Earlier this week, the Daily Progress reported on a letter from the North Charlottesville Business Council to the Albemarle County Board of Supervisors raising concerns about the Places29 master planning process . Places29 is the County’s third master planning effort following up on the master plan completed for Crozet and the Pantops master plan which is nearing approval.

At their meeting on May 2, 2007, the Supervisors discussed the concerns raised in the NCBC letter which was written by Michael McGowan. In the letter, Mr. McGowan says, “we are compelled to share our disappointment with this planning effort’s process. More importantly, we are gravely concerned with major parts of the Places 29 Plan as currently proposed. Parts are unrealistic and wrong and other parts are too undefined to evaluate properly. We request the Albemarle County Board of Supervisors take a serious look at the deficiencies of the Plan before letting it move forward for final community comment and commencement of the approval process.”

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The Places29 transportation proposals include construction of six bridges, interchanges or overpasses along Route 29 with a cost approaching $185 million (not including right-of-way acquisition). These grade-separated approaches would eliminate traffic signals for vehicles on Route 29 at Hydraulic Rd., Rio Rd., Hilton Heights, Ashwood Blvd., Timberwood Blvd., Airport Rd. These six improvements are part of the twenty-year plan. Greenbrier Drive is expected to have a grade-separated interchange sometime after 2025.

Outside of the improvements on Route 29, the plan includes a strong emphasis on parallel road networks (e.g. extending Berkmar Drive across the Rivanna River to Hollymead Town Center). There is also a strong emphasis on making new development transit ready so that over time improved public transit options can be integrated with an ultimate goal of a bus rapid transit system.

Several NCBC members and Tim Hulbert, President and CEO of the Chamber of Commerce, spoke during public comment in support of the NCBC letter. They asked that the pace and direction of Places29 be immediately reviewed by the Board. Harrison Rue, Executive Director of Thomas Jefferson Planning District Commission (TJPDC), spoke to the Board updating them on past briefings made to NCBC. The TJPDC is working with Albemarle County staff to manage the Places29 effort. Mr. Rue suggested a number of the concerns of the business community would be addressed in the narrative report which is in the process of being finalized for review by the community and the Planning Commission.

Supervisor Ken Boyd (Rivanna) said the public was reaching out to the elected officials with questions, questions that he could not answer at this stage. “I personally have some problems with the [process]. As a person greatly interested in how we finance all this stuff, I don’t think that should be the last item to be discussed, because I am not sure we ought to talk about things we can never realistically finance…” Boyd also asked why the Board would move forward with a plan that did not have the community’s buy-in.

Supervisor Sally Thomas (Samuel Miller District) said this was a time for leadership by the Board. “I think there is some leadership required of us, in which we say, ‘There are a lot of business people who still hold fondly to the idea of a Western bypass. VDOT, the Secretary of Transportation, the Governor, everyone has looked at the figures and says the bypass doesn’t make any sense.’ So this is the process we’ve got now. You can stick your head in the sand and say, ‘We’re are not going to work with this process,’ or you can say, ‘We are going to work with this process,’ and come up with the best road we possibly can.”

Supervisor David Slutzky (Rio District) expressed his frustration that he has not been allowed to meet with the Places29 consultants. He asked for a summary of the scope of public outreach efforts undertaken thus far to engage the stakeholders in the development of the plan. If that has not been effective, he suggested that would be one reason to slow down the review process.

Supervisor Dennis Rooker (Jack Jouett) told his colleagues that the original reason the North Charlottesville Business Council was formed was to stop the grade-separated interchanges on Route 29. The Chamber of Commerce and the NCBC both list the construction of a Western bypass as one of their major transportation priorities. “Every transportation study that has been done in that area has shown that we need to have grade-separated interchanges, at a minimum, at Rio and Hydraulic Roads…in order for transportation in that area to flow reasonably well,” said Rooker. He indicated his belief that the NCBC letter was, “another effort to stop even having those things planned as part of the transportation system.”

Mr. Boyd reiterated his interest in a Western bypass being examined as a part of Places29. In March 2006, Boyd also sought to have the bypass included as an option for the public’s consideration in the master plan.

After hearing additional feedback from staff explaining that it was an iterative process that required more information to be finalized, the Board decided to place a longer discussion of Places29 on the agenda for their June 6, 2007 meeting.

Highlights of the audio recording:

Brian Wheeler