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Amherst County comprehensive plan update breaks down trends

View story at The News & Advance...The most recent update to the Amherst County Comprehensive Plan, a guide for critical land use decisions that will determine growth and development within the county, is nearing the public hearing phase for citizen input.

The Amherst County Planning Commission, which makes zoning and land use recommendations to the county’s board of supervisors, recently received a final version of the 400-plus-page document and voted to soon have a public hearing on it, although a specific date hasn't been advertised as of press time. The plan for 2007 to 2027 was initially approved in June 2007 and received updates in 2013 and 2017.
 
The latest draft update includes demographics from the 2020 census. The county’s population, which was 32,353 in 2010, decreased 3.2% to 31,307 in the most recent census because of two factors, according to the plan: the gradual decline and eventual closure of the Central Virginia Training Center, formerly the county’s largest employer, and the effects of the near-closure of Sweet Briar College in 2015.

The training center, which had a long history of serving people with disabilities on 350 acres in Madison Heights near the James River, at one time employed more than 1,600 and created a total regional economic impact of $87 million annually, according to county officials. For about eight years leading up to its closure in 2020, the center gradually declined in employees and residents.

The Lynchburg Regional Business Alliance and area government officials have launched a massive redevelopment plan for the site in hopes of reviving economic activity at the property.

Megan Lucas, CEO and chief economic development officer of the Lynchburg Regional Business Alliance, has described the CVTC plan as an opportunity to strengthen the region’s urban core.
“This plan telescopes a vision that will transform the site into a growing ‘twin-community’ between Madison Heights and the City of Lynchburg,” Lucas has said. “The coupling of these two dynamic areas would bring energy and additional prominence to the area, creating a destination for vision and area residents alike.”

The CVTC master plan for development is included in the county’s draft comprehensive plan.

Population trendsGenerally, areas closer to Madison Heights have experienced the greatest amounts of growth between 2000 and 2020, according to the latest draft plan. From 2000 to 2010, the more rural north-central and southeastern portions of the county experienced higher rates of population growth, altering a historic trend of higher population growth in the immediate Madison Heights area.

“Overall, the racial makeup of Amherst County is slowly becoming more diverse and multiracial,” the draft plan states.

The racial distribution of the county has changed from 2010 to 2020 with the white and Black percentage of the total population decreasing 6.2% and 12.4%, respectively. In 2020, the Hispanic origin population in Amherst County continued to steadily rise, increasing by 34% over the 10-year-period, and the Asian and Pacific Islander population increased by 29.4%.

From 2010 to 2020 the number of individuals who identified themselves as being multiracial increased by 152%, according to the draft update.

The U.S. Census indicates that in 1980 the average number of persons per household in Amherst County was approximately 3. That number decreased by 1990 and continued downward to 2.5 persons per household in the 2000 census and 2.3 in the 2010 census.

“This reflects a national trend toward smaller family sizes,” the draft update states. “During that thirty year period, our population increased by approximately 3,220, and the total number of additional housing units increased by approximately 5,300. Even with a recognition that 'households' are decreasing in size, it is reasonable to note that the housing stock is increasing at a disproportional rate to our population and other types of development.”

More housing means more roads, utilities, higher maintenance costs and environmental disturbances, the draft plan states.

“While there is little a government can do to affect sociological changes, such as the number of persons living in a dwelling, the number of children couples have, etc., it can plan to accommodate these phenomena in a responsible fashion to minimize the tax burden on all County residents,” the draft plan states.

The majority of households in Amherst County consist of families, specifically with married couples, and single male- and female-headed family households increased by 1% each, and maintained the same relative percent of the population. Non-family householders increased by 1%, and householders 65 years old and above experienced the largest percentage growth at 21%, according to the draft plan.
"As the 65 years old and above population increases, this trend in non-family household growth will continue," it states. 

Employment, income Approximately one-third of the people employed in Amherst County reside in the county and the rest of the county's workforce commute into the county from other localities, according to the draft update. 

Education, health care and social services employ the largest amount of individuals in Amherst County while manufacturing, retail trade and construction follow as the second, third and fourth largest sectors of employment in the county, according to data in the document.

Following the Great Recession the county's unemployment spiked, reaching a peak of 8.1% in 2010. From 2011 through 2015, unemployment rates decreased each year in the recovery period and the labor force decreased each year since 2010.

From 1990 to the present, unemployment rates in the county have closely tracked unemployment rates in the Lynchburg Metropolitan Statistic Area, which is composed of the counties of Amherst, Appomattox, Campbell, and Bedford plus the town of Bedford and the city of Lynchburg. During the 1990s, county and regional unemployment rates were lower than the rate for the state as a whole. Since the Great Recession, however, county and regional unemployment rates have been higher than the state average. 
The 2020 American Community Survey indicated a median household income of $57,368 for the county. Average household income within Amherst County varies by geographic area, with the western portions of the county having higher household incomes than the eastern parts, the draft update shows.
Safety The ability of area residents to move safely on county roads is of paramount concern for the county, according to the draft document.  

The plan includes crash data along county roads, including maps of where wrecks have occurred and potential safety improvement areas in the county. The county had 333 crashes in 2015, 313 the following year, 385 in 2017, 573 the year after – the highest in a five-year stretch – and 409 in 2019. The draft update’s data includes statistics on the causes of crashes.

Future growthThree particular areas of the county with water and sewer availability and ready access to U.S. 29 are the interchanges with the Madison Heights Bypass at Route 210 (Colony Road), Virginia 130 (Amelon Expressway), and the Ambriar vicinity in the Town of Amherst.

“These areas are likely to see most of the noticeable growth in the County for the foreseeable future,” the draft update states.

The county's strategic plan for economic development builds on county assets and addresses weaknesses such as availability and costs such as water, sewer, broadband, workforce shortage and lack of sites and buildings. Strategic initiatives seek to attract and retain businesses and start new ones in the target sectors of precision manufacturing, plastics and packaging, health care, and education and knowledge services, according to the draft update.

“While recognizing the shift to higher emphasis on technology and services, it must be recognized that agriculture plays a significant role in the future of the Amherst County economy,” the draft update states. “There are a number of agribusinesses serving farmers, forestry personnel, and suburban residents. Agritourism is growing with vineyards, orchards, and farmer’s markets.”  

The 2017 census recorded the county has 369 farms, down from 426 in 2012, and 78,812 total acreage, which also was down from 98,966 acres five years prior.

The draft update emphasizes a focus on steering future growth and development in priority areas where water and sewer service is available and conserve the county’s rural agricultural areas, open spaces and forested areas.

“As Amherst County continues to experience residential, commercial and industrial growth, there will be continued pressure on the County’s agricultural, open space, and forested areas to be developed for these uses,” the draft update state, adding when requests for high density residential development occur “...the economic and quality of life benefits of agricultural and forested land uses should be considered, as well as the adequacy of public facilities and services in the area.”