By Sean Tubbs
Tuesday, February 9, 2010
For the second time in three months, the Albemarle County Board of Supervisors has deferred consideration of a proposal to increase zoning fees charged for land use applications and home business operations.
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| Supervisors Duane Snow, Ann Mallek and Dennis Rooker
Supervisors opposed to the increases said they first wanted more information on how the department’s review process can be made more efficient. Supervisors supporting the changes said the fees were justified and would allow Albemarle to recover, on average, just 30% of the costs incurred by the County. The Planning Commission
had originally advertised fees that would recover 75% of the costs.
The amendment to the county’s zoning ordinance last came before the board in December after a review process of its own that lasted over two years. Even though the proposal was not altered since the initial deferral, two new Supervisors who criticized the fee increases during the campaign have since joined the Board.
New Supervisor Duane Snow
(Samuel Miller) promised in an October 2009 campaign event
that, if elected, he would oppose any increase in zoning fees. At the time, Snow instead called for a new economic development plan to improve the county’s fiscal condition.
The second new Supervisor, Rodney Thomas
(Rio), began his line of questioning regarding the fees by reading several questions he received via e-mail from Jay Willer
of the Blue Ridge Home Builder’s Association
. The questions included:
| These fee increases were not approved by the Board of Supervisors. Click to enlarge.
Supervisor Dennis Rooker
(Jack Jouett) said many of those questions have been answered during the current review of the fees. He also said streamlining efforts implemented a few years ago in the community development department have resulted in annual savings of $500,000 including an online application system.
Rooker said the Board had three criteria in mind when it directed staff to begin this current review of fees in 2007. First, fees should recover a “significant part” of the cost of a project’s review. Second, fees in Albemarle should be comparable to those in neighboring localities. Finally, fees should be reviewed and updated every two years to reflect inflation and other cost increases.
The fees have not been updated in nearly 20 years, and there is currently no automatic method of raising them on a regular basis. Rooker also said it was time for the county to recover more of its costs from developers.
“If you’d had Biscuit Run
in Greene County, [the rezoning process] would have cost the applicant $84,000,” Rooker said. Instead Forest Lodge LLC paid Albemarle a total of $1,570 for a process that cost the county over $200,000 according to Rooker. He also pointed out that under the proposed fees, Forest Lodge would have paid $35,000.
Snow said the county should consider itself in a partnership with developers, but the county should not dictate all of the terms.
“In the economic times that we’re involved in, we need to work together and maybe come up with something more reasonable,” Snow said. While he acknowledged some fees needed to be increased, Snow said fees and cash proffers result in more expensive houses.
Supervisor Ken Boyd
(Rivanna) passed out a spreadsheet that calculated costs based on salary positions and the time required for each task. Based on his figures, the proposed rates were too high. For instance, he questioned whether it should really take 67 hours of staff time to approve a permit allowing someone to operate a business out of their home. He also asked whether it should take 1,048 hours of staff time to review a rezoning of a parcel larger than 50 acres.
Rooker said the county could save money by choosing to reduce the amount of public participation required for rezonings and special use permits. He said one way to shorten the process would be to simply deny more applications that don’t fit in with the county’s expectations.
“We generally work with applicants to go through a process where the needs of the community are dealt with and the applicant gets his project approved,” Rooker said.
County Attorney Larry Davis
said it was his experience that resubmissions and deferrals add inefficiencies to the system and extends the time and cost of review.
“[The new] fee system by design is trying to get people to focus in on the work they submit to be responsive to the ordinance and for staff to be responsive as well early in the process so there are not multiple resubmissions,” Davis said.
Snow countered that staff would have no similar incentive to reduce their scrutiny. Boyd also placed the blame of inefficiencies on staff. Supervisor Lindsay Dorrier
(Scottsville) said many of the reviews went on “ad infinitum” at a cost to the developer.Mark Graham
, director of the Department of Community Development, said the fees are set at a rate to recover about 30% of the cost of applications. He also said in the past year, his department has provided comments back to applicants within 45 days on 100% of initial rezoning and special use permit applications.
