Critical Slopes

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Critical slopes are hillsides protected from development under zoning ordinances in both Charlottesville and Albemarle County. The City Council and Board of Supervisors are charged with granting waivers to projects that would be built on these slopes.

Albemarle County

The Albemarle Board of Supervisors passed a resolution of intent to review the county's critical slopes ordinance on April 1, 2009. The county has hosted three public meetings on critical slopes since then, in December 2009, February 2010, and July 2013. As of August 13, 2013, County staff is suggesting that the county's definition of a critical slope (any hillside with a 25% slope or greater) remain the same, but that critical slopes be classified as either "preserved" or "managed". Preserved slopes might be part of a system of hills or have a water feature; development would not be allowed there. Managed slopes, which might be man-made, located in single family residential lots, or have been disturbed in the past, could be developed by right.[1]


The Planning Commission considered 23 waivers between the time the city's critical slope ordinance was adopted in May 2006 and when the ordinance came under review in August 2010.[2] During that time, the commission approved 20 of them, deferred two, and denied only one.[3]

The Southern Environmental Law Center lead the charge to rewrite the ordinance in order to make it more stringent. Former Kay Slaughter appeared before the Charlottesville Planning Commission and the City Council with her suggestions.[4] But developers and others opposed the revisions, saying that the strengthening the ordinance will make it an "anti-growth measure."[3]

The Charlottesville City Council adopted a revised critical slopes ordinance on January 17, 2012. The updated ordinance defines critical slopes as any slope that has a grade of 25% or higher, is within 200 feet of a waterway, has a horizontal run of 20 feet or more, and has an area of 6,000 square feet or more. It grants the council the ability to waive the critical slopes ordinance's prohibition on development if the benefits to the public of disturbing the slope outweigh the benefits of an undisturbed slope or if the ordinance would unreasonably restrict the use of a property. The council may also impose conditions on the granting of a waiver.[5]

2012 Court Ruling

Before a January 2012 Virginia Supreme Court case, the planning commissions in both Albemarle and Charlottesville had been responsible for granting critical slopes waivers. In Sinclair v. New Cingular, et al., the court ruled that planning commissions were purely advisory and could not grant waivers. The case arose when an Albemarle County resident and University of Virginia law professor, Kent Sinclair, found he had no way to appeal a waiver granted for the construction of a cell tower on the property adjacent to his own.[6]


  1. Web. Albemarle Planning Commission Agenda for 13 Aug 2013, County of Albemarle
  2. Web. City slopes ordinance discussion to continue into 2011, Sean Tubbs, Charlottesville Tomorrow, 6 Jan 2011, retrieved 12 Aug 2013.
  3. 3.0 3.1 Web. City panel tours sites as steep slopes rules under review, Rachana Dixit, Daily Progress, Lee Enterprises, 24 Aug 2010, retrieved 12 Aug 2013.
  4. Tubbs, Sean. "Environmental Community Demands Strengthening of City’s Slopes Ordinance." Charlottesville Tomorrow News Center. 15 June 2010. Web. 21 June 2010. <>.
  5. Web. Adopted Ordinance, City of Charlottesville, 17 Jan 2012, retrieved 12 Aug 2013.
  6. Web. Court leaves planning commissions “dead in the water”, Kurt Walters, Charlottesville Tomorrow, 29 Jan 2012, retrieved 12 Aug 2013.

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