Few local government topics are as mired in planning jargon—or more likely to cause eyes to glaze over at public meetings—than the revision of a comprehensive plan, the massive guidance document that lays out broad ground rules for a municipality’s growth and development.
“It’s sort of this giant cloud that hangs over the community for a couple of years, and then everyone forgets about it,” said Steve Williams, director of the Thomas Jefferson Planning District Commission.
But plan updates—required every five years and now in the home stretch in both Charlottesville and Albemarle—are important, because they’re intended as a check on the government’s power to regulate land use, Williams said. Municipalities get to create zoning laws; citizens get to watch and weigh in while they write policy guidelines.
After more than a year of public input and discussion, city and county staff are now preparing draft versions of their updated plans, which will come before planning commissions and elected bodies in the coming months. We asked Williams and two other local officials involved in the process to tell us about the most important changes coming down the pipe.
The architects of the Albemarle County Comprehensive Plan are putting special emphasis on rural areas, said Elaine Echols, principal planner for the county.
The economic downturn made it harder for cash-poor rural landowners to justify hanging onto their acreage, so there’s been a lot of discussion about loosening land use rules to help them retain their land and not subdivide it. Restaurants, lodging, special events at farms, breweries and distilleries could all become by-right uses in the rural areas, meaning a property owner wouldn’t have to get special permission for them from the Planning Commission and Board of Supervisors.
“There’s a need for uses which help people to make some money in the area in nontraditional ways, but still relate to the rural land,” Echols said.
The current plan overhaul is also important for its scope. Albemarle has typically updated its plan on a rolling basis. This time, staff are pulling all the binders off the shelf and creating a single document meant to outline the county’s overall approach to growth and development.
“The last time that was done—that kind of overall approach—was 1996,” Echols said.
A better build-out
Charlottesville City Councilor Kathleen Galvin said new language in the city’s Comprehensive Plan will focus on filling in development gaps that are highly visible as you move along major transportation routes. That’s where carefully planned growth has a big impact, she said, and there’s plenty of room for it—Charlottesville is only about 40 percent developed along those major roadways.
“When anybody drives along our corridors, it’s obvious that there are a lot of missing teeth,” she said. The Downtown Mall thrives, but five minutes away by foot, former industrial sites stand unused.
The goal is to create useful, appealing places with identities of their own, said Galvin. Consider Court Square: Walk through those brick-and-statue filled blocks, and you know you’re in a distinct spot, separate from and yet connected to the rest of the city.
Purpose-driven places don’t materialize on their own, Galvin said. You have to be deliberate about it, and that’s where the Comprehensive Plan comes in. This time around, there’s an emphasis on laying the groundwork for the creation of “small area plans” that will in turn guide the thoughtful development of some of Charlottesville’s gap spots.
“The corridors are still ripe for that kind of redevelopment,” she said. “It’s exciting, but we’ve got to find a way to make it happen, not just talk about it. And the plan is your road map. When the community is involved in doing it, there’s buy-in.”
Tying it all together
Steve Williams’ TJPDC has acted as a kind of governmental emcee throughout the comprehensive planning process, regularly putting staff from city and county together to talk about joint goals.
He’s seen some promising things emerge from those meetings, he said, including a new approach to the Rivanna River, itself a perfect example of a tangible tie binding city and county together.
“Historically, the river has just kind of been there,” Williams said. “Any attention paid to it was to focus on it as a source of drinking water, or to be concerned about meeting water quality standards.”
Now there’s a new attitude, one that approaches the river as a potential community asset, he said. “Obviously, it’s a water source for the region, but we’re also looking at it for human recreation. We’re looking at it as an economic development area.”
If both municipalities’ plans can codify that kind of philosophical shift, “it’s going to lead to a much better approach, and the creation of a real amenity for the community at a lot of different levels,” Williams said.
Similar talks have helped the two municipalities find common ground on where to create more housing and how to combat urban sprawl, he said, and when drafts of the revamped comprehensive plans make their way online and before planning officials in the coming weeks, they’ll reflect the fact that this time around, people were asking an important question: Where do our futures intersect?
“It seems like a fairly theoretical discussion, but it’s a critical one,” said Williams.