Supervisors adopt new economic development blueprint

By Heather Michon

The Board of Supervisors approved a strategic plan for economic growth at their meeting on Sept. 21 – but not without a serious debate about the role of housing in Fluvanna’s future growth.

The plan is designed as a blueprint for economic development over the next five years.

PlatinumPR, a Maryland-based public relations firm, collected data and conducted interviews with supervisors and community members in the first quarter of 2022, and a draft of the plan was discussed at the board’s leadership retreat in late August. 

Jennifer Schmack, Director of Economic Development for the county, outlined the three main sections of the plan, grouped into the areas of “People,” “Prosperity,” and “Placemaking.”

The primary goals are to improve “opportunities to elevate businesses,” to “attract and retain industries that advance our communities,” and to “enhance the spaces where people live, work, and play in Fluvanna County.”

The plan includes a wide range of initiatives that would help train the local workforce, attract talent from other areas, support entrepreneurs, create more business space and shovel-ready building sites, streamline the business application process, and expand the county’s tourism, agribusiness, and artisan sectors. 

During the discussion following Schmack’s presentation, Supervisor Chris Fairchild (Cunningham) said he had “real concern” with one item in the plan designed to “showcase real estate to attract, retain and grow available talent.” 

He said that during his time on the county’s economic development commission, its mandate was to “get businesses to subsidize the burden on the rooftops – and that’s what we always hear in Fluvanna, to get more businesses to take some pressure off residences – but then we talk about bringing in more residences so we can get more businesses,” creating an endless loop. “I’m not one to say let’s attract and try to bring more people to live in Fluvanna County”   

He cited language used by the Thomas Jefferson Planning District Commission (TJPDC) that encourages outlying counties to absorb some of the “burden” of providing affordable or workforce housing to relieve pressure on Charlottesville. “I don’t buy into [the idea] that we need to bring more people to create prosperity, especially when it’s being dictated to us by TJPDC.” 

Supervisor Mozell Booker (Fork Union) asked if he was speaking specifically of growth around the Lake Monticello area, or county-wide. “I would like to bring in more people to Fork Union,” she said, arguing that there was a clear correlation between people and services. “We have developments that haven’t been developed because we can’t get people there. We can’t get a grocery store because there are not enough people.”

Vice Chair Tony O’Brien (Rivanna) argued that creating a wide range of housing opportunities did not necessarily mean replicating the problems sometimes seen in Charlottesville and other cities. 

He noted that population growth in the county has been very low over the last two decades, with the 2020 Census showing an anemic 1.6 percent increase over the past ten years. 

“The idea that we can just close our doors and not have any further growth in terms of housing in Fluvanna County…it’s frankly a little bit absurd,” he said.

He disagreed with Fairchild that the economic plan shouldn’t include references to housing, because along with good-quality schools and amenities, it’s one of the key things people want to know before moving to an area. The details of how to manage housing growth could be refined in the comprehensive plan currently under development.

“I didn’t say ‘stop growth’ in any way, nor did I even suggest it,” Fairchild countered. 

He mentioned the new Colonial Circle development under construction at the intersection of Rts. 53 and 618. Along with single-family homes and retail space, the county has approved two buildings with 124 subsidized apartments set aside for working families whose combined income is below 60 percent of average median income (AMI). 

“Plenty of citizens are saying ‘I’m uncomfortable with that,’ he said. “We’re bringing on this workforce housing that’s going to create a substantially greater financial burden.” 

Later in the conversation, O’Brien said he thought Colonial Circle was going to be a success story, adding “I don’t think we should be afraid of embracing different types of housing needs.”

Chair Mike Sheridan (Columbia), who works for Fluvanna County Public Schools, said that he favored showcasing a variety of real estate as a way to convince young Fluvanna residents to stay in the area after graduation or to return after college.

The debate grew heated at times, as members talked over one another in their effort to make their points, and then admonished each other for the interruption. After about 30 minutes of discussion, Sheridan asked if any members other than Fairchild were in favor of striking the language. O’Brien, Booker, and Supervisor Patricia Eager (Palmyra) indicated they wanted to keep the plan as it was.

The motion to approve the plan passed on a 4-1 vote, with Fairchild voting nay.

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