Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Ring in the New Year with a clean house

Time for change

In these grim economic times, careful stewardship of public money is the most important duty of elected officials. They must make hard choices to ensure that vital services are not interrupted without imposing onerous tax burdens on citizens struggling with their own fiscal woes.
Unfolding revelations of, at the very least, monumental bookkeeping irregularities the Goochland County utilities department are clear evidence that little attention has been paid to the county financial affairs for some time.
A low level employee was fired in November when it came to light that a number of utility payments, some allegedly going back years, had never been deposited.
An audit of all county departments completed by the county’s longtime auditing firm Robinson, Farmer, Cox earlier in 2008 is believed to have found no irregularities. Yet, when retained by county administrator Greg Wolfrey to perform an additional audit of the utilities department in the past few weeks the same firm determined that the undeposited checks were the result of faulty internal reporting procedures.
On December 22, Wolfrey fired Doug Harvey who was the county engineer and head of the utilities department. Harvey was seen leaving the administration building that day with a large number of cartons whose contents are unknown.
The board of supervisors held a special called meeting at 5 p.m. on Tuesday, December 23 to discuss the matter.
After spending one hour and twenty minutes in closed session, the board returned to address approximately 50 people who attended the meeting.
Board chairman Bill Quarles, District 2 told the assembly that the board would prepare a letter referring the matter to the Goochland Commonwealth’s Attorney Claiborne H. Stokes, Jr. for review.
When asked why the audit of the utility department was performed by the county’s long-term auditors instead of a firm with no previous affiliation with the county, Quarles said that perhaps the audit should have been performed by an independent firm.
He also said that there may be additional audits and that there will be “more to come.” Quarles did not elaborate on what that meant.
Stokes is expected, at the least, to recommend that the county retain a forensic accountant to audit the utility department.
District 4 Supervisor Rudy Butler promised that all county taxpayers “will be protected.”
Although the county contends that the uncashed utility payment checks found in Harvey’s office have been accounted for, troubling reports of water and sewer customers who have never received bills for service are bubbling to the surface.
The whole matter raises a great many questions.
First and foremost, why was no one paying attention? Running a utility operation seems pretty straightforward. Attach customers to the system and charge them a connection fee. Then read the meter periodically, compute the use charge and add whatever other fees are attached. Send out the bills. Collect the payments and deposit them in the proper account. Compile a report noting the amount of money collected. Repeat.
Given that the Tuckahoe Creek Service District (TCSD) was expected to provide the county with an additional and badly needed revenue stream, it defies belief that neither Harvey, Wolfrey nor the supervisors were paying attention to the money generated by the system.
You’d think that at the end of each billing period, there would be great interest in the amount of money actually generated by public utility customers. Not so.
Until November of this year when first term supervisor Ned Creasey, District 3, refused to rubber stamp a motion to pay a two year old bill from the city of Richmond, little attention was paid.
No one, except perhaps the county treasurer, Brenda Grubbs who made repeated inquires about utility payments, that fell on deaf ears, seems to have missed the money, for years.
Other questions arise. Whose checks were not deposited? Were they checks for large amounts, small amounts, or a random selection? Was it the same customers every time? An investigation of Wolfrey and Harvey and the whole utilities department is badly needed to get to the bottom of this sludge lagoon.
This is not the first time that high weirdness has been part of utilities billing.
In June, 2006, Harvey notified the supervisors that Kinloch Golf Club had been overcharged for water to the tune of $25,171.45. This occurred, according to Harvey, because since Kinloch connected to county water lines in 2002, the rate charged was $40 rather than $4 per unit of water.
The supervisors laughed the matter off as a big “oops” after voting to refund the difference instead of ordering a detailed investigation to ensure that billing was done properly. Harvey said that other customers who had been over billed for shorter periods of time agreed to credits on their accounts instead of refunds.
Emerging reports of fiscal anomalies in the parks and recreation department indicate that more than one county department needs to have a visit from the forensic accountants.
What exactly is Wolfrey doing to justify his handsome six-figure salary and generous fringe benefits?
According to the Code of Virginia, the county administrator shall “… be responsible to the board for the proper administration of all affairs of the county which the board has the authority to control. He shall keep the board advised as to the financial condition of the county… and examine regularly the books and papers of each department, officer and agent of the county and report to the board the condition in which he finds them.”
No regular inspections or reports about the condition of the utility department seem to have been made.
In December, Wolfrey admonished the supervisors to be very careful about spending money. He had the audacity to tell the supervisors that in the future they might need to skip expensive conferences. Yet, Wolfrey attended the Virginia Association of Counties meeting this fall even though he plans to retire, supposedly to hunt and farm, next year.
Wolfrey often asserts that Goochland County is run like a business. What sort of business does Wolfrey have in mind? Enron? Lehman Brothers?
Even children running a lemonade stand know that it’s important to keep track of all of the money.
Wolfrey is reported to have turned over many of his duties to assistant county administrator Greg Reid. The next task on his plate is to prepare the county budget. In light of the revelations of how little attention Wolfrey seems to have paid to fiscal matters, the last thing the county needs is his involvement in the budget. Perhaps it is time for the supervisors to sharpen their pencils, meet with department heads and devise their own budget instead of rubber stamping something prepared by Wolfrey and outside consultants.
The mess in the utility and perhaps other departments occurred on Wolfrey’s watch. If the county were a private company, he would be out the door. Failure to remove Wolfrey calls into question the integrity of the supervisors who protect him. What are they hiding?
It is time for Wolfrey to emulate Elvis and leave the (administration) building to allow Goochland County to put its fiscal house in order and move forward.
Please let your supervisor know your thoughts on this matter.

