He's baaack: The Marshall Plan 2002: Shut the door to Albemarle, ASAP

Developers have always claimed that those who object to big boxes and subdivisions are against growth, period. A new organization is out to prove those developers right.

Led by anti-growth guru Jack Marshall, Advocates for a Sustainable Albemarle– ASAP– say forget slow growth.

Marshall even scoffs at "smart growth." Taking a harder line, ASAP is preaching that "no growth" is the only way to save the Albemarle County that its residents many of them transplants like Marshall– know and love.

With ASAP hosting a feisty conference in late September, the group has already begun generating a buzz, not all of it favorable.

"I don't think it's realistic," says Wendell Wood, a developer who's crossed paths with Marshall before. "When you stop growing," says Wood, "you start dying."

Housing activist Kevin Cox calls ASAP's goal "preposterous." Stopping growth would further drive up the cost of housing, living, and doing business here, put even greater pressure on surrounding rural counties, and cause even more traffic, he says.

As it is, Albemarle is one of the least affordable places to live in Virginia. While houses in Northern Virginia cost more, salaries there are also greater, making that area more affordable than Charlottesville, according to the Virginia Center for Housing Research.

Sally Thomas, chairwoman of the Albemarle Board of Supervisors, is sympathetic to ASAP's concerns about growth but says, "I haven't found any magic way to keep us from growing."

Even groups concerned about growth, like Citizens for Albemarle and the Piedmont Environmental Council, look at ways to control it, not stop it.

"I can't comment on zero growth," says Jeff Werner at PEC, a group that supports smart growth and whose affluent constituency ASAP covets. "I don't think it's politically palatable, but it does serve as a milepost."

The PEC believes the Piedmont should not grow at a faster rate than the state of Virginia, whose growth Werner pegs at an average of 1.3 percent per year.


Jack Marshall

 

 ASAP doesn't buy the smart-growth strategy, especially when Albemarle County's annual growth rate is 2.1 percent, a pace that brings five new people in every day and that doubles the population every 32 years.

"Smart growth is nothing but dumb growth that gets you there first class," says Marshall.

Smart growth, which is also Albemarle County's strategy for dealing with the steady influx of people who want to live in a desirable location, "stuffs people into designated growth areas, but growth still occurs," Marshall says.

To spread the no-growth word, Marshall has assembled a heavy-hitting group that includes Francis Fife, former mayor of Charlottesville; Rich Collins, UVA environmental professor and chairman of the Rivanna Water and Sewer Authority, a position both Fife and Marshall have also held; and environmental lawyer Deborah Murray, who has held construction of the 29 bypass at bay with her work at Southern Environmental Law Center.

This isn't the first time Marshall has been the go-to guy on growth. When he moved to Free Union 14 years ago, he spent many an evening at supervisors' meetings as the anti-growth voice for Citizens for Albemarle. No longer connected with CFA, Marshall has assembled a 14-member board and a mailing list of 80 names for ASAP.

Marshall concedes that putting the brakes on growth is not going to happen tomorrow. "There's no silver bullet," he says, "but there are dozens of mechanisms. First you take your foot off the gas pedal. Then you put on the brake."

So how does that translate into policy? First, in identifying ways to slow growth, says Marshall, such as acquisition conservation easements and down zoning. Today, a typical 100-acre farm can be legally chopped into nine home sites. Marshall wants that to stop.

"My main concern when people talk about population in Albemarle," says Thomas, "is that it tends to squish population into neighboring counties."

Such squishing has turned nearby Fluvanna and Greene counties into Albemarle's bedroom communities. We get the tax-generating commerce; they get the tax-guzzling schools.

If people can't afford to live in Albemarle, they'll drive an extra 20 minutes and dwell in Nelson, confirms Weed, adding, "That's what happened in Greene and Fluvanna, and they're overwhelmed."

Besides upsetting their budgets, the imbalance has placed such bedroom communities in the top 10 growth areas for Virginia with a whopping 5.6 percent annual growth rate for Fluvanna and 3.3 percent for Greene, according to the Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service.

ASAP doesn't want to exacerbate such problems, and at least for Thomas, seeing Nelson County resident Al Weed on the ASAP board is evidence of a regional outlook.

"We're concerned with the poor folks who've lived here all their lives being pushed out," Marshall says, describing ASAP members as "a bunch of do-gooders."

Marshall calls the September 28 conference, dubbed "The Myth of Endless Growth: Our Region's Future at Risk" as ASAP's "coming out party."

Among the speakers he reels off for the four-hour conference is Ron Rosenberg, a William and Mary law professor

 

 

 

who will discuss a community's legal opportunities for controlling demographics.

"A lot of folks say you can't do anything," says Marshall. "Ron says, 'Nonsense, we have legal tools.' It's usually a community's timidity that hesitates to use them."

"[ASAP] seems to forget they're part of central Virginia, part of the state of Virginia, and part of the United States that doesn't allow you to keep people out of the county," counters Cox. "Who is not going to be permitted to live here? The refugees from Afghanistan and Bosnia? The poor people?"

