February 18, 2021: Albemarle Planning Commission recommend adoption of Rio-29 form-based code; EDA briefed on economic outlook, 2021 assessments

  
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Many happy landings today as we wait to find out if another rover will successfully land on Mars after another “seven minutes of terror.” It’s Thursday, February 18, 2021 and the following is another installment of “several minutes of information” or as I’ve called it for nearly 150 times now, the Charlottesville Community Engagement Newscast and Newsletter.

Support for today’s show comes not from a Patreon-fueled shout-out, but instead from a donation from the Valley Research Center. Experts there have concocted the following introduction for my consideration. I want you to let me know if you think it works? 

On today’s show: 

  • Albemarle County Planning Commission takes action on a form-based code the intersection of Rio Road and U.S. 29

  • The Albemarle County Economic Development Authority gets an update on assessments, the economy, and more 

  • More homes coming to Greene County 

  • Small business group wants to help beverage producers with marketing


Eleven months into the pandemic, and Albemarle and Charlottesville have set one-day records today for new COVID cases. There are 99 reported in Charlottesville and 135 reported in Albemarle. Yesterday, the UVA COVID-tracker listed 229 new cases, and it is likely some of those cases are reflected in today’s health district numbers. 

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Yesterday, the UVA Health System announced their intent to make a full purchase of the Novant Health UVa Health System, which includes hospitals in Culpeper, Haymarket and Prince William. UVA will buy out Novant’s 40 percent share. The three facilities have a total of 260 inpatient beds, which would bring the UVA Health Systems’ total to over a thousand. The move is included within the University of Virginia’s overall strategic plan for 2030. The deal is expected to close by July 1. 

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The Albemarle County Economic Development Authority has entered into a job creation agreement with Afton Scientific for that company’s expansion. 

Afton Scientific manufactures pharmaceuticals that are sterile and digestible and has around 60 employees.  Their products include therapies for cystic fibrosis, immune diseases, and breast cancer.  Tom Thorp, the firm’s CEO, told the EDA about a probiotic for infants that Afton Scientific is working on.

“That will get rolled out nationwide, and it’s very exciting,” Thorp said. “A lot of major companies are going to be backing that and we’ll be making that at our third facility. What we do is we take the ingredients and we mix it up and we sterilize it and put in these vials and cap and crimp it and give it back to the customer.” 

The company is in the midst of a $500,000 expansion that will add 20 new jobs with an average wage of $48,500. Afton Scientific recently received a Virginia Jobs Investment Program grant that will provide the company with a bonus of $750 per job. Albemarle is adding an additional $10,000, or $500 per job, with that funding coming through the EDA. The members voted unanimously to approve the deal with one member abstaining due to a conflict of interest.

Next, the EDA got an update on the county’s real estate assessments for 2021. Commercial properties declined an average of 5.5 percent in Albemarle, according to assessor Peter Lynch.

“Hotels were kind of the properties that were affected the worse in their valuation because of the pandemic with shopping centers only slightly behind them,” Lynch said. “We have found that so far medical office and office buildings are adversely affected but really the long term effect on that is still to be seen.” 

After Lynch’s presentation, county economist Steve Allshouse gave a look at the county’s economic future, though he cautioned forecasts are difficult in this time period. 

“Everything is being driven by the pandemic and typically when economists do forecasting they like to look at historical data,” Allshouse said. “Well, the problem is we don’t have a lot of historical data dealing with the economy in pandemics and in fact you have to go back to 1918 to the Spanish Flu pandemic to find any data that might be instructive.” 

Allshouse said the local economy has bright spots, including a relatively low unemployment rate as well as data that shows the total number of jobs in the county appears to have increased after an initial loss of ten percent of jobs in the early days of the pandemic. 

“What I’m thinking currently, for the quarter that ended in December, is that we most likely gained back about 40 percent, maybe a little more,” Allshouse said. 

Allshouse said the recovery will likely be slow especially as the path forward with the pandemic remains unclear.  Part of this relates to consumer confidence in the economy but part of it relates to uncertainty in many households. 

“There are still people hurting in this recession and its aftermath so when I talk about consumer confidence going up, I just want people to be aware that I’m aware that not everybody is feeling confident,” Allshouse said. 

