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June 02, 2006

Effectiveness of groundwater policies questioned with subdivision decision

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With a proposal in front of them for a new subdivision next to Glenmore called Glen Oaks, the Albemarle County Planning Commission voted to deny the 30 home proposal by a vote of 4-3 at their May 30, 2006 meeting earlier this week. Factors related to groundwater issues played a major role in the Commission's decision.  Commissioners learned that a lack of available groundwater has been problematic for residents living in the nearby neighborhood of Running Deer and that the homes in Glen Oaks would be clustered on the side of the site with less adequate groundwater resources. Glen Oaks would require a total of 30 residential water wells and is located in the rural area just outside of Glenmore, a community in a designated growth area with public water and sewer services. 

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Photo: Glen Oaks developer Don Franco before the Planning Commission

Glen Oaks offers an interesting example of the sometimes limited powers of local government in Virginia as well as the complexity of trying to build quality subdivisions in Albemarle's rural areas (places our Comprehensive Plan would have us protect as the growth areas have public water).  How does a community balance the interests of property owners wanting to develop their land, existing residents nearby wanting adequate and safe groundwater, and current rural area regulations that allow subdivisions to be built all at once without a time-release build-out schedule?  As I researched the groundwater ordinance for this posting, it became clear to me that phasing of construction in the rural areas is one thing that would allow for monitoring the incremental impact of rural area residential growth on water resources. 

More time and better data collection were important topics of discussion when the ordinance was approved in 2004.  According to the minutes of the Board of Supervisors meeting from December 8, 2004, the purpose of the County's Groundwater Protection Ordinance is:

"...to promote the long-term sustainability of groundwater resources by requiring that certain land development approvals (building permits, subdivision plats, site plans) and central water supplies that will rely on privately owned wells... be subject to a groundwater assessment... Satisfactorily completing the applicable requirements of the groundwater assessment would become a prerequisite to the land development approval." [download ordinance]

So while the ordinance requires a groundwater assessment for a new subdivision, some Commissioners were surprised to learn this week that neither the Planning Commission nor county staff currently has the authority to reject a subdivision on the basis of data from these groundwater assessments.  At this time, the studies are only recommendations designed to provide subdivision applicants with information aimed at protecting and preserving identified groundwater resources. 

In their discussion of the ordinance proposal in August 2004, Planning Commissioners were told that:

"...the Groundwater Committee, from a very early stage, decided to approach the standards as a vehicle to improve development design and promote good development practices, rather than as a 'yes/no' threshold test for approval or denial. This decision was made because of the evidence from other counties and the desire for a program that is defensible and practical."

In December 2004, Supervisor Dennis Rooker observed that Virginia law does not allow the County to deny a building permit based upon the alleged impact on a neighbor's well.  An existing homeowner has no priority right to groundwater over an adjoining property owner that wants to build a new home. 

Thus, at this week's Planning Commission meeting, Deputy County Attorney Greg Kamptner told the Commission that the Glen Oaks subdivision plan had complied with the ordinance by conducting the preliminary hydrogeological study and thus groundwater concerns could not be used as a reason to deny the subdivision.  If and when a subdivision is approved, wells will be drilled in advance of a building permit for each house to ensure sufficient water is available before construction, at that time.

After subdivision failed to receive approval, the Commission had to detail the legal basis for their action.  While the groundwater concerns influenced their vote, the Planning Commission cited problems with the development proposed to occur on areas of critical slopes as their reason for denial. The developer can appeal this decision to the Board of Supervisors or directly to the Circuit Court. 

Listen to podcast: Download CountyPlanningCommission20060530.mp3

  • 0:54 -- Introduction by Marica Joseph
  • 1:05 -- Presentation by County Planner David Pennock
  • 5:28 -- Question from the Planning Commission as to what consideration they can give groundwater issue
  • 21:15 -- Discussion with developer Don Franco
  • 34:42 -- Comments from public
  • 46:15 -- Discussion by the Commission
  • 1:08:47 -- Motion by Jo Higgins-White Hall to approve. Motion failed 3-4.
  • 1:10:50 -- Identification of reasons for denial

Summary of key links:

Brian Wheeler

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