as one with 50,000 square feet.” A good example of such a business is the small brewery that has become very popular in recent years. These operate without much in the way of “notice or complaint,” Stimart said. Under the old code they would have been forced to locate in an industrial area even though they have little in common with large scale beer manufacturing plants.
Today they have more options, but under the old system the only relief was to seek a special use permit. To obtain one, the business owner had to pay $2,000 up front, a prohibitively large fee for many, and go through a six-month public notification process. Since time is money, this was also expensive, Stimart explained. What’s more, there was no guarantee of approval.
“Over time our staff collected many anecdotes about businesses having difficulty finding an appropriate location,” Stimart said. It became obvious that the code was out of date and no longer fit the needs of our current economy. Shears agreed, saying that the business model of today’s firms is much more likely to be software based than heavy equipment based. This contemporary business model, however, is out of synch with a zoning code based on the industry of a different era.
Albemarle’s Target Firms In April of 2012 the Central Virginia Partnership for Economic Development released a Comprehensive Target Markets Report, which identified target industries for each of the counties it serves. While the impetus to update the zoning code started before the release of this report, the research represented there “helped inform the later phases of the zoning changes,” Stimart said.
In recommending particular target industries, the report considered those that offered relatively higher wages and were a good match to county assets such as skill-sets and education levels. They also targeted firms that would provide a lot of jobs.
Amongst the recommendations were many industries that fit the light industrial category as defined in the old zoning code. For example, the bioscience and medical device industries were high on the list of desirable targets, including R & D firms and medical equipment and pharmaceutical manufacturing companies. Also on the desirable list were IT and defense security firms, including communications and electronic equipment manufacturing. Other suggestions included perishable prepared food manufacturing, wineries and breweries.
Unfortunately, while much of the desired infrastructure was in place to welcome companies such as these, the zoning code made it difficult for them to find space. The new zoning code, however, is having an impact on firms such as these. Stimart described several R & D firms, which prior to the changes would have been forced to look only in areas designated as light industrial. Thanks to the new zoning “they have successfully secured locations without having to only look at light industrial zoned properties.” She explained that this is particularly helpful for R & D enterprises and start-ups that need only a relatively small space like 1,000 square feet or less.
One place labs and R & D firms can now locate, Stimart added, is the downtown Crozet district. However, not all small businesses are welcome there without a review process. Even a small 400 square foot food processing company can’t locate there if it falls into the category of manufacturing, processing and assembly unless it has a storefront such as a grocery store, bakery or other specialty food shop. On the other hand, a company making a product like tomato sauce, which doesn’t lend itself to retail, would have to seek a special use permit.
Flexibility Built into the New Code Most discussions of the new zoning law emphasize its flexibility compared to the old system, which was based on a very rigid separation of different land uses. This had begun to change some in more recent times, Stimart said, when walkability became popular. The concept of the walkable neighborhood led to the development of communities like Old Trail or Belvedere, which feature shops and offices in the center of the subdivision. They also include other types of uses such as The Lodge, a retirement community at Old Trail, and the new Senior Center that will be located in Belvedere.
The new code also makes it easier to mix different types of commercial uses in one business. For instance, food manufacturers are now permitted to increase the percentage of space that they can devote to retail sales of their products, helping them build local brand awareness, Stimart explained.
Check Zoning Regulations Carefully Before Leasing Given the importance of being in compliance with the zoning code, and especially given the recent changes, Stimart recommends that prospective tenants check the regulations carefully and don’t necessarily rely on the building owner to provide accurate information. She cited the example of a building north of town, which at one time was zoned residential and became a nonconforming restaurant and then lost all commercial nonconforming use. In spite of that, the owner leased the building to a retail carpet business. Not only was this inconsistent with zoning laws, it bypassed the architectural review board, which should have weighed in on the exterior appearance of the building. After some complaints the county was forced to close the business down due to lack of compliance with the code.
Celeste Smucker is a writer, blogger and author. She lives near Charlottesville.