STA-01-08, Comprehensive Revision of the Subdivision Ordinance



Amend Chapter 14, Subdivision of Land, of the Albemarle County Code, to comprehensively revise the subdivision regulations by amending most existing regulations, repealing or adding other regulations, and reorganizing Chapter 14 and renumbering many existing regulations. 




Tucker, Foley, Davis, Graham, Cilimberg, Echols


AGENDA DATE:                     

August 4, 2004


ACTION:        X                         INFORMATION:



     ACTION:                               INFORMATION:









At their May 5, 2004 meeting, the Board directed staff to invite representatives of interested organizations to join them in a series of facilitated worksessions, to discuss the four outstanding issues regarding the recommended changes to the subdivision ordinance.  The outstanding issues relate to inter-parcel access, private streets, overlot grading and urban street improvements (curb, gutter, sidewalks and planting strips).  On June 2, the Board held a worksession on interconnected streets.  On July 7, the Board covered changes regarding private streets and overlot grading.  The remaining issue for the Board’s review relates to urban street improvements.




2.1 Protect and/or preserve the County’s rural character; and, 3.3  Develop and implement policies that address the County’s growth and urbanization while continuing to enhance the factors that contribute to the quality of life in the County.




Urban street improvements proposed under this amendment can be divided into three parts: an urban street section versus a rural street (curb & gutter versus ditch); sidewalks constructed as part of the street; and tree planting areas provided as part of the street.  All of these improvements were recognized by staff,  DISC, and DISC II as a part of the Neighborhood Model that is not required under the current subdivision ordinance.  Thus, staff has tried to propose language that is consistent with the Comprehensive Plan and as proposed in the Neighborhood Model Implementation Plan.   The following provides a short analysis that considers the issues regarding each, including fiscal impacts and housing affordability.    


Urban street section:  The existing ordinance allows the County to require “adequate drainage control” for public streets or private roads, but does not require curb and gutter, even where VDOT indicates it is needed.  The proposed ordinance would use the urban section street as the standard for the Development Area but would allow waivers.  Administrative waivers are included in the amendment for the following circumstances: (i) when the average lot frontage along the street is greater than one hundred fifty (150) feet, provided it is not part of a street that has curb and gutter or is planned to have curb and gutter; and (ii) where the street is one part of an existing rural standard road and the agent has determined it is unlikely the road will have curb and gutter within twenty (20) years of the determination.  Urban street sections can be waived in other situations by the Planning Commission. 


Under both the current and proposed VDOT Subdivision Street Regulations, the use of curb and gutter is a decision reserved for the local government.  Currently, even where both County and VDOT staff believe a rural section will create future problems, neither staff nor VDOT has the authority to require an urban section street.  With the current emphasis on better utilization of the Development Areas, smaller lots and significantly higher demand for on-street parking are anticipated.  With a rural section street, it is illegal to park with wheels on the pavement, which means the vehicles would park on the shoulders and sides of the road causing accelerated deterioration of the street section and  

excessive erosion. This, in turn, creates the demand for expensive maintenance and reconstruction as well as impacts to streams.  There are cost implications with the initial construction with regard to affordable housing and County fiscal impact.   An urban section street is significantly more expensive to build than a rural section street if considered from the perspective of costs per linear foot of street.  This additional cost is usually reduced on a per lot basis by having fewer feet of street frontage for the smaller urban lot than for the larger rural lot.  The urban versus rural street section “trade-off” is between higher initial costs incurred during construction of the urban lot, which are ultimately reflected in the sales price of that house, versus higher maintenance expenses and/or reduced property values associated with decaying infrastructure for the small lot with a rural section.  In looking at other urbanizing counties in Virginia, staff has found that almost all of them recognize there is a balance point where the urban street section becomes more effective than the rural section street.  For most, this balance point appears to be when the average lot has something less than 150’ of street frontage or the average lot size is something less than 15,000 square feet.  In examining the requirements of other localities, it is staff’s opinion that the residential density anticipated throughout the Development Areas would meet most localities’ criteria for requiring an urban street section.  Thus, staff believes setting an urban section street as the standard in the Development Areas and allowing special circumstances to be managed by waivers will provide the best balance.   


Sidewalks:  The existing ordinance allows the County to require sidewalks and pedestrian walkways on one or both sides of the street in residential subdivisions of more than 2 dwellings per acre and “commercial and industrial developments wherever determined by the agent or commission to be reasonably necessary to protect the public health, safety or general welfare”.  The proposed ordinance requires sidewalks on both sides of the street in the Development Areas, but allows for waivers. Administrative waivers may be granted if (i) the street is serving three (3) or fewer dwellings; or (ii) the street is an existing street and no sidewalk exists or is planned on the abutting property.  Sidewalks can be waived in other situations by the Planning Commission.   


