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November 29, 2011

County continues conversation on industrial land use

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DailyProgressBy Kurt Walters
Charlottesville Tomorrow
Tuesday, November 29, 2011

As part of Albemarle County’s comprehensive plan review, county staff members held a roundtable discussion Monday to gather stakeholder comments on industrial land needs.

Business owners, environmental and pro-business advocates and representatives from the city of Charlottesville and University of Virginia gave input on what amenities and zoning regulations would help facilitate operating a business in Albemarle.

County staff noted that the type of industry that they hope to attract is not the obtrusive, polluting factory kind, but “more modern” facilities, offering an image of an attractive molecular foundry in San Francisco as an example.

“When we talk about industrial land of 2011, we’re trying to get away from the concept of smokestacks,” said Elaine Echols, principal planner at the county. “This country isn’t doing much in the way of smokestacks anymore … what we’re looking at is the high tech industry.”

Participants at the roundtable stressed the importance of access to interstate and rail transportation, high-speed internet infrastructure, nearby logistics support and proximity to “human capital” — high quality employees.

Real estate broker Carolyn Shears said that a new trend is what she termed “lite” industry, with small amounts of assembly or distribution accompanying primarily office space. Crozet’s Starr Hill Brewery founder Mark Thompson added that “hybridization” of industrial and retail uses was another trend with which county regulations have not kept speed.

“Where I’m at is considered heavy industrial, but I have needs for retail operations, tastings and public access, so to me I’ve been boxed in,” Thompson said. “Industrial is not industrial per se anymore … we’re not manufacturing stuff like widgets like we used to.”

Piedmont Environment Council representative Jeff Werner noted that speculators have often purchased light industrial land in Albemarle but not developed it, waiting for rezoning to more lucrative residential or commercial uses. Simply adding more light industrial land will not solve the problem, he said, unless this core issue is resolved.

“Albemarle’s rezoned in the last 10-11 years roughly 220 acres from light industrial to highway, commercial and other things,” Werner said. “One thing we could do very simply is to … revise the policy and say ‘we are not going to change this from LI [light industrial] to [a] shopping center.’”

Neil Williamson of the Free Enterprise Forum said that the county’s support of mixed-use developments could be to blame for this phenomenon. He added that segregated use developments on the edge of the growth areas would be more likely to be converted to light industrial use and therefore bring new jobs.

County staff also facilitated discussion about permitting development near rural interstate interchanges to allow low impact businesses supporting the rural economy to locate there. 

While Morgan Butler of the Southern Environmental Law Center said that this could be an appropriate location for small business owners priced out of larger business parks, several Crozet residents expressed opposition to the idea.

“We’ve seen too many times that what started out looking like tolerable uses are converted into intolerable uses by rezoning,” said Crozet Gazette editor Mike Marshall. “The public simply does not trust the government to stick with the rules that it starts out with.”

Members of the county planning commission and all six of next year’s county supervisors observed the roundtable, although the supervisors were barred from participating because it had not been noticed as a public meeting.

Supervisor Rodney S. Thomas, who represents the Rio District, said that these conversations were very important to the board’s “business-oriented” focus. He said he has advocated adding more light industrial land to the county to better attract business, especially after the planned Biscuit Run State Park effectively removed 800 acres from the designated growth area.

“We’re losing business to other counties that are willing to take these tax dollars,” Thomas said in an interview, adding that it was difficult not being able to contribute to the discussion. “I about chewed my tongue off sitting there not talking.”

White Hall Supervisor Ann H. Mallek said in an interview that the session brought a lot of valuable input, but noted that most of the comments were representing the interests of attendees’ personal businesses and would have to be brought into context with the concerns of the entire community.

“I always describe [that] as ‘Community with a capital C’ and we don’t do that very well here,” Mallek said.

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