February 6, 2021: Catching up with Albemarle's Comprehensive Plan, Entrance Corridors, Rio Hill Shopping Center renovation
On today’s show:
Albemarle Board of Supervisors push back on three-year process to update the Comprehensive Plan
Albemarle Architectural Review Board weighs in on cell tower, Rio Hill Shopping Center
A quick check in with the Albemarle Broadband Authority
In today’s shout-out from me, the Bridge Performing Arts Initiative has opened their exhibit Face to Face - Portraits of Our Vibrant City. Artists were matched with community members to serve as subjects. It turns out, I’m one of them! Due to COVID, the gallery is closed, but members of the public are encouraged to visit the windows at the Bridge to take a view! I worked with artists Tesceline Tabilas on mine, and I’m quite pleased with the way her work turned out. Go see it!
The next installment will be a recap of various COVID projects. Today’s show focuses exclusively on Albemarle County, though my apologies to the Planning Commission for not covering their meeting. There’s a full list of Daily Progress stories written by Allison Wrabel at the end of this report.
The Board of Supervisors had a packed agenda on Wednesday. In our main segment today, they weighed in on a proposal from staff for a three-year review of the county’s Comprehensive Plan.
Virginia’s code requires the Planning Commission in each locality to create and maintain such a plan to guide future development.
“In the preparation of a comprehensive plan, the commission shall make careful and comprehensive surveys and studies of the existing conditions and trends of growth, and of the probable future requirements of its territory and inhabitants,” reads 15.2-2223.
Albemarle’s Comprehensive Plan guides all decisions made in the county, and a major plank is a growth management policy. Charles Rapp became planning director in 2019, but he knows the history. The county’s first Comprehensive Plan dates back to 1971.
“At that time there was a population of just under 40,000 people here in the county,” Rapp said.
Nine years later, the county’s Comprehensive Plan had been updated to call for a growth management policy to limit suburban sprawl. The Board of Supervisors adopted a downzoning in 1980 that established the designated growth areas we know today. The last update was approved in 2015 after a long period of review.
“That update along with the numerous updates over the past 15 years have added a wealth of information throughout our Comprehensive Plan and that has resulted in a document that is over 400 pages long,” Rapp said.
Rapp said the county continues to experience growth, and the pandemic did not slow down the number of building permits and land use applications. Forecasts show the trend will continue.
“The current population is estimated at just below 110,000 here in Albemarle County which is bringing new challenges,” Rapp said. “There have been recent discussion with the Board and with some of our community groups and other boards and commissions focused on transportation infrastructure, affordable housing, development density and form as our development areas take on more urban character, protection of natural resources, scenic viewsheds, and the rural areas.”
Rapp said the upcoming Comprehensive Plan update will give community members and elected officials the chance to review all of these issues. He said there’s also an opportunity to add focus on two new priorities that have emerged in the past few years.
“There’s been an organizational core value of equity and inclusion and diversity which we feel should really be folded into all aspects of this Comprehensive Plan,” Rapp said. “Another item that we’d like to see is to strengthen the synergy between the comp plan’s policies and the goals of the Climate Action Plan so they really align together.”
Rapp said staff is recommending an approach that would “deconstruct” the existing plan and try to root inconsistencies. The idea is to hire a temporary project coordinator to work on a three-year, five phase process to update the plan. The first would be pre-planning, but planning manager Rachel Falkenstein said community engagement would begin in the second. (conceptual scope)
“The second phase we are calling Big Questions and Community Goals, and here is where we would begin the broad engagement process on developing a community vision,” Falkenstein said.
The third phase would deal with land use topics in order to set expectations for community development. The fourth would include development of new policy recommendations, and the fifth would be adoption of the plan. The conceptual framework said this would take place in the first quarter of 2024. A new committee would be created to oversee the project and members of this Project Advisory Group would be paid stipends. The county would hire artists to try to find new ways of conducting community engagement.
