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