Andrew Pryor, District 13376 Pryor RoadGoochland, VA 23063(804)457-4177(h)

William E. Quarles Jr., District 22671 Broad Street RoadGum Spring, VA 23065(804)556-2927(h)

Ned S. Creasey, District 32210 Denver LaneMaidens, VA 23102(804)

Malvern R. Butler, District 4784 Three Chopt RoadManakin-Sabot, VA 23103(804)784-4241(h & f)
James W. Eads, District 51506 Windsor WayManakin-Sabot, VA 23103(804)784-3944(h)

Friday, December 19, 2008


Please note that the Goochlkand County website is Sorry for the error.
Merry Christmas to all

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Don't stop thinking about tomorrow

The 2028 Comprehensive land use plan

After nearly two years of meetings, discussions and tweaking, the 2028 comprehensive land use plan (comp plan) made it to a public hearing before the board of supervisors at its December 2 meeting.

There were only a few speakers, mostly from two groups: Citizens Concerned with Goochland Growth (CCGG) and Americans for Prosperity. Though the two groups had different objections to the proposed comp plan, they agreed in their contention that the comp plan is not ready for adoption.

The supervisors voted to defer a vote until their February meeting. The delay will allow them to review citizen input.

Created by state mandate decades ago, the comp plan is intended to be a guide for land use decisions. It is supposed to reflect citizen vision about how the county will grow in the ensuing 20 years.

Both CCGG, a local grassroots organization, and Americans for Prosperity, a national group whose Goochland members spoke at the hearing, despaired that the comp plan revisions reflected the input of only a few people.

The number of people who attended the public hearing represents .00374 percent of the county’s population. An initial county-wide round of meetings held in the spring of 2007 were well-attended. Follow-up meetings held about a year ago generated little interest.

In truth, few people care about land use matters until they see a bulldozer on an adjoining lot, by which time is it way too late to change things. Also, Goochland citizens tend to have little faith that their elected and appointed officials care about their wishes.

The proposed 2028 plan, which may be viewed at is an easy read and includes a great deal of interesting information about the county.

Detailed information about decisions that comprise the comp plan, such as how village boundaries were drawn, on the other hand, seems to have been lost in the mists of time.

The village concept

Goochland’s comp plan is based on something called the village concept. On paper, this approach to land use planning sounds great.

Simply put, the village concept encourages development in eight areas designated as villages. These are: the River Road corridor, Manakin, Centerville, Crozier, Courthouse Village, Oilville, Sandy Hook, Georges Tavern/Fife and Hadensville. This is supposed to take development pressure off of the more rural areas.

People who live inside of village boundaries are often surprised to learn that they indeed live in a village. Other than lines drawn on a land use map, or a mailing address, it’s sometimes hard to tell that you’re in a village.

When rezoning applications were filed for land located inside the Sandy Hook Village, a circle centered on the intersection of Whitehall and Sandy Hook Roads, local residents asked “what village?”