Not mentioned by staff, but this year, three seats are up on the Board of Supervisors, and the other three are up for election in 2023. Before then, current supervisors get to approve the pathway forward.
Supervisor Diantha McKeel is in the final year of her second term representing the Jack Jouett District and she expressed a concern.
“Three years is taking me back a little bit,” McKeel said. “That is a long time. I understand there is a lot of work and we don’t want to rush it but three years seems like a long time to get this update done.”
The last Comprehensive Plan took four years to update. (story from June 2015)
For comparison, the city of Charlottesville is entering the fifth year of its Comprehensive Plan process. (cvilleplanstogether)
But back to Albemarle. The first plan in 1971 envisioned a lot more urban development than currently planned. Supervisor Ann Mallek has been active in civic affairs there since the mid 1980’s and was active with the Earlysville Area Residents’ League.
“Back in the 90’s, 80s, Earlysville’s crossroads was a village and thankfully during the early 90’s the leaders of our little organization at the urging of the residents said, well go down to the Board of Supervisors and ask them when we’re going to get out sewers and our sidewalks to go along with all of the townhouses that we were supposed to have right here in the middle of Earlysville,” Mallek said. “And the Board at the time said you’re not getting any, so the response was, take away our village, and they did. That’s not going to happen now I’m sure because all of the services have expanded out much much further than they used to be.”
This will be the first Comprehensive Plan update for Supervisor Donna Price of the Scottsville District. She said Albemarle’s population has grown by 175 percent since 1971.
“This simply exemplifies the complexities of what we are dealing with as an urbanized county that many of our other nearby communities don’t face and really demonstrates the necessity of a review of our Comprehensive Plan,” Price said.
Supervisor Bea LaPisto-Kirtley of the Rivanna District was elected in 2019 along with Price. She said she thought the plan revision should be conducted through the Community Advisory Committees rather than create a new committee.
“I will be honest with you, I’ve got a problem with offering some stipends to people,” LaPisto Kirtley said. “I didn’t see how much it would be per person.”
LaPisto-Kirtley said she would support a chapter-by-chapter review of the existing documents rather than appear to start from scratch. Supervisor Liz Palmer’s first year on the Board of Supervisors in 2014 was spent during such a review.
“A lot of people communicate through the Board,” Palmer said. “They elect us. They listen to us. And development and land use planning is what they’re asking us about half the time. I would want to make sure the Board is quite involved in this and doesn’t come in at the end when you guys have gotten this document all together and it’s dumped on our lap.”
At the end of the discussion, Rapp said he would try to come back with a way to speed up the timeline. A new proposal will come back to the Board of Supervisors at a later date.
Earlier in the meeting, the Board of Supervisors agreed to pursue several avenues to convert several roadways to classifications that would allow them to be under the purview of the Architectural Review Board. Three years ago staff noticed that several of the county’s 21 Entrance Corridors were not actually compliant with state guidelines.
One of the disqualified Entrance Corridors is Avon Street, which lost its status. Staff has recommended asking the Virginia Department of Transportation to classify the roadway as an arterial, but that has triggered concern from members of the 5th and Avon Community Advisory Committee. Supervisor Donna Price read from a letter they sent.
“We know that a corridor study is supposed to be taking place on Avon Street Extended and have some serious concerns as to the impact that obtaining arterial status may have specifically with regards to things like speed limits,” Price said. “We have Mountain View Elementary School up there and Biscuit Run Park at the southern end of Avon Street Extended.”
Transportation Planner Kevin McDermott said the corridor study is already completed. He also said that arterial roadways can continue to have speed limits of 35 miles per hour, but they would review the application to see if any changes would need to be made. (March 2020 study)
“VDOT will not have any issue with us installing pedestrian facilities like are recommended in that corridor plan if it were an arterial,” McDermott said. “They’re not going to make that distinction.”
