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March 05, 2008

Board approves $25K for ASAP population study; group may not accept

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The Albemarle County Board of Supervisors has allocated $25,000 to a local group that is conducting a study on the area’s “optimal population size.” However, the President of Advocates for a Sustainable Albemarle Population (ASAP) told Charlottesville Tomorrow he is not certain if the group will accept the money, given certain restrictions that were placed on its use.

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ASAP was formed in 2002 to study the effects of population growth on natural resources.  In October 2006, the group first approached the Board of Supervisors to ask if County staff could spend time assessing the Albemarle’s biological resources to find out how many people it could support. ASAP sought to produce a population number or range that could be used by the County as planning tool, but the Board decided that the County did not have the resources to take on the work.

So, ASAP decided to pursue the study themselves to answer this question: How big can this community grow and still ensure a quality of life current citizens expect and deserve, protect our environment, and maintain the character of our community?

While ASAP’s mission is primarily focused on this community, they have a secondary goal to use the study as a template to assist other communities. This goal has helped them raise more money towards the $110,000 project, but ASAP sought the balance from local governments. ASAP members have contributed $26,000, and ASAP received a grant from the Colcom Foundation of Pittsburgh.

Last June, the Board agreed to set aside $25,000 pending the review of the scope of ASAP’s project. At the time, Supervisor David Slutzky (Rio) said he supported the idea because he wanted to know the “ecological carrying capacity” of the County. In August, the City of Charlottesville set aside $11,000, also pending review. 

ASAP presented their scope of work to the Board of Supervisors on March 5, 2008. ASAP President Jack Marshall said because there is no known methodology for such a study, ASAP planned to simultaneously examine seven categories. The first three would take a look at services provided by the ecosystem, an analysis of the environmental  footprint of human activity, and the effect of population growth on streams and air quality. The other four would include evaluating the opinions of area residents, the effect of population on the character of the community, and evaluating the economic costs of growth.

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ASAP's Jack Marshall

“We believe that this project is a step in the County’s effort to work towards a truly sustainable community,” Marshall said. “The product of the exercise is knowledge.”  To that end, Marshall said ASAP has developed an accounting system under which County funding would only go to fund the first three goals.

But Slutzky said he was uncomfortable funding the latter four categories of study, and asked if it would be possible for ASAP to hold off on those avenues for the study.

“I think it’s imperative that the community undertake this work,” Slutzky said. “My concern is that because… instead of doing this ourselves we would be funding an advocacy group to do this work for us, I think we have to be very very careful. We’re using public monies for a public purpose, but my concern is that if an advocacy group is undertaking not only the scientific elements, but the softer social science elements… What I wanted to do, and have all along, is fund the hard science part of this,” Slutzky said. He then asked ASAP to consider holding off on the latter four categories of research until the first three are complete.

Marshall said he could not agree to cut the study in half. “We’re the blind men trying to define the elephant,” he said. “The elephant is an optimal population size, a sustainable size. We don’t know how to go about that. We’re all grappling at ways to define it,” he said.

Supervisor Dennis Rooker (Jack Jouett) took up Slutzky’s concern, and said the County did not want the subjective social elements to “bleed over” into the scientific work. Slutzky went a step forward, and said the County’s use of the science could be politically compromised.

Marshall said the Colcom Foundation has given $50,000 for one year of work based on the entire study, and not the first three categories, and might not accept a postponement of the other ones.

Chairman Ken Boyd (Rivanna) said he was opposed to the idea of the County Board setting a population cap. Rooker said ASAP’s study did not do that, but instead sought to provide a way to give County officials and residents a sense of how much human activity could be absorbed by the ecosystem.

“You can either operate based upon the best possible information, or you can put your head in the sand,“ Rooker said. “Whether or not this Board now, or ever, would adopt some kind of section to the Comprehensive Plan that talks about an optimal population would be a decision to be made at that time. These things that we talked about funding provide us with valuable tools for making land use decisions.”

Supervisor Lindsay Dorrier (Scottsville) wanted to know what new information ASAP’s study would bring in, given that the group StreamWatch already monitors human impacts on streams.  He added that he though accepting ASAP’s study could potentially end up putting the County in conflict with its own zoning ordinances.  Rooker said the County would not be asked to support any of ASAP’s conclusions, but were instead being asked to make a one-time expenditure to help ASAP conduct the research.

“If we were going to go out and do this ourselves, it would be a whole lot more costly," Rooker said.

Boyd said that the $25,000 could be put to better use given that other projects are being denied funding because of the revenue shortfall.

“If we’re going to be investing taxpayer money, we have to do it very prudently, and I’d like to stick to the first three items,” Slutzky said. “We need this money to buy us some information, some knowledge, something that is extremely valuable to us without it being compromised or tainted in any way.”

Though no public hearing had been advertised for the action item, Chairman Boyd decided to allow public comment.

Neil Williamson of the Free Enterprise Forum said he did not object to the work being performed, but that government funding should not be awarded. “ In the end that’s what this is about - government funding for population control – this is the first step,” Williamson said.

ASAP member Tom Olivier spoke on behalf of the Sierra Club, and said the Board’s conditions would make it hard for the study to be fully effective.  He said ASAP had met all of the previous conditions set by the board, and dismissed the notion that ASAP had a preconceived agenda it wanted to push. “This is ASAP’s first foray into scientific research,  and it intends to establish and proceed with a very high standard,” Olivier said. Olivier said the Sierra Club would be troubled by a government dictating to a non-governmental organization how it should proceed.

Jeff Werner of the Piedmont Environmental Council pointed out that Albemarle County participated in the Sustainability Accords,  an effort spear-headed by the Thomas Jefferson Planning District Council in 1998, and later incorporated into the County’s Comprehensive Plan.

“You all participated in the Sustainability Accords, and one of the adopted provisions was:  ‘strive for a size and distribution of human population that will preserve the vital resources of the region for future generations,’” Werner said.

Jay Willer of the Blue Ridge Homebuilders Association asked how ASAP would feel if his organization approached the Board with a request to fund a study to promote growth.  He said the science to be performed by ASAP would be more useful  to the public if it did not come from an advocacy group.

After public comment, Supervisor Sally Thomas (Samuel Miller) said she shared Olivier’s concern. “If you think [the research] is tainted just because it’s being done by ASAP, I will remind us that ASAP suggested we do it ourselves,” Thomas said.

Slutzky made a motion to approve the allocation, but with the conditions that he had outlined, namely that a draft of the scientific research results come to the Board of Supervisors before ASAP expended additional funds on the second phase of their project. Rooker seconded. After further discussion of whether ASAP would be willing to accept the conditions, the Board voted 5-1 to allocate the money.

Afterwards, Marshall told Charlottesville Tomorrow that he was not certain if ASAP would take the money, or pursue other funding options.

Sean Tubbs  

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