They were especially incensed to learn that property inside that magic circle could be rezoned for acre and a half home sites with little regard to the impact on traffic, soils and aquifers.

Those subdivisions rezoned under the 2023 plan are on the books and will be built when the economy improves.

When land was rezoned for a mixed-use project in the heart of the Manakin Village in 2007, local residents strenuously objected. People contended that they live close enough to stores and services in Henrico to fulfill their needs. Peace and privacy of country living is more important than being able to walk to store to buy a loaf of bread they said.

Yet, the 2028 plan states that Manakin will develop into a major village as water and sewer, presumably supplied by the Tuckahoe Creek Service District, become available. Is this a reflection of citizen vision?

While the county seat, Courthouse Village has many of the true attributes of a small town, utility capacity, supplied by the Department of Corrections, is severely limited. Recent nearby rezonings added more rooftops to the area that attracted businesses like a shopping center and the county’s first fast food restaurant.

Accessed only by already overburdened two lane roads that will not be improved any time soon, appropriate high-density growth in Courthouse Village seems unlikely.

Centerville, served by public water and sewer, should be the focus of highest density development in the county but the supervisors repeatedly balk at creating multifamily zoning options there. They seem to fear creation of housing projects that will swarm with school-aged children.

Although the supervisors and department of community development have discussed the idea of creating a master plan for the Centerville Village, for at least four years, no action has been taken. In the interim, land is rezoned on a case by case basis with little thought to the village as a whole.

Oilville, says the 2028 comp plan, will develop into a major village in the next 20 years.

Given that the county is in talks with VDOT about taking over the wastewater treatment plant at the rest area, this village deserved a little more attention in the revision process. Since the 2023 plan was adopted, the only development in Oilville has been a strip shopping center and a “cookie cutter” subdivision with little or no relation to each other.

The comp plan does state that care should be taken to preserve the existing village characteristics of Oilville whatever those may be.

The 2028 plan contains language to discourage development in the area west of Lickinghole Creek. This seems to be the principal effort to preserve some vestiges of the county’s ruralness.

Speakers at the hearing contended that the county’s rural preservation (RP) zoning option, which sets aside 50 percent of a parcel to be left undisturbed in perpetuity, can balance development with maintenance of a rural view shed.

There is more to preserving rural character than setting houses well back from roads so they don’t spoil the view.

Given land values in Goochland, even at their current depressed prices, the folks who live in RP subdivisions have quite different world views from their rural neighbors.

Already, far too many people who move to “the country” because they like to see cows and horses do not realize, until it’s too late, that horses neigh, cows moo, they both poop and manure smells.

These newcomers are surprised to learn that agriculture can be a noisy, smelly and sometimes unsightly business. When upscale subdivisions are plunked down next to farms, friction can result. The farmer tends to lose. If he sells his land to a developer, he becomes a villain.

Land use decisions must balance the property rights and the public good.

Several supervisors commented that discouraging development anywhere in the county could deprive a long time landowner of realizing the appreciation on long held property that had been counted on to fund retirement.

Differentiating between people who want to sell a few lots and those who buy large tracts for speculative purposes is fraught with peril.

As the 2010 census and resulting redistricting draw near, the voice of the rural citizen could be muted.

Growth in the eastern end of Goochland will likely change district boundaries in such a way that the voice, and clout, of truly rural residents will become severely diluted. Discouraging residential subdivisions west of Lickinghole Creek will only make this problem worse. But permitting leapfrog development in areas that cannot support it is a problem too.

Everyone wants to protect the rural character of Goochland. Sounds great, but exactly what does that mean and how do you do it?

The 2028 comp plan tap dances around the issue. Without a common vision on the part of the board of supervisors, little will change.

The plan has lots of lofty language about visions and strategies, which are meaningless without a unified sense of purpose by the governing board.

If the supervisors continue to vote their whim, citing the comp plan as Holy Grail when it supports their view or denigrating it as “just a guide” when they want to vote in a contrary way, the whole process is an exercise in futility.

Read the comp plan, think about it, call your supervisor and share you opinion before that bulldozer shows up.

Monday, November 24, 2008

A sticky wicket

A rezoning case before the Goochland Planning Commission illustrates the quest for balance between a landowner’s propriety rights and public good that is the job of local government.

