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Albemarle commissioners want more incentives in new code

A new set of redevelopment regulations for property owners near the intersection of Rio Road and U.S. 29 is closer to adoption.

The Albemarle County Planning Commission on Tuesday recommended approval of an optional form-based code for almost 400 acres around the intersection.

Commissioners encouraged county staff to add more incentives to get developers and property owners to use the code to redevelop the properties.

“I’d just like this code to become irresistible, and I don’t think it’s there yet,” Commissioner Karen Firehock said.

Form-based code focuses on the look and density of buildings and streets in relation to one another and public spaces, instead of on separate land use designations. County staff began working on a form-based code for the area in 2019, after the county approved the Rio-29 Small Area Plan.

Without incentives being identified and clarified, Commissioner Rick Randolph said, no motivation exists for the private sector to redevelop with the optional code, as many parts of the plan have “an implicit requirement for some degree of public infrastructure.”

“I just want you to hear me that I remain very concerned that without a lot more thought on the incentives, the motivators that are going to persuade private developers to entertain form-based code, that we may as well have engineered something that will not be implemented, which to me would be a crying shame, and would be a real loss for this county,” he said.

The draft ordinance included incentives for adding affordable housing units above the minimum, but additional incentives to support the small area plan’s vision for public art, green buildings and other county initiatives was marked “low priority” on a list of future planning and design work.

Firehock said she’s developed incentives for ordinances in the past, and has made them work by sitting down with the builders, developers and architects and asking what they would want.

“I’m still struggling with how we will get people to want to do this without incentives, and again, I think the way to get good incentives is to ask the customer,” she said. “ … I think it is doable, and I’m sort of disappointed that we seem to be dropping that approach.”

Senior Planner Michaela Accardi said that county staff heard feedback from property owners and others that the greatest incentives were a faster review process, a mixture of uses and additional building height.

“We’ve incorporated the building height and the affordable housing incentive to respond to that feedback,” she said, adding that county staff believe the bigger range of uses and an administrative review process are incentives to follow the ordinance.

“There’s certainly more work that can be done in terms of green buildings and other improvements we’d like to see in the area,” she said.

Commissioner Tim Keller said they should consider “earmarking” the primary public spaces and streets.

“In other words, it would behoove us as a county to think about working with economic development, and the county … to think about options or purchase of several of those key elements so that we have the public wish there, so that the private sector has an idea of what that inherent amenity and structure is that they can give to us through that public private partnership that form-based code allows us to do,” he said.

Chair Julian Bivins said if the Board of Supervisors really “want that intersection to take off,” it will need to make infrastructure investments and partnerships in the area.

“I don’t want [this work] to go stale, and I don’t want the intersection of Rio Road and [U.S. 29] to become this abandoned place, and I’m fearful without the county becoming more active in making that happen it will drift on its own, regardless of the great work that you’ve done,” he said.

During the public hearing, Neil Williamson, president of the Free Enterprise Forum, said light industrial uses should be allowed by-right as long as the design guidelines are met, the types of administratively approved special exceptions should be expanded and include objective metrics and also encouraged more incentives.

“As much as we like the form-based code, we do not believe this optional overlay offers applicants enough benefit to outweigh the use of the conventional code,” he said. “We would welcome increased incentives so this code not only gets on the books but it has a chance to be utilized. The Free Enterprise Forum desperately wants to support the form-based code and we are so close.”

The Board of Supervisors is tentatively scheduled to hold a public hearing on March 17.


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