Voters will cast ballots for three seats on the Albemarle County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday, but only one of the races is contested.
Republican John Lowry is challenging incumbent Democrat Liz Palmer for the Samuel Miller District seat.
Lowry previously served on the county’s Economic Development Authority and Board of Equalization, and was chairman of both.
“After being a person with the county for so many years in different ways, I feel like I’m ready to be a supervisor and I would better serve the interests of Samuel Miller voters,” Lowry said.
Palmer, who was elected in 2013 and has served on the Albemarle County Service Authority board of directors, said she wants to finish what she started in her first four years as a supervisor.
“I thought our first four years were quite successful, but I wanted to complete some of the initiatives that we began,” she said.
Some of those initiatives, she said, include the solid waste management plan for the county, serving on the broadband authority and completion of the area’s long-term water supply plan. She said she also wants to address some of the county’s long-standing infrastructure concerns.
Incumbent Democrat Diantha McKeel is running unopposed for a second term representing the Jack Jouett District. She currently serves as chairwoman of the board and previously served four terms on the School Board.
McKeel said she has learned a lot over the last four years and wants another term to use what she has learned to lift quality of life in the county.
“I’m very interested in following through on the newly formed transit partnership with the city [of Charlottesville],” she said. “I’m looking forward to continuing the work with the Hydraulic Small Area Plan as the representative on that committee.”
McKeel said she hopes to expand educational opportunities for county adults who need job training, as well as for students.
Democrat Ned Gallaway, who served one term on the county School Board, is running unopposed for the Rio District seat. Current Rio Supervisor Brad Sheffield is not seeking a second term.
Gallaway said he decided to run because he wants to continue Sheffield’s focus on long-term planning and because he feels qualified for the office. Gallaway said his priorities are public education, public safety and economic development.
“I would like to see those things continued to be invested in,” he said. “I think there are things we can be doing better in terms of economic development.”
John Miska, a retired, disabled veteran, announced last week that he is running a write-in campaign in the Rio District, after being inspired by a 13-year-old speaker at the Rise Charlottesville group news conference in late October. The group is circulating a legal petition to remove all five members of the Charlottesville City Council from office.
“I don’t think we’re getting good return on our investment in the city from the county here, and I believe that we should get out of that agreement because the city is not husbanding our funds in a wise fashion,” he said, referring to the revenue-sharing agreement between Albemarle and Charlottesville.
He said it also “sticks in my craw” that someone is running unopposed for an elected office and the citizens don’t have a choice.
“I’m like, ‘Well, hey, I’ll throw my hat in the ring,’” he said. “I’m an imperfect human being, I’ve got my warts, but maybe we can do something that could at least spur someone who’s more qualified than I to perhaps run next time around.”
“Maybe I’ll wake a few people up and if that, I have served my purpose,” Miska said.
Former Supervisor Sally H. Thomas won a seat on the board as a write-in candidate in 1993.
Moving the courts
In November 2016, the Board of Supervisors directed county staff to study the economic benefits of relocating county courts and the County Office Building from Charlottesville to the county. This summer, consultants hired by the county began analyzing the potential for a public-private partnership to house the courts, and began an adjacency study, to explore the possible impact of moving the courts.
Palmer said she strongly opposes moving the courts, which is another reason that she wants to serve on the board again. The criminal justice system is pretty well integrated between the city and the county, she said, and their synergy saves the county money.
“I think that any money you put into a court system should be to enhance the administration of justice; it shouldn’t have anything to do with economic development or getting a new bus station,” she said.
The courts are something unique about the community, she said.
“There seem to be some folks that want to really separate the future success of the city from the future success of the county,” she said. “I think that we’re joined at the hip and we have to get into this together.”
Court Square and its buildings are of great historic significance, she said.
“You want those kinds of buildings to continue to function in the way that they are meant to function,” she said.
Lowry also said he is against moving the courts into the county.
“I see no compelling reason to leave downtown because there’s a beautiful, historic landmark, [the] county-owned courthouse,” he said.
The Levy Opera House, which is right across the street, could be redone for three floors of court space, with an additional floor for expansion, he said. The city also has discussed building a new parking garage nearby.
Moving the courthouse would be a big risk, Lowry said.
“The county would have to buy the land, which they haven’t done yet, and we don’t know who the ‘p’ in private of public-private partnership would be,” he said. “To me, that’s not a prudent risk of constituents’ dollars, it’s a risk.”
If the county knew who the private partner was, he might feel different, he said.
McKeel said she is waiting on reports from the studies before she makes a decision about the next step in the process.
“This is a huge undertaking and a huge expenditure of Albemarle County tax dollars, and I want to be very thoughtful and careful when I make that decision,” she said.
Gallaway said he has not taken a position on the courts yet, as he also is waiting for the studies to be completed.
“To me, it only makes sense to get all the information that’s available before you can make a proper decision,” he said. “I tried to operate that way when I was on the School Board.”
He said he has been having meetings with stakeholders on both sides of the issue.
“I have tried my best to make sure I understand all elements of the current situation, so now I’m waiting on this new information to come out so I can make up where I stand on it in finality,” Gallaway said.
Expanding the growth area
Since the county last year lost out to Roanoke as the locality for Deschutes Brewery’s East Coast expansion, there have been some questions about whether Albemarle has enough land for businesses, and whether the designated growth area, which makes up 5 percent of the county, needs to be expanded.
Lowry said the county lacks the scale for businesses to grow.
“There’s not scale of size so that a business can land some place and be comfortable and even grow,” he said. “We don’t have light-industry tracts that are prepared and ready by an active and functioning economic development department.”
He said the Board of Supervisors is tying the hands of the Economic Development Authority in terms of what it can do to attract business.
“We’re not normal, other counties and cities around the state are light years ahead of us,” he said.
Palmer said she does not see a reason to expand the development area.
“I think that’s something that we can work with in our development areas, some of our tired shopping centers on [U.S.] 29 North,” she said. “It’s really market-driven, and a lot of our industrially zoned properties have actually been rezoned commercial because industrial property is sold by the acre and commercial property is sold by the square foot.”
The 5th Street Station property, Palmer said, used to be zoned industrial. Palmer said she does not think that expanding the growth area would help that issue.
“I think what the board has to do is to try to increase revenue by increasing the income on property taxes per acre, and the best way to do that is in the development area on some of our unused parking lots, and we have to figure out ways to encourage landowners to do that because, after all, these are private properties,” she said.
It also would cost more to provide services, such as water and sewer, to a more spread-out area, she said.
Gallaway said he doesn’t think the growth area needs to be expanded.
“There is still plenty of opportunity for both new development and redevelopment within the current growth area,” he said.
That could change 20 to 60 years down the road, he said, if the growth area maxes out. The supervisors then will have to decide what they want to do.
“I certainly don’t think we are there yet to have that conversation,” he said.
Gallaway said it is contingent on the new county executive, Jeffrey Richardson, to hire a new economic development director to maximize what the county can do in the current growth area.
“I’m looking forward to what he brings to the table for that,” he said.
McKeel said she supports the county’s land-use policy of having a designated growth area.
“That amount of land should handle our growth for many years to come,” she said. “The designated growth area helps to contain sprawl and protects our rural areas.”