Area housing on brink of boom?
Group says numbers are alarming
By Jeremy Borden  / jborden@dailyprogress.com | 978-7263
December 11, 2006

About 18,000 proposed units are in the housing pipeline in Charlottesville and Albemarle County, according to a study from a local anti-sprawl advocacy group that analyzed data from 2000 through 2006.

The housing is enough to accommodate, by one projection, population estimates through 2050, according to the Piedmont Environmental Council report. The 17,832 units is an estimate, said Jeff Werner, a land-use officer for the PEC. More than 7,000 of those units haven’t been approved and some smaller proposals are not included because they do not show up in the county’s housing reports.

Werner says the number would represent the biggest potential short-term burst in housing the county and city have ever seen. Put in perspective, between 1983 and 2005 more than 19,500 building permits were issued, a good indication of how many houses, apartments, condos or other types of housing were actually built during that period.

Werner noted that proposed development units are much different than housing that is actually built.

Still, he said, the number of units should raise eyebrows.

“Do we want to make decisions today that will handcuff this community for the next 20 to 30 years?” Werner asked. Although the actual housing isn’t likely to be built for decades, Werner said growth projection numbers are used to evaluate everything from whether Charlottesville and Albemarle will have enough water to how many schools the community needs.

“These are not scare issues, these are facts,” Werner said.

Werner pointed out that the objective of the report was not to tell officials that growth needs to stop - rather, he hoped that it would get policy makers to “take a step back.”

Speed of development

While Werner said that more development is in the pipeline than one might expect for the city, officials in both the city and county said they expect growth to remain at about the same rate. Although many recent proposals have residents up in arms about what they see as dramatic change, the area experiences about 2 percent growth per year and there is no expectation that will change, officials say.

Between 2000 and 2005, the county grew by about 11,000 residents, fewer people than in the previous two decades, according to Census data. In the same time period, the city grew by about 5,000 people.

“This is the classic question of ‘if you build it, they will come,’ or ‘if they come, will you build it,’” said Mark Graham, Albemarle County’s director of community development. “We tend to think it’s the latter. The market responds to a need, they don’t generate a need. [Developers] want to have the ability to produce the units as soon as the demand is there.”

County data shows housing was built at an average clip of about 923 dwelling units per year from 1993 to 2002. Big years for new housing were 2002 and 2003, when 1,720 and 1,079 units were built, respectively, according to building permits issued. Graham said that was because a few large apartment complexes came into the picture at the same time.

Aside from those two years, data show that housing has been built at a steady rate in the last decade.

Graham said around 620 building permits have been issued through November this year.

Albemarle County Supervisor Lindsay G. Dorrier Jr. said this is something the board has taken seriously over the years and that the idea of having adequate resources is an important one.

“Some people might say we’re approving them too slowly,” Dorrier said of housing units. “We have [average] 2 percent growth a year in Albemarle County. We need to react to that, it’s a healthy growth. It hasn’t created an urban county yet but we have a rapidly urbanizing county. So we need to look at our policies and make sure they sustain our resources.”

The city and county have invested in a $130 million expansion of a water supply plan that is supposed to provide adequate water needs for 50 years.

Charlottesville growth

City leaders said growth in the city is healthy and not all that unexpected. Their main concern is transportation, as county residents already use city neighborhoods as a cut-through to parts of the county. The city’s future development has less uncertainty, as cities in Virginia cannot annex land and a 10-square-mile Charlottesville doesn’t nearly have the room for growth that the 723-square-mile county does.

“In terms of urban living density, we’re accustomed to a city in the country lifestyle,” City Councilor Kendra Hamilton said. “Urban density is a good thing. It allows you to create opportunities for people to get out of their cars.

“[But] when you’ve got mega development from all borders of the city … we’re left with a lot of questions too.”

A unique concept

Albemarle County board members recently expressed interest in a planning concept that many believe may not have been tried anywhere else - the idea of planning backward.

“What we’re not talking about,” Supervisor David L. Slutzky said at an early October board meeting, “is the optimal absorption capacity in our community.” Slutzky and other board members then expressed some initial support for pursuing the unconventional idea of setting an optimal population.

The idea comes from one that has been pushed by Advocates for a Sustainable Albemarle Population, headed by Jack Marshall. Marshall says that setting a community’s optimal population would be the best way to ensure that ecological systems are preserved, infrastructure is planned for and quality of life is preserved.

Several board members expressed interest in the idea in October and Graham, the head of the county’s community development, said he had one conversation with Marshall.

Graham said he’s not sure what the board wants to do with the idea and will ask the board in January to provide direction.

“It would be a new effort for us,” Graham said.

“[The county] should go through the intellectual exercise as to what the community should be 50 years from now,” Planning Commissioner Eric Strucko said. “What is too many? It’s a hard question to ask and to research.”