Albemarle County theoretically has enough land in its development areas to accommodate a 23% increase in population over the next 20 years.
However, meeting the demand for 11,500 to 13,500 new housing units would require updating the zoning code, denser developments and significant redevelopment and infill, among other changes, according to a presentation to the Albemarle County Planning Commission on Tuesday.
Commissioners, however, were skeptical of the county’s will to make that density a reality. They wanted more information on how area demographics will change in the next two decades and a more realistic look at the county’s capacity for growth.
“In order to say what’s reasonable, the county has to come to a reckoning with what it is willing to fund,” said Karen Firehock, chairwoman of the planning commission.
Tuesday’s presentation was the initial findings from the analysis. County staff do not yet have a final report. The Board of Supervisors will receive the same information at its meeting next week.
In theory, the county could add a maximum of 24,146 new units over the next 20 years in its current areas designated for growth, according to Tuesday’s presentation.
However, developments proposed in the last several years have rarely reached the maximum recommended in the county’s Comprehensive Plan. In fact, the number of units were often reduced during the rezoning process.
On average, the total density approved during rezoning requests from 2016 to 2021 was 58% of the maximum recommended density.
In 2021, the Board of Supervisors approved a rezoning request for a 27-acre site off Rio Road called Rio Point allowing 328 units. The maximum buildout recommended in the Comprehensive Plan would have been 624 units.
Without a rezoning, the developer could’ve built 110 units. The rezoning process took more than two years.
Additionally, projects that were allowed to build at higher densities haven’t reached their approved maximums.
For example, Old Trail, a mostly residential development in Crozet, was initially approved in 2005 with a maximum of 2,200 units. The final buildout is expected to be 1,200 units.
Reaching the theoretical maximum could be limited by rising land costs, the availability of land and the county’s rezoning process, among other factors, the presentation said.
The county worked with consultants from Kimley-Horn and Associates to conduct a Land Use Buildout Analysis of the county’s development areas. The analysis, last conducted in 2019, is part of the first phase of the county’s most recent comprehensive plan update.
The plan is the county’s guiding document for its long-term vision for land use and resource protection. The document informs zoning changes, which are law, as well as other policy priorities.
As part of the update, county staff is now reviewing the growth management policy that now focuses new residential and commercial growth into designated development areas, about 5% of the county’s land.
The rest of the land is supposed to be maintained as rural.
Hollymead will likely see the most residential growth over the next several years, according to the report, and also has the most potential for future growth.
Hollymead’s 6,350 potential new units makes up 42.6% of the total in the development pipeline. If it reaches the maximum set in the comprehensive plan for units, it could have an additional 4,015 homes.
The analysis also delved into the projected demand and capacity for new retail, office, and industrial spaces, as well as hotel land uses.
At most, the county will need 1.3 million square feet of retail space, 1 million square feet of office space, 1.1 million square feet of industrial space, and 900 hotel rooms. According to the analysis, the county has more than enough capacity to meet that demand.
The analysis concludes that the lower end of recommended densities won’t accommodate future growth and development. The rezoning process is uncertain and can be time-consuming, it states, and that could hinder future growth.
“It is common that people look at that rezoning process and how long it takes and they say, ‘Oh, forget it. I’ll just go with what I can do by right,’” Firehock said. “We want the density, but are we making it too hard to get?”
On Tuesday, county staff asked commissioners if they thought the current growth policy would help meet the housing and non-residential needs for growth over the next 20 years.
Commissioner Julian Bivins said no.
“Every single time that we have had anything with any kind of creative density to it, we get hammered,” he said. “Everybody comes out and talks about how they don’t want to walk their dog next to those people and they don’t want to get run over when they cross that street.”
Bivins said county residents need to “get better with density” for it to be approved
“If we can have active discussions that density is not the third head of devils, then we can in fact go someplace that I think we would like us to go.”