Spotlight on Sustainability: HUD grant promotes common vision in Jefferson's backyard

Charlottesville, VA’s downtown transit center. Photo courtesy of Flickr user kai.bates.

Albemarle County, Virginia has a rich mix of landscapes, institutions, and historic sites. Along with the many farms that lie within its borders, Albemarle is also the home to the City of Charlottesville, the University of Virginia, and Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello. To preserve the significant history of the region, the county and City of Charlottesville are now working to strategically plan for future growth and development.

The Charlottesville Region Sustainability Implementation Plan is a comprehensive planning effort organized under the Thomas Jefferson District Planning Commission (TJDPC). The project is funded by the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD) Regional Planning Grant program, which seeks to integrate planning efforts through efficient collaboration between otherwise separate bodies; particularly applicable to Virginia, as it is the only state where all cities are independent from counties. The grants are a part of the federal Partnership for Sustainable Communities, a joint effort between HUD, the Department of Transportation (DOT), and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Awarded to the region in 2010, Charlottesville’s Implementation Plan seeks to incorporate previous sustainability research conducted for the region, prioritizing the eventual implementation of its analysis, while providing many venues for public input. In conjunction with the Charlottesville Albemarle Metropolitan Planning Organization, the City of Charlottesville, Albemarle County, and the University of Virginia, the combined effort has aimed to create a comprehensive plan for the region’s future development, land-use strategies, and transportation infrastructure.

Acknowledging the need to plan for housing and economic development as well as air and water quality, transportation options, and regional energy usage, Steve Williams of the TJDPC spoke of the values of this approach stating, “It’s not good enough to just be sustainable in one area. All of these systems have to work… All are critical to having a sustainable community.”

Recognizing that the way our cities and towns grow and thrive depends on the surrounding region and the understanding that infrastructure systems don’t stop at lines on a map, this project works to facilitate collaboration and integrate the land use and transportation plans of the City and Charlottesville and Albemarle County. With a common plan for the two jurisdictions, a comprehensive transportation vision for the region is feasible. Former Mayor of Charlottesville, Dave Norris, spoke of how the grant enabled collaboration at an opportune moment, “Charlottesville was about to update their comprehensive plan, which happens every five years. Albemarle was in the process of doing the same. Here is an opportunity where both communities are thinking about their long term future that we needed to be thinking regionally.”

With a focus on providing opportunities to incorporate public comment into the region’s comprehensive plan, this project has enabled each jurisdiction to effectively collaborate with each other and the public. When asked how public engagement has affected the project, Steve Williams responded, “The project is not about reaching consensus, but simply surfacing all the different points of view and encouraging the dialogue to take place, so that elected and appointed officials can hear it and make the choices they have to make.” Mr. Williams went onto to describe this as the project’s “biggest success” expressing gratitude for the opportunities the grant has provided, “In these days of tight budgets, it’s really hard to justify and secure funding to reach out to the public, and incorporate multiple stakeholders.” City Councilor Kristin Szakos expressed a similar sentiment when commenting on the opportunities the grant provided that would not have otherwise existed, “Because of the grant, we have the resources to staff [public outreach], so that the public can have a chance to really look and be able to know what’s going on.”

Although overwhelmingly favored by area residents, the Implementation Plan did receive some public criticism during earlier planning phases, through concerns over the project’s intentions. The ample public involvement that has characterized the project provided essential opportunities to hear the voices of all parties, while the majority of comments received during public sessions indicated that local residents were interested in the future responsible development of their region.

The project benefitted from support from local and county government officials, who recognized how the project could streamline institutional and regulatory barriers that exist in traditional planning circumstances. Mayor Norris emphasized the value of a common land-use and transportation plan, “For the first time we can see how the decisions that are being made in one locality have the capacity to impact the other locality and vice versa.” Going on to say, “[A common plan] ensures that the solutions that we come up with are much more well informed.”

The new collaborative relationship between Albemarle County and the City of Charlottesville has allowed the two jurisdictions to identify additional areas where coordination can make both governments more efficient and effective in their operations. Mayor Norris stressed that preserving the region’s natural resources is a top priority; acknowledging that maintaining the area’s natural beauty also maintains one of the large economic assets for the city and county. In 2012, Albemarle County and Charlottesville announced plans to address the Rivanna River, the border of the two jurisdictions. With a common land-use and transportation plan, Albemarle and Charlottesville hope to utilize the river’s full potential, enhancing connectivity perhaps through bridge construction and developing recreational capacities through bike trails or water recreation.

Working to strategize a way forward for the Charlottesville/Albemarle region, residents and elected leaders alike are recognizing the importance of retaining their region’s unique qualities, while making sure that generations to come have a great place to live, work, and raise a family. As the period for public comment winds down and serious efforts are made to incorporate the plan’s suggestions into the region’s comprehensive plan, the future is hopeful. Charlottesville had previously developed the 1998 Sustainability Accords, which received strong support from local citizens and elected officials, eventually being implemented. Charlottesville and Albemarle’s efforts since 2010 hope to build off of this history of success and focus on the implementation of these new recommendations designed to build an even stronger, more vibrant region.

The Partnership for Sustainable Communities is a collaboration between the Department of Transportation, Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Environmental Protection Agency, established to help communities create lasting economic strength. Smart Growth America supports continued funding for the Partnership for Sustainable Communities because, through strategic planning, communities are able to better leverage private sector investment to make the most of federal investments. Since 2009, the programs have helped more than 700 communities plan for a strong, economically vital future.