Image from Albemarle County, Virginia (PDF)

Over the last couple of years the state government of Virginia has been rolling out a land use planning category for localities known as Urban Development Areas (UDAs), where higher density development can be concentrated.

The concept started off slowly in 2007 with HB 3202 as an advisory element to be placed in the Comprehensive Plans of “high growth” localities, but UDAs have gradually been weaved into everything from stormwater regulations to street design requirements over the last year.

The Development and Land Use Tools Subcommittee, known as the Athey-Vogel group, last week released a proposal for stronger UDAs and a loan fund to sweeten the pot. Considering the media has pretty much ignored this process (I can’t find any story, actually), it seems like a worthwhile endeavor to pay attention to where this initiative may be going.

The purpose of UDAs is not only to allow the concentration of growth in certain areas (thus relieving the pressure on others) but also to guide the design of such areas to ensure they are livable and attractive environments. The legislation explicitly calls for “new urbanism and traditional-neighborhood design.”

The essential criteria are spelled out clearly: pedestrian-friendly road design, interconnection of streets, preservation of natural areas, mixed-use neighborhoods, reduction of front and side setbacks, among other things. Minimum densities are set by floor-to-area ratio for commercial and dwelling-units-per-acre for residential development.

Last week’s proposed changes double the density requirements for all localities with populations greater than 50,000 to “eight single-family residences, 12 townhouses, or 24 apartments, condominium units, or cooperative units per acre” and “an authorized floor area ratio of at least 0.8 per acre for commercial development.” Additionally, some portion of the UDA needs to be designated as a “receiving area,” in case the locality decides to create a Transfer of Development Rights system in the future to help concentrate growth.

Being a part of the Comprehensive Plan, UDAs have no regulatory power in and of themselves. However, a number of carrots are emerging from across the spectrum of state agencies that may give counties an incentive to take UDAs seriously. The Department of Conservation and Recreation has been updating the regulations for stormwater management throughout the state, and the most recent proposed changes take UDAs into account.

Localities would be allowed to set more lenient runoff requirements in UDAs then they would be allowed to in rural areas, and if a developer wants to pay for off-site mitigation instead of reducing impervious surfaces on site, it would be cheaper to do so in UDAs than outside of them ($15,000 instead $23,900 per pound of phosphorous). These provisions have been added in response to many Virginia environmental groups who have recognized the water quality benefits associated with denser living arrangements.

The Virginia Department of Transportation has also aligned their updated Secondary Street Acceptance Requirements with UDAs. These changes are intended to make new local streets better connected, less congested, and friendlier to pedestrians and cyclists. The VDOT requirements are split into compact, suburban, and rural area types, with new streets in the compact tier having the highest level of connectivity and pedestrian accommodations.

This opens the crucial question of where exactly these different area types are located. By designating a UDA, a county automatically accepts the compact tier of requirements for the area. This reinforces the stated goal of “pedestrian-friendly road design” and helps the state lower its long-term maintenance costs. VDOT has even offered a set of grants to communities to assist them in revising zoning codes to be more aligned with the goals of UDAs.

Finally, UDAs are being positioned to receive a larger share of federal and state infrastructure spending in the future. From last weeks draft revision:

“To the extent possible, federal, state and local transportation, housing, and water and sewer facility, economic development, and other public infrastructure funding shall be directed to the urban development area.”

To start to make good on this objective, Delegates Jill Vogel and Clay Athey, both Republicans from the the north Shenandoah valley, have proposed a Virginia Infrastructure in Urban Development Areas Loan Fund. If this is approved and funded, it could help local governments invest in the roads, water facilities, and wastewater treatment necessary to encourage focused development.

As Aesop reminded us, slow and steady wins the race. Maryland came out of the gates early with a very public Smart Growth push but has recently been criticized for a lack of substance behind the message. The Virginia reforms are unfolding one by one without the branding campaign and national exposure, but taken together they show a remarkably coherent direction converging from a variety of angles.

UDAs are being justified with the hard-headed language of cost effectiveness that local governments are accustomed to, and Republicans, as well as Democrats, have been key players in moving them forward. A huge amount of public input has been sought, with representation from both development and environmentalist stakeholders, and it is apparently being listened to.