Another speaker at the convention is Paul Danish, author of the controversial "Danish Plan" that Boulder, Colorado, used to control its growth.

Danish, a former Boulder city councilor and current Boulder County commissioner (and a contributor to Soldier of Fortune magazine), authored a plan approved by voters in 1976 that limited the number of residential building permits in any year to two percent of the existing base, a number reduced to one percent in 1995.

The result? Some of the priciest real estate in Colorado, say critics. And because the plan limited residences– but not businesses– the number of jobs escalated while housing did not, according to a League of Women Voters report. One more impact of the Danish Plan cited by the League: those who can't afford Boulder's housing clog roads with their daily commutes.

Can one limit the number of building permits a county issues in Virginia, a state operating under the Dillon Rule, which famously prohibits counties from taking almost any action without approval from the General Assembly?

Sally Thomas thinks not, unless there's an immediate health and safety concern, as in the 1970s when, because of an algae outbreak, Albemarle restricted building around the Rivanna Reservoir.

Certainly in any discussion on growth, there's an elephant in the room. Its initials are UVA, and it shows no sign of shrinking.

With new libraries, a new arena, and new arts center on the drawing board, the university is hoping voters will pass a mammoth bond referendum in November. If voters approve the referendum, UVA stands to reap $68 million for buildings– including a new medical research building. As laudable as the hope for finding new cures and treatments, the new jobs such a facility will attract represent, bottom line, growth.

Marshall seems unconcerned about the role of UVA and thinks its day as the main engine of growth has passed. "I'm not sure it is now," he says, "with the senior citizen growth and the outfits spawned by UVA."

To critics like Cox, the failure to address the role of UVA in growth issues is ASAP's greatest weakness. "UVA is to Charlottesville what the federal government is to Fairfax," says Cox. "It's the engine that drives the machine."

To truly stop growth? Says Thomas: "It seems they'd have to go to the General Assembly and get them to move the University of Virginia someplace else."

ASAP's priority is to determine what the optimal population size is for Albemarle and other nearby communities. "We don't pretend to know what that number is," says Marshall.

But crunching population statistics is Marshall's forte. An applied anthropologist, he taught at the University of North Carolina, worked for the World Health Organization, and lived in India and Indonesia before retiring to Albemarle.

He cites another seemingly startling statistic: that Albemarle County's growth rate is higher than India's, a claim that Wendell Wood calls "scare tactics." But before you think that means 17 million new people a year, Marshall clarifies that he's talking percentages.

He points to a graph in the ASAP brochure that shows India at 1.7 percent annual growth compared to Albemarle's 2.1 percent. Unlike Albemarle, whose growth is mostly from newcomers to the county, India's growth rate is entirely the result of fertility.

Another criticism hurled at ASAP is whether the whole notion of stopping growth is elitist. Marshall shrugs and acknowledges that the group will be accused of being elitists.

Wood runs United Land Corporation, which has profited handsomely by trading land along Route 29 North. A seventh-generation Albemarle resident, Wood minces no words in describing no-growth advocates.

"I haven't found one yet that doesn't already have theirs: their home, their quality of life. We didn't have the right to tell Jack Marshall he couldn't come here. It's a very selfish, very elitist attitude– preserve mine and to hell with the rest of the world."

Marshall is ready for that charge. "We've been imbued with the belief it's wrong to shut the gate after we come," he says. "But somebody has to be responsible about growth. If not those who come in, then who? Rather than feel guilty, I think we have a real responsibility."

One thing both ASAP and its critics can agree on: the new organization will advance the discussion on Albemarle's future. "The goal," says Marshall, "is to get the dialogue started."

The drought and the ensuing restrictions have a lot of people wondering whether there's enough of a basic resource water to support this current community, not to mention expanded by 2.1 percent per year. Marshall says the debut of ASAP couldn't have come at a more fortuitous time.

"Resources and growth are inexorably linked," he says, and the lack of an essential resource is one way to stop growth. Another is when the quality of life becomes so degraded that it no longer attracts newcomers. And finally, the obvious choice is long-term planning.

Like so many others here, Marshall and his wife scoured the nation before deciding to settle in Albemarle County.

"Every day we think we're lucky to be here," he muses. No doubt so do the five new residents who come here every day. Such are the charms and pitfalls– of living in a desirable area.

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Are you an elitist when you quote Schopenhauer?

 "Every truth passes through three stages before it is recognized. In the first, it is ridiculed. In the second, it is opposed. In the third, it is regarded as self-evident."from the ASAP brochure.

 

SIDEBAR:

 

How we stand

Who's growing, who's not in Central Virginia

 

 Albemarle 2.1%

Augusta 1.4%

Buckingham 0.3%

Fluvanna 5.6%

Greene 3.3%

Madison 0.3%

Nelson 0.0%

Charlottesville -1.1%

Virginia 1.3%

 

Figures from the Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service, 2001 provisional population estimates.