Unlike other elements of the Neighborhood Model, it appears difficult to consider sidewalks on a project by project basis in the Development Area.  A sidewalk network only works where it is continuous and avoids the need for pedestrians to walk in the street.  Gaps in the sidewalk network will likely create demand for future capital improvements funded by the County.  The County currently has CIP funding for construction of sidewalks to address the existing demand and it is anticipated that demand will increase as the Development Areas build out.  The county’s CIP sidewalk projects have shown that it is significantly more costly to construct sidewalks after the street is completed versus constructing the sidewalks as part of the street construction.   Beyond the additional contractor mobilization, constructing the sidewalk after street development often requires expensive changes to the drainage, lot grading and street section.  There is no question that constructing the sidewalk as part of the subdivision increases the cost of housing, but the cost to taxpayers to build the sidewalk after the fact would be much higher.  If costs are considered a serious obstacle, an alternative would be to reduce the amount of sidewalk below what is currently described in the proposed ordinance.  For example, sidewalks could be required on both sides of the street when connecting to adjoining properties, but only one side of the street for cul-de-sacs and internal loop streets of a certain length.  When the requirements of Virginia urbanizing localities were examined, staff found a broad range of requirements with regard to sidewalks.  For the density proposed in the Development Areas, it is staff’s opinion that most urbanizing localities would require a minimum of a sidewalk on one side of most streets and both sides of the street when it serves as an arterial for traffic.  It should be noted that it appears few, if any, of these urbanizing localities are placing the same emphasis on a pedestrian orientation as Albemarle County.  Thus, the issue becomes what is truly needed for the sidewalk network that supports the type of development proposed in this county.   The recommendation brought forward from the Planning Commission would start from the position that sidewalks on both sides of the streets are needed but allow for waivers for circumstances where it appears that sidewalk provides little value.  Finally, beyond the initial cost of the sidewalk, there are long-term maintenance costs with sidewalks that should be considered.  VDOT will maintain sidewalks in the public right of way, but the level of service may not meet the County’s expectations.  For example, VDOT does not control weeds, repair cracks or bulges, and will not clear snow or debris from sidewalks.  Additionally, sidewalks along private streets would be privately maintained, but staff recognizes there could be circumstances where the County is asked to assume maintenance responsibility for the street and sidewalk.   The County will need to consider sidewalk levels of service above and beyond what will be provided by VDOT as part of urbanization costs.            


Street Trees:  There is currently no provision in the subdivision ordinance for a planting strip for street trees and the zoning ordinance only allows street trees outside of the street right of way.  The proposed ordinance requires planting strips for street trees on both sides of the street to be within the right of way for subdivisions in the Development  Areas, but allows for waivers.  This requirement may be waived by the Agent for streets with 3 or fewer lots and in other circumstances by the Planning Commission.   


This requirement provides for a planting strip between the curb and sidewalks, but does not actually require trees or other vegetation to be planted in this area. The primary issues are additional right of way and maintenance of vegetation.   Beyond the value of this planting strip for vegetation, the space also provides important safety separation between vehicles and pedestrians on sidewalks, further accommodating the pedestrian orientation with development.  Under proposed VDOT regulations, a minimum of a six foot planting strip between back of curb and sidewalk would be required for street trees.  Under the same VDOT regulations, a minimum of three feet would be required between the back of curb and sidewalk where no street trees are anticipated. Thus, the requirement for planting strips that accommodate street trees would require an additional three feet of right of way on each side of the street, which increases the street right of way width by six feet.  That extra right of way is a cost offset by allowing reduced lot sizes and setbacks under the proposed Zoning Ordinance amendment currently under development. Also, staff has worked with VDOT to develop a set of street standards that allows the pavement width to be kept to a minimum, which also reduces the extra right of way required.  Between the reduced setbacks and reduced pavement widths, staff believes the right of way costs have been mitigated. Even before the planting strip and street trees are allowed in the right of way, staff is seeing development recognize the value of placing trees along the edge of the street right of way and doing this voluntarily.  Thus, the planting strip creates the opportunity already desired.  Even if street trees are not immediately placed in the planting strip, staff still believes it is important to maintain this opportunity for the future. If this space is not created with the subdivision, it will be practically impossible to acquire the additional right of way and move sidewalks at a later time.   Between buried utilities, reduced setbacks for houses, and the costs of that land, there simply will not be the opportunity to add the planting strip at a future date.  Finally, maintenance of street trees is recognized as a complex issue.  VDOT will not maintain street trees in the public right of way and would provide only minimal maintenance of the planting strip. It is anticipated that VDOT will want a master agreement between VDOT and the County before allowing street trees in the right of way.  This is similar to what was done when VDOT would not accept maintenance responsibility for sidewalks in the past.  The County would then require an agreement between the property owner and the County so that the property owner or homeowners association would be responsible for maintenance of those trees.  Maintenance would include removal of branches to allow the sidewalk and street remain unobstructed, plus removal of leaves and fallen branches.  Longer term, it is possible this could become a maintenance issue for the County if property owners do not adequately maintain the trees and planting strip and ask the County to assume this responsibility.  Similar to the sidewalk maintenance issue described above, this will be an urbanization issue that will need to be addressed.       




Staff recommends that the Board discuss comments from the different representative organizations and advise staff if any changes are recommended.  Staff recommends that DISC II work with staff on any changes to be considered by the Board.




A – Relevant sections of the Implementation Strategy for the Neighborhood Model

B --Relevant sections of the Subdivision Text Amendment, dated March 30, 2004, related to curb and gutter, sidewalks and street trees

 View DISC II minutes

Return to regular agenda