At issue is a 10.29 acre parcel of land owned by Manakin Properties, LLC with frontage on Manakin Road and Rt. 250 behind Satterwhites restaurant.

Manakin Properties wants to rezone the site for business use to build a shopping center. Including four out parcels, a total of 85,000 square feet of commercial space is envisioned there. This is at least as large as Broadview Center, which is home to the Centerville Food Lion.

Following a VDOT review, the proposal presented to the Planning Commission at its November 20 meeting, shows an access point onto Rt. 250 at the very top of the hill, just east of the entrance to the Sycamore Creek subdivision.

According to testimony at the hearing, VDOT recommends that traffic exiting on Rt. 250 only be permitted to go right. This would mean installation of a barrier to prevent left turns.

That stretch of road is fairly narrow and heavily traveled by a wide range of vehicles including large, heavily loaded dump trucks. A concrete lane divider will spawn spectacular wrecks that will not only cripple traffic on a significant east west roadway.

Assuming that the barriers do not cause wrecks, they will create confusion resulting in hazardous traffic patterns as people seeking to go east use the entrance to the Sycamore Creek subdivision as a turn around.

Adding more fuel to an already dysfunctional traffic pattern at the intersection of Manakin Road and Rt. 250 seems ill advised. To its credit, Manakin Properties proffered a cash amount of $23,680 to help defray the cost of a traffic signal if VDOT ever decides that it is needed.

The proposed shopping center is shown as a large strip at the rear of a parking lot. Proffers include extensive verbiage about vegetative buffers. The proposal includes extensive landscaping along Rt. 250 and was compared to The Shoppes at Belgrade in Chesterfield County.

Local residents, especially those who live in the Sycamore Creek subdivision expressed legitimate concern about the plan.

In addition to traffic woes, they worry about preservation of the existing wooded area that currently separates the proposed shopping center from the homes and golf course.

The parcel slopes steeply to Tuckahoe Creek. Site work necessary to create the large, level space needed for the main part of the shopping center could significantly alter water runoff patterns.

The proffers expressed intent to leave the existing mature trees undisturbed. Bob Hammond, county planning and zoning administrator said that the county would “like to see a stronger commitment to protect the trees.”

Changing the ground water recharge dynamics of the land by paving the parking lot or construction itself could damage the root systems of those trees. The county’s dismal record of enforcing proffers and other regulations that prohibit removal of vegetation bodes ill for that stretch of woods.

Remove the trees and the homeowners and golfers have an unobstructed view of loading docks, dumpsters, parking lots, signage and all the other attributes of a shopping center.

While Manakin Properties has a perfect right to develop their land the county is obligated to ensure that development does not adversely affect the health, safety and welfare it its citizens.

This parcel of land would seem to be an ideal location for about 30 town homes. Higher density residential would provide a step down in use from commercial on the east side of Manakin Road to the large lot residential and recreational of Sycamore Creek.

Unfortunately, Manakin Properties does have that option, because current zoning and land use policies do not permit residential density in excess of 2.5 units per acre.

The supervisors fear runaway development if they allow that sort of thing in Goochland even though it could provide less expensive housing and customers for public utilities. Because nearly all of the land that could support townhouses must be rezoned, the board could control the timing of that kind of development, but it has shown little interest in the concept.

During the planning commission hearing, the Grove at Manakin, which combines relatively high density age restricted housing between large lot residential and strip retail space, was used for comparison.

The Grove, located in the southeast quadrant of the Manakin Road/ Rt. 250 intersection, set a precedent of step down land use intensity between retail fronting on a main road and large lot residential zoning. That land was rezoned about two years ago and there are no indications that building there of any sort will occur in the near future.

There were other interesting facets of the hearing.

A cemetery appears on the plat of the parcel under discussion. During his presentation to the Commission, Hammond said that he had walked the site and found no evidence of the cemetery.

Sycamore Creek resident Paul Costello, however, presented Commissioners with photos he had taken of headstones he said were part of that cemetery.

Although the county has a policy of not accepting proffers within several days of a public hearing, the Commissioners were asked to differentiate between proffer revisions made at both three and four o’clock of the afternoon of the hearing.

Darvin Satterwhite, representing Manakin Properties said that some of the proffer revisions were made based on comments from the Department of Community Development.