“We’ve looked at all this and we certainly are more than willing to look at it again, but I think we’ve found that we do a pretty good job on most of these things,” Graham said.
Members of the public were invited to weigh in on the topic.
Jack Marshall of the group Advocates for a Sustainable Albemarle Population
said development needed to be carefully overseen. He called for applicants to pay for 100% of the cost of review.
“A request for a subdivision is a special interest initiative proposed by an entity hoping for a private benefit,” Marshall said. “The need for community oversight is created by the developers’ actions. The cost should be their responsibility, and not us taxpayers.”
| Former Supervisor candidate John Lowry
Former candidate for the Board of Supervisors, John Lowry
, said he supported the increase in fees.
"In government, there is no free lunch," Lowry said. "The economics of fees is not a gift to anyone. It is a cost that needs to be paid."
Jay Willer of the Blue Ridge Homebuilder's Association said he hoped the community development process could be streamlined in order to save costs for both the County and developers.
Rooker made a motion to pass the same ordinance under consideration in December. He said the issue had already been studied for two years.
“After a long-winding road, including many adjustments and including outside expertise, I think we met the three criteria the Board established two years ago,” Rooker said.But only Supervisor Ann Mallek (White Hall) joined Rooker in support of the motion, which was defeated 2-4.
Davis asked the Board if they intended to vote to deny the zoning ordinance change, or send it back for further review. Rooker initially said he did not want any more money or time on the issue if it was just going to be defeated again.
“We have spent a fortune getting to where we are today,” Rooker said. “This Board today decided these cost should be borne by the taxpayer rather than applicants.”
Boyd took exception to Rooker’s characterization, and said he was not happy with the numbers put in front of the Board. Boyd said he wanted more study of the efficiency of staff.
“I would like to see a report back from staff indicating why it takes 67 hours to do a [home occupation B permit] and why that’s necessary,” Boyd said. “And I’d like to see that for each of these.”
Supervisors voted to defer the matter until staff comes back with further information.
TIMELINE FOR PODCAST:
- 01:00 - Public comment from John Lowry in favor of expanding the fees per staff recommendations
- 04:15 - Public comment from Jay Willer in the Blue Ridge Homebuilder's Association
- 05:23 - Chair Ann Mallek opens up the discussion and says she will accept comments from the public
- 05:45 - Mark Graham reviews the reasons for the fee increases
- 13:40 - Supervisor Rodney Thomas reads from questions received from Jay Willer
- 15:30 - Supervisor Dennis Rooker responds to Willer's questions
- 21:45 - Supervisor Duane Snow calls for implementing fee increases on a more gradual basis
- 24:45 - Supervisor Lindsay Dorrier calls for fewer projects to go before Architectural Review Board
- 26:45 - Snow, a former ARB member, defends the ARB
- 28:50 - Supervisor Ken Boyd discusses ways to streamline community development review process
- 34:30 - County Attorney Larry Davis explains what information was given to author of efficiency study
- 40:30 - Boyd suggests switching to a system where fees are based on "time and materials" rather than a simple fee
- 46:50 - Snow says he can't support the rate of increase
- 51:00 - Public comment from Jack Marshall of Advocates for a Sustainable Albemarle Population
- 54:15 - Public comment from Neil Williamson of the Free Enterprise Forum
- 57:00 - Public comment from Jay Willer
- 59:00 - Rooker makes a motion to pass the ordinance
- 1:03:00 - Snow explains his vote against Rooker's motion
- 1:06:00 - County Attorney Larry Davis said re-submissions and deferrals
- 1:11:30 - Boyd asks for a vote on the motion, which is defeated 2-4
- 1:18:00 - Deputy County Executive Tom Foley describes how staff is trying to be responsive
- 1:21:40 - Motion to defer passes