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Opinion/Editorial: Plans, processes can be critical to zoning issues

Opinion/Editorial: Plans, processes can be critical to zoning issues

The Daily Progress July 9, 2019

And the pendulum swings again.

From fast growth, to no growth, to slow growth, to managed growth, Albemarle County has seen its share of policy changes over the past several decades.

Now, a backlash to growth — seen by critics as too fast and furious — is trying to redirect policy yet again.

Or, as some people would argue, the backlash is trying to compel Albemarle to abide by its own vision for growth.

That vision allows for growth within designated areas that are served by roads and other infrastructure. Outside the growth areas, the goal is to protect rural land and agricultural/forestal uses.

But in recent weeks, residents in two sections of the county have challenged proposed rezoning amendments to allow higher-density development. Residents from one of those areas, eastern Rio Road, have called for a complete county moratorium on rezoning and development along the Rio-U.S. 29 corridor.

Residents from the Rivanna Village growth area near U.S. 250 west call for the county to abide by the county’s master plan for their section.

Also coming into play is Albemarle’s Comprehensive Plan, which provides guidelines for growth countywide.

Critics in both sections of the county argue that growth is threatening to overwhelm infrastructure — or in some cases already has done so.

Rio Road residents point to heavy traffic in their neighborhoods and on U.S. 29 as evidence that growth already has outpaced infrastructure. Rivanna Village residents point to Rio Road-U.S. 29 as a cautionary example of how badly things could go for them if the county approves more growth there before U.S. 250 and feeder roads are upgraded.

There are a couple of general or procedural issues that ought to be understood in this context.

Some critics have complained about the county even entertaining rezoning requests.

But accepting a request for review isn’t tantamount to approving the request.

In fact, it would be discriminatory and undemocratic for the county to prejudge or refuse to accept any properly filed rezoning request. Such an action would corrupt a process that is intended to be fair and even-handed.

And part of the process is allowing the public to comment on proposed changes — a provision that is being energetically exercised by residents in the cases cited above.

Additionally, it’s important to understand what comprehensive plan and master plans do and do not accomplish.

It’s intended to set guidelines, not mandates. In other words, its provisions are not hard-and-fast rules.

Residents are justified in citing the Comprehensive Plan as a foundation for some of their arguments. If the plan is to be worth anything at all, it must serve as the philosophical touchstone for county growth and preservation decisions as made on a day-to-day practical basis.

But the plan is only that, not an edict or a contract.

And so while residents are right to cite its authority, they should not put all their trust in a generalized plan that lawfully can be applied only as a document of guidance, not as a guarantee.

The details of rezoning requests will have to be evaluated individually on their merits as they come along. That includes the process by which the public can express opposition or support.

And understanding of the zoning process and the Comprehensive Plan, along with other county policies, will prevent unrealistic expectations and help residents better utilize those documents.

Kirsten Alexander Morris

The Vectre Corporation