There was no explanation for the urgency that required hourly proffer revisions on the day of the public hearing. The Commission voted 9-1 to defer action on the application for 60 days.

Although potential tenants were not identified, a proffer stating that no one use would exceed 53,000 square feet, larger than the nearby Food Lion, was included. That’s a fairly large business to tuck next to a golf course at the edge of a village where open tracts near the center of the commercial area could still be used for grazing cows.

Bill Neal, District 3, cast the sole nay vote contending that a 60 day delay would change nothing.

Knight Bowles, District 2, said that he wanted a chance to read through the revised proffers and several pages of detailed comments and other exhibits presented by Costello.

This public hearing left the feeling that agreements between the county and developer had been put in place and that the dog and pony show was merely a pro forma hurdle to scale on the way to approval.

With acres of prime commercial space nearing completion in Short Pump and a sizeable chunk of land roughly opposite this tract already zoned, yet unbuilt, for retail, there is time for careful deliberation before any recommendations are made on the application.

This rezoning application and its potential to create what seems to be at first blush an ill sited shopping center illustrate the unintended consequences of the lack of a detailed master plan for land use in the Centerville Village.

There has been a lot of talk, but little action, on the part of the supervisors about ensuring that Centerville be developed carefully to make it a showcase.

Yet, instead of working with landowners and developers to create a plan that results in sensible, profitable, beneficial and attractive development, the county is still fielding rezoning applications one at a time with little thought to how they relate to the whole.

Developers are allowed to make money. Private dollars fund the growth that the county needs. It is the job of Goochland government to provide options that encourage beneficial, profitable and sustainable investment in our land.

This application will probably be approved after a few more gyrations between staff, developers and various boards.
It is unlikely that the application will be deferred until a Centerville master plan is in place.

With luck, the laws of supply and demand will leave this parcel of land fallow until Rt. 250 is complete and more creative land use options are available.

Goochland should take advantage of the opportunity presented by the current lull in development activity to put a master plan for Centerville in place for the benefit of all.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

A hospital for West Creek

West Creek Medical Center

At last, a hospital will come to Goochland.

The announcement that state regulators approved plans for a hospital in West Creek is good news on many fronts.

First and foremost, state of the art medical care will be closer and more accessible to county residents. This will save many lives by simply reducing the length of the trip to reach an emergency room.

Modern hospitals are indeed the site of daily miracles, but only if they are reached quickly. The sooner a sick or injured person reaches the healing sanctuary of hospital, the better. Indeed, those in the emergency medical service contend that if a patient reaches an emergency room within 60 minutes of onset of illness or injury, called “the golden hour,” the possibility of a successful recovery is far brighter.

The hospital will be good for Goochland and beneficial to the region. It will be the only hospital in the area with a direct connection to a limited access highway. Clogged surface streets that must be traveled to reach any other hospital in the area can steal previous seconds from that golden hour. Anyone who has crawled along Horsepen Road trying to reach either St. Mary’s Hospital or Henrico Doctors Hospital Forest campus understands just how long it can take to travel just a few miles.

Then there is the economic benefit.

In addition to creating many jobs, both in construction and when the hospital is in operation, the county will realize badly needed new revenues. Hopefully, the hospital will spawn associated medical offices and create small business opportunities.

That seems to be what detractors of the new hospital fear.

Rumors that the affluent and influential people who live in the River Road corridor, sometimes referred to as Goochland’s “gold coast,” worked to discourage approval of the hospital are troubling. These may be the same people who made sure that Johnston-Willis Hospital wound up in Chesterfield instead of on Patterson Avenue decades ago.

It is unlikely that the West Creek Medical Center will be the catalyst for Chesterfield-like development here. Goochland does not have unlimited water and sewer capacity to fuel such growth and the economic tides may be turning against never ending home construction.

There has been way too little economic development in West Creek. While no one expects West Creek to be built out any time soon, right now it resembles a nature preserve more than an office park that is supposed to be the economic engine to lighten the local tax burden on property owners.

As the Watkins Center just south of the James River is bursting out of the ground full of economic promise, the possibility that West Creek will be left in its dust is all too real. It’s time for Goochland to get serious about economic development on all fronts from corporate headquarters to mom and pop operations.

Approval of the hospital is just the beginning. County leaders need to make sure that they do nothing to stand in the way of its success. — S. E.Warwick