Early Monday morning, a bus full of folks looking to get a handle on what James City County could be doing better piled in a no-frills Williamsburg Area Transport bus and trundled off to scenic Albemarle County, Virginia.
They came back with lots of appreciation for their gracious hosts, but without a magic answer to the tough issues facing James City, including how to manage growth and preserve rural land while still bringing in revenue and maintaining services.
On the bus were Supervisors Jim Kennedy (organizer of the trip) and Jim Icenhour, Planning Commissioners Rich Krapf and Jack Fraley, Economic Development Authority representatives Tom Tingle and LeAnne Dubois, Greater Williamsburg Chamber and Tourism Alliance Board Chair James Golden and President and CEO Dick Schreiber, County Administrator Sandy Wanner and Assistant County Administrator Doug Powell, Development Manager Steven Hicks, Planning Director and Assistant Development Manager Allen Murphy, Economic Development Director Keith Taylor, and a few interested residents.
During the ride along not-so-scenic I64, many members of the group said they were looking forward to finding various strategies that Albemarle and its neighboring city, Charlottesville, had found useful, in the hopes that some ideas might also prove beneficial in James City. Kennedy had originally suggested the tour because he felt the counties were similar in the issues they’ve faced as far as protecting rural lands and growth.
Krapf said Albemarle has done lots of things that he’d like to see done, including focusing on agribusiness and cultural diversity and the arts. “They seem like they’ve done well in many areas, and I’d like to see if we can bring anything back with us.”
Fraley said he was interested in ideas they might pick up that would help with the Comprehensive Plan. “I think it’ll be helpful for those of us working on the Comp Plan,” he said. “As far as sustainability, rural lands, community character, and spurring economic development… it’s a good opportunity to see how another jurisdiction has done it.”
In a different mode altogether, Golden and Schreiber discussed the Alliance’s interests in helping to support economic development, and how they’d like to hear new ideas in the area. “We’re interested in anything that has to do with economic growth,” said Schreiber. “[In Albemarle] they face some of the same challenges we do.”
After the cramped, two-hour-plus ride, the large group arrived at the municipal building in the city of Charlottesville, a much more urban-looking area than Williamsburg. Like Williamsburg, Charlottesville is a city with a university that the neighboring county relies on somewhat for jobs and commuting residents.
But a presentation from Charlottesville staff on policies regarding mixed use, density and redevelopment, made clear to the group the fact a university in a city surrounded by a county is about where the similarities end.
Charlottesville has been encouraging developers to build more student housing and incentivizing building by increasing height requirements and changing parking requirements, among other ideas. In many areas, there’s nowhere to grow but up, Charlottesville’s Director for Neighborhood Development Services Jim Tolbert said.
The city is also trying to target growth close to economic corridors to make it easier for residents to get where they need to go without jumping into a car. They’re aggressive about trying to revitalize their downtown area to make it active at all hours of the day and night. They don’t have issues with water shortages, Tolbert said, because there aren’t large, thirsty lawns to water.
One similarity between Charlottesville and James City is one Tolbert hit on by accident when talking about proffers (agreements between developers and local government that might mitigate some stress on government resources). “The planning commission is just not trainable in proffers,” he said. He can’t get some of them to stop thinking that it’s extortion, much to his exasperation, he said. All the folks from James City in the audience laughed heartily at this, since planning commissioners and supervisors are currently butting heads about the same issue.
Moving on from the city, the group headed to Albemarle County’s government building.
While the visitors munched on a brown bag lunch provided by their hosts, Albemarle representatives (including representatives from planning and the Board of Supervisors) chatted about their county.
Spokeswoman Lee Catlin said during her welcome that “this is the first time we’ve had a group this large come and look us over,” which elicited a chuckle from the audience.
Though Albemarle’s 723 square miles trumps James City’s 144, their land is divided into 95 percent rural and 5 percent development area, with 57 percent of the population in that 5 percent. James City has a much different spread, with less rural land to consider.