McDermott said the arterial status would not interfere with a crosswalk at Mountain View Elementary School. Supervisor Liz Palmer said the 5th and Avon CAC also wants to make sure that Old Lynchburg Road near Southwood can be an Entrance Corridor so that new development can be reviewed by the ARB.
Albemarle's Architectural Review Board met on Monday, and its members had no issue with the appearance of a 94-foot cell tower Verizon wants to build in Greenwood off of I-64. The ARB has jurisdiction because this site is within an Entrance Corridor.
Albemarle's current wireless policy does not ban such towers, but requires them to blend into the scenery. ARB member Fred Missell said the process has worked well.
"Of all of the projects that we do in the county, I think the way the visibilility of these monopoles has been handled has been top-notch compared to other counties," Missel said.
The ARB's review was limited in purview to the I-64 entrance corridor. The tower will also need a special use permit from the Board of Supervisors. ARB member Frank Hancock said he understood opposition from neighbors but supported the application.
"To me this is entirely appropriate, I don't really have any issues with it," Hancock said.
Relatively new ARB member Christian Henningsen agreed but with a caveat.
"I had no concerns about the appearance from 64," Henningsen said. "I think the adjacent landowners have a different perspective and the appearance may be a lot of different from that perspective but that's kind of out of our purview."
The ARB voted 5-0 to approve a certificate of appropriateness for the tower.
Next, they reviewed a plan to renovate the 31-acre Rio Hill Shopping Center, which is owned by a company associated with the Connecticut State Retirement system. Josh Kagan is with Hart Advisors and is the owner's representative.
"Retail has changed and COVID has accelerated that change and I think as a result retail is ever more binary and there are going to be winners and losers," Kagan said.
The Rio Hill Shopping Center was built in 1989, and Kagan said this redesign is intended to make it relevant in a shifting retail landscape.
"I want you guys to understand what our vision is," Kagan said. "This is not a short-term sort of fix. This is to create and transform the public experience of this real estate."
This year, the T.J. Maxx will move to a bigger space where Dick's Sporting Goods had been, and a Sierra Trading Post store will open. Those are the first steps as part of a larger redevelopment that will continue. The existing canopies will be removed according to David Timmerman of BRW Architects.
"What we're looking for is a site that brings people, that attracts people, that makes people walk from one end of the site to the other," Timmerman said.
One corner of the site will be demolished in a future phase of redevelopment to make way for new construction. Frank Hancock said he appreciated that some of the empty retail spaces would be filled.
"You see those giant voids, those big empty retails spaces, so having that reoccupied is definitely a positive on the corridor," Hancock said.
Kagan said Sierra Trading Post and T.J. Maxx are hoping to move to their new location in the fall.
Later in the day on Monday, the Albemarle Broadband Authority met at 5 p.m. at a rescheduled meeting. The county will pursue funding for several projects in 2021 through both the Virginia Telecommunications Initiative and the federal Rural Digital Opportunity Fund. Mike Culp is the Information Technology Director at the county.
“The likelihood of one or both being awarded is still high, but we just have to go through a process to make sure we do all that we can to make our next big deadline which is February 8,” Culp said.
The authority went into closed session at the end of the meeting to discuss some of the details in the VATI application.
There are nine specific goals called for in Albemarle’s strategic plan, and one of them is to expand broadband. Culp said the Board of Supervisors will be briefed on February 17 on an initiative to expand internet to all residences in Albemarle. That follows an announcement last year that Nelson County is planning to achieve that goal in 2024. The ABBA board will meet with the supervisors at that meeting on February 17.
I mentioned I’d have a list of Daily Progress coverage from the week. All of these are by reporter Allison Wrabel.
Broadband authority expands wireless to 3,000 homes, February 2, 2021
County planners voice support for development fee increases, February 2, 2021
County looks to re-designate eight roads, February 3, 2021
Supervisors wary of long comp plan review process, February 3, 2021