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June 14, 2012

Albemarle says shorter can be better when it comes to comprehensive plans

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DailyProgressBy Brian Wheeler
Charlottesville Tomorrow
Thursday, June 14, 2012

As a planner in Albemarle County for the past 15 years, Elaine Echols is one of the most knowledgeable officials guiding the locality’s update of its comprehensive plan. While changes happen each year, a major rewrite hasn’t happened since 1996, shortly before Echols started her job.

However, the plan she was handed as a new employee fit in a single three-ring binder. Today, she can only show community groups photos of the comprehensive plan. That’s because it’s too cumbersome to carry around.

20120613-Alb-CompPlan
Elements of Albemarle County's Comprehensive Plan in June 2012
Credit: Elaine Echols

“I took this picture yesterday, and I’m not sure it’s inclusive of everything, but this is our comprehensive plan,” Echols said Wednesday to a meeting of the Piedmont Group of the Sierra Club. “You can see why it needs to be reduced in bulk.”

“We have master plans, a biodiversity report and recommendations, open space plans … the neighborhood model and historic preservation,” Echols observed of the stacks of material. “We’ve got a lot of plans where the substance doesn’t need to go but the form needs to be changed.”

Albemarle is reaching out to various stakeholders to get them involved in the effort. A similar process is under way in Charlottesville and both localities are working in concert with the Thomas Jefferson Planning District Commission. The TJPDC received a three-year $1 million federal grant in 2010 grant for what is known as the Livable Communities Planning Project.

Tom Olivier is the chair of the Piedmont Group of the Sierra Club. He followed up Echols’ presentation from the perspective of a long time environmental advocate in the community. He said he agreed having a more accessible plan was a “completely reasonable goal.”

“A plan should not be highly specific,” Olivier said. “It ceases to be a plan if it is so detailed that people can’t find the principles readily.

“At the same time, when text is reduced, it’s very easy for nuances and small bits of text which nonetheless involve key commitments, to get changed or eliminated,” Olivier warned. “We need for citizens with knowledge and commitment to be involved and look at the drafts as they are brought before the Planning Commission.”

Echols said Aug. 28 was the target date for staff to complete their first draft of the comprehensive plan’s revised text. There will be public hearings in the fall and a recommendation from the Planning Commission to the Albemarle Board of Supervisors before the end of the year.

Echols said a lot of new initiatives and data were being reviewed for possible inclusion in the plan.

In February, a consultant working for the Thomas Jefferson Partnership for Economic Development recommended three industries for the community to target for new jobs. They include companies focused on bioscience and medical devices, business and financial services and information technology and defense security.

Olivier said the Sierra Club was concerned about those findings and the push for “economic vitality” initiatives by the Albemarle supervisors since 2010.

“One of the things that concerns a number of us is that in economic policy there has been an emphasis on the promotion of high-end, high tech … high paying jobs,” said Olivier. “We need to have career tracks for people who are in the lower echelons of the economic system so they can make more money.”

Olivier also called for the community to take a fresh look at the 1998 Sustainability Accords adopted by local officials at the time and which the recent TJPDC livability grant was intended to help implement. He said the impacts of population growth also needed consideration.

“Research by Advocates for a Sustainable Albemarle Population has shown unequivocally that continuing growth of our population…undermines our environment,” Olivier said. “If we are going to have a good comprehensive plan, some of us believe that sustainability and links to population growth need to be addressed.”

ASAP’s president, Jack Marshall, encouraged the group to complete a survey being circulated by the TJPDC seeking feedback on community priorities. The survey is available at http://1-community.org and responses are due by July 2.

Echols concluded her presentation with her own plea for the public to get engaged, put their eyes on the documents and provide feedback.

“Please participate in this,” Echols said. “Be aware of what is being proposed. Talk to your supervisors about it. We want everybody’s voice heard in this particular plan, and we say that to every group.”

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