Albemarle has aimed to concentrate their urban development and conserve their rural lands. The rural land conservation methods intrigued the James City visitors because Albemarle’s rural zoning is very aggressive. Their rural, “by-right” zoning allows for up to five 2-acre lots developed per 21 acres. That means no farm lands divided into sprawling subdivisions, period.
They’re looking to get a majority of the county’s residents in central urban places, and to make sure residents can get to shopping and business areas by foot, bike, or rail when possible. They proudly call this their “neighborhood model” of urban development.
Next stop for the group: Crozet, a part of the county Albemarle leaders considered a good highlight for their ‘neighborhood model” idea. The group toured Crozet’s new Old Trail Village Center, a development similar to James City’s New Town (though smaller), with businesses and apartments built together. Proffers from the developers included 15 percent of the apartments to be made into affordable workforce housing, which is sorely needed there – and also in James City, visitors noted.
Mountains surround Old Trail Village, and the countryside all around Crozet, like much of the county, is hilly and rural.
Downtown Crozet is a small, sleepy hamlet the county is working to refurbish. Their aim is to make it more of a destination by building a new library, sprucing up businesses and building more nice sidewalk areas. Areas like Crozet each have their own master plans, which feature lots of community dialog and participation that continues after the plan is finalized.
After trying some delicious appetizers at a refurbished downtown Crozet restaurant and hearing about economic development in areas like Crozet the group got to move to their last stop, the Starr Hill Brewery, to chat about agribusiness. Albemarle has lots of vineyards and farms, which they’re trying to market better to tourists, locals and businesses.
Kennedy, who owns a restaurant in James City County, asked the Business Development Facilitator what the county was doing to help join together restaurants and local farms in partnerships, something he’s interested in doing. She joked that she was hoping he’d tell her that he’d figured out a good way to do it.
On the way back to the bus, WYDaily had a chance to ask Albemarle Director of Community Development Mark Graham what he thought had attracted James City to come for a visit. “We were scratching our heads on that one,” he said. “We should come and visit you and see how you are doing it! We’ve never had a county come out in a big group before.”
On the long ride home, nearly everyone commented on how gracious and open their hosts had been – and everyone agreed there was no quick fix to be found with their friends up the interstate.
Krapf found some lessons to be learned from the visit, including the county’s steadfast adherence to its vision for the future. “They stick to it, no matter the political issues,” he said. “Their cultural values drive their long-range plans – I don’t think we’re there yet in James City County.” He also found their rural lands zoning interesting compared to James City’s, but he feels the Comp Plan addresses the issue as best it can. “There’s just no easy answer,” he said.
Murphy’s planning and development eye didn’t pick up too much that might be applicable back home. “There were some significant differences,” he said. “Each county tries to preserve what’s culturally important…it’s hard to compare jurisdictions. Planning is a balancing act, and what’s expected changes over time.”
Icenhour also found Albemarle’s determination to preserve rural lands worth taking note of. “Their methodology would be a help to us, I think,” he said. “to preserve rural lands… we haven’t made it an overarching part of the Comp Plan yet. But there are some significant differences [between the counties] – our PSA [primary service area] is half the county, for one thing…and their urban areas have easier access to water.”
Schreiber felt that James City might find some value in Albemarle’s policy to “revise zoning ordinances and put them in line with the [comp] plan. Applicants know exactly what they can and can’t do. It’s less time consuming.” He liked the idea that they revise zoning right after their Comp Plan, and would like to see that happen in James City.
Golden, with a history at the College of William and Mary, liked that the county works closely with the University of Virginia’s development office, and thinks that James City does a good job in the same way. He also liked the city of Charlottesville’s interest in attracting young people to the downtown area. The main idea that he took from the visit, though, was “they want to preserve rural land and concentrate economic activity. It might not work exactly the same way in James City County.”
Kennedy felt that the trip he’d called for was a success. He was interested in their land use predictability – “We should say what we want, and know how we want it,” he said. “That gives us a better feel of where we want to be when we ‘grow up’.” He also like the ideas of keeping population centers close to rail lines and bike trails.
“I enjoyed it, but there were no ‘eureka moments’,” said Kennedy. “We have a lot to be proud of, we’ve accomplished a lot…we’ve come away with some good things, some good discussion points.”