Allshouse said the savings rates are up on aggregate, but this does not capture the experience of all Americans. 

“A lot of people are saving and also their property values to get back to Peter’s point locally have gone up and also with recent increases in the last several quarters in the U.S. equities market, a lot of people’s net worth has gone up,” Allshouse said. “But again I have to heavily caveat these statements by saying not everyone own’s stocks, not everyone has a 401K savings plan, not everybody owns a house, so again, there are large swaths of the population that have not seen their household net worth go up.”

Another factor to consider is the migration of people to this community from elsewhere who bring their jobs with them during a time of remote work. 

You can watch the full meeting on the county’s YouTube channel

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A statewide business group wants to help area beverage producers get their drinks to more customers. The Virginia Small Business Development Center is working with Cureate Courses to offer a free six-week program intended to "speed up the growth of existing food and beverage producers in Central Virginia." The program is open to companies in both the Shenandoah Valley and Central Virginia who are seeking to grow. Applications are being taken through March 8. (apply)

J.T. Newberry with the county’s economic development office encouraged businesses to apply.

“Agribusiness and food production is one of the county’s targeted industries,” Newberry said. 

On Tuesday, the Albemarle Planning Commission held a public hearing on a new zoning overlay district created by staff for the area around the intersection of U.S. 29 and Rio Road. The idea is to encourage the redevelopment of single-story shopping centers into a more urban form. The form-based code would be optional and would allow for more square feet in a structure. Rachel Falkenstein is a planning manager with the county. 

“The application process for development under form-based code would look pretty similar to a by-right development process that we have today with a couple of small tweaks,” Falkenstein said. “The first is that we are requiring a pre-application meeting for applications under the form based code where we could discuss topics with the applicant such as the location of streets and civic spaces and any unique site characteristics.”

Some Commissioners wanted the code to have more incentives in place to encourage property owners to actually take advantage of it. 

“Without those incentives being identified and clarified, what motivation is there for the private sector given that the form-based code is optional?” asked Commissioner Rick Randolph, who served on the Board of Supervisors from 2016 to 2019. 

Commissioner Karen Firehock also encouraged staff to work on creating incentives. She also thought the code should not require or prioritize that roofs be pitched. 

“We don’t want everything to look the same and the main point I want to make is that flat roofs allow us to have green roofs,” Firehock said. “There are many green roofs that are designed with benches and gardens and even places to have a picnic lunch.”

Commissioner Jennie More represents the White Hall District which includes Crozet. She said there could be an opportunity for this area to absorb more residential population through redevelopment.

“I guess I’m just putting this out there as you move through this process is, are we asking enough from this area that is so much different from downtown Crozet?” More asked.

That could mean higher buildings, which have been opposed by some nearby residents in the plan’s development. Commissioner Tim Keller would support taller buildings.

“I understand the heights were lowered because of community involvement earlier on, but I do think that this is a place with the combination of its proximity to the University of Virginia and the city center and its location where it is in an area that is seeing such major redevelopment that incentives that would allow higher structures and maybe that’s part of the answer,” Keller said. 

Commission Chair Julian Bivens said he thought the project would be more prone to failure if the county cannot make sizable investments in the infrastructure needed for an urban area. 

“If our Supervisors really want that intersection to take off, then we’re going to have to figure out a way to sort of come in there and put some things in place and perhaps become serious partners with some of the landowners,” Bivens said. 

The Commission voted to unanimously to recommend approval of the form-based code and it will go next to the Board of Supervisors. 

In the next installment of the show, we’ll have a quick report on the Rio Road Corridor study that will soon be underway. There’s a lot going on in this community. 

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Finally today, the Greene County Board of Supervisors  last week approved a zoning amendment that allows Southern Development’s construction of two new neighborhoods to move forward. A previous board in 2012 rezoned land just north of the Albemarle County border for the Creekside and the Village of Preddy Creek. If fully built out, the two areas would bring about 1,000 new homes. The original rezoning required a connector road to be built prior to construction, but the amendment acknowledged that the Virginia Department of Transportation is now building the road. Read Terry Beigie’s story in the Greene County Record for the details