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March 12, 2012

Survey highlights value of rural areas, public participation

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DailyProgressBy Brian Wheeler
Charlottesville Tomorrow
Monday, March 12, 2012

When it comes to our quality of life, another survey has found that nearly all local residents view the area’s rural countryside as an important contributor.

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The connection to the rural countryside appears especially strong among residents of Nelson County. In Albemarle County, more than six in 10 residents said they opposed having new businesses locate in the rural area.

“When it comes down to valuing the rural areas, that’s always ranked very highly by people in the county,” said Albemarle spokeswoman Lee Catlin. “That’s an enduring value.”

When, where and how the community grows are frequent topics before local government. The survey, undertaken by the University of Virginia’s Center for Survey Research and commissioned by Charlottesville Tomorrow, also gauged how well local officials listen to and engage their residents.

“The issues of growth, development and transportation have been very hotly discussed in the public arena over the past several years,” said Thomas M. Guterbock, the center’s director. “The exciting thing about a survey like this is it gives voice to the many people who normally aren’t talking to officials or the media.”

The survey found that 96.5 percent of area residents believe the rural countryside is important to their quality of life. Among Albemarle County residents, 65.6 percent said they oppose having new businesses on land currently zoned as rural.

“Because Albemarle is so large, the survey included more than enough Albemarle residents to accurately gauge their opinion on this issue,” Guterbock said. “Over 97 percent of people we asked about this issue had an opinion. That is an unusually high number for a question about a local zoning issue.”

In January, 1,098 area residents were surveyed by telephone on a number of local issues as part of the inaugural Jefferson Area Community Survey, what is planned to be a bi-annual omnibus survey of public opinion.

Participants included residents of six area localities in the Thomas Jefferson Planning District: the city of Charlottesville and the counties of Albemarle, Fluvanna, Greene, Louisa and Nelson. The results have an accuracy of plus or minus 3.75 percentage points.

In Albemarle, the lines differentiating urban and rural areas have remained largely unchanged since the county was comprehensively rezoned in 1980. About 5 percent of the county is designated for residential and commercial growth.

Over the past several years, the county has received numerous requests to change the boundaries to add more land to the growth area. While most of those proposals have been turned down, the ongoing update of the Comprehensive Plan is generating new discussion about where the lines should be drawn.

Neil Williamson, president of the Free Enterprise Forum, says zoning for light-industrial land needs to be carefully considered.

“There are opportunities being missed because we do not have affordable land for light industry in all the right places,” Williamson said. “This results in a loss of job opportunities in Albemarle County.”
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“The growth area needs to be large enough to accommodate all of the projected growth, both residential, commercial and industrial, for a set period of time, generally 20 to 30 years,” he said. “I don’t believe that the empirical data has been given yet to indicate whether the growth area is sufficient in all of those categories to meet that demand.”

Rex Linville is the local land conservation officer of the Piedmont Environmental Council. He says government has the data on what is needed and the survey shows the Albemarle Planning Commission is following the community’s wishes.

“Fortunately, the commission looked at a handful of growth area expansion requests last fall, and they rejected all of them,” Linville said. “The commission didn’t recommend further study because the staff analysis … said there was no need to expand the growth area. I think the data is out there.”

Linville said the biggest threat to the area’s rural countryside is the ongoing “creep of development.”

“It’s a slow death by a thousand cuts,” Linville said. “A farm gets chopped up into a few lots this year and a few the next. Part of the threat is our current zoning that allows that slow creep of development to occur.”

Williamson said the question on changing growth area boundaries could have been misunderstood as applying everywhere.

“If it had mentioned that the designated growth areas were set in 1980, and now it’s 30 years later, you could then ask if the growth areas should be re-evaluated?” Williamson explained. “Then I think you would have a different answer.”

One issue that has brought environmentalists and business advocates together is the search for initiatives that strengthen the rural economy, such as support for existing farms.

Catlin noted that a series of roundtables on the rural areas is informing the Comprehensive Plan update.

“All participants have been anxious to make sure any economic activity in the rural areas supports and stays closely connected to traditional agricultural activities,” she said.

Residents were also asked about whether their local government gave adequate attention to public concerns, specifically on growth, development and transportation issues.

The survey found just over half, 53.6 percent, of residents think government gives the right amount, or even too much attention, to citizen concerns.

When asked if there were adequate opportunities for public participation on these issues, 68.3 percent said they were very or somewhat satisfied.

“I believe that the elected and appointed officials do take citizen comments, letters and remarks into consideration,” said Williamson, who tracks issues in all of the localities surveyed. “Adjustments get made to address the needs of citizens, ideas that were not presented by staff. This is genuine public participation.”

Catlin agreed.

“Our own survey compared us really favorably to similar jurisdictions across the United States about opportunities to participate in community matters,” she said. “There are always opportunities to do better, and this is a community where that is a strong value.”

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