The preservation of Albemarle County’s rural beauty can directly be attributed to its comprehensive plan, the holy grail of where development can occur and where it may not.
That’s why some are surprised the Board of Supervisors is fast tracking an amendment that moves 223 acres from rural to growth area for a beverage company that wants to locate at the Interstate 64 and U.S. 29 interchange. County officials refuse to identity the company, nor is it clear that the owners of the land in question are interested in selling. But officials are gung-ho to create more light industrial-zoned land and the supes backed a study of the amendment June 10.
“This is really, really unusual,” says former planning commissioner Marcia Joseph. “We’d just gotten through a multi-year review of the comprehensive plan. A month ago, the Board of Supervisors decided to add this entire parcel to the comprehensive plan. People got riled and asked why it was done with no public review.”
Assistant county executive Lee Catlin sees it differently. “We have made every effort to be transparent,” she says. “The compressed timeline is because of the needs of the business. While the process has been compressed, we don’t feel we’ve compromised any of the steps required for a comprehensive plan amendment.”
County staff briefed board members between scheduled meetings in groups of two or fewer to stay legal under the Freedom of Information Act, confirms Catlin, who declines to identify the company.
Joseph says it’s unusual for the county to initiate action. “This is the first time I’ve seen the county act as an applicant,” she says. “The whole process concerns me.”
However, Albemarle economic development director Faith McClintic, who represents the Board of Supervisors in pushing for the amendment, says it’s not unusual for communities to lead in adjusting comprehensive plans. McClintic, too, says she can’t disclose the identity of the company. “We have to protect the competitive market,” she says.
Another oddity in the boundary adjustment is that the landowner—Sweetspot of Albemarle LLC—has not been publicly involved in the county effort to redesignate the property. McClintic says she’s not at liberty to identify the owners. “We’re sure they’re agreeable and we hope they’ll come out and speak publicly,” she says. “The public has a desire to hear from the landowner.”
Sweetspot has an Atlanta address, according to county records, and Atlanta property records identify that address as belonging to Douglas S. Holladay Jr., who is chair of the Jefferson Scholars Foundation, according to a UVA listing of foundation chairs. Holladay had not responded to a phone call and e-mail at press time.
For McClintic, the more important issue is that the county has been unable to accommodate requests from other Albemarle companies seeking to expand. “That is the bigger concern that keeps me up at night,” she says.
Joseph is not convinced and says the entity just didn’t like any growth-area properties that were available. “Costco brought jobs, too,” she says. “Costco went some place that was zoned properly.”
Planning commissioner Rick Randolph, a Democrat who’s running for the Scottsville District board seat, says he was briefed on the company—and has been asked by staff not to disclose who it is. He points that the unnamed company is looking at two other communities. “Sometimes complete transparency may not serve us well,” he says.
Some believe the company is Deschutes Brewery of Bend, Oregon, because of media accounts in North Carolina and South Carolina in which its president says the company wants to expand to the East Coast and also is considering Virginia and Tennessee for a brewery that will bring around 100 jobs. A call to Deschutes was not immediately returned.
Randolph touts the 104 jobs the unnamed company would bring, and says the company is a good corporate citizen and environmentally conscious.
And to those who want to know more, he says the Board of Supervisors and planning commission are elected and appointed bodies working to protect the best interests of the public. “You’ve got to have some trust and confidence,” he says.
Unlike Randolph, planning commissioner Karen Firehock was not briefed on the identity of the beverage company. She held a forum August 12 with Supervisor Liz Palmer, and says she heard a lot of concern about the way the amendment process has occurred.
“People are concerned about development south of I-64,” she says. “They don’t want 29 south to be like 29 north.” Citizens also want to know how the unknown business will impact traffic at the already dicey I-64 interchange, as well as who will pay for water and sewer, neither of which are connected to the property.
“We’re being asked to revise the comprehensive plan for more light industrial,” she says, but she’s seen several different numbers in the past few months and wants to see an analysis of what’s already here.
Morgan Butler at Southern Environmental Law Center has watched Albemarle and how it develops over the past decade. “The county has historically been very reluctant to expand the development areas at the wishes of a private company, much less carry the water for them during the review process as is happening now,” he says. “And while there may be a fair reason for keeping the company’s name confidential, that makes it even harder for the public to determine whether these significant breaks in precedent are justified.”
Next up in the public process, the planning commission will have a public hearing August 18 before it sends it recommendation the the Board of Supervisors, the BOS has a work session September 2 and a public hearing September 9.
Updated 8/18/15 to add that Deschutes Brewery of Bend, Oregon, is looking for an East Coast location in Virginia, among other states.