Sunday, January 31, 2010


Planning commission should be halved

Director of Community Development Don Charles dropped a bombshell near the end of the January 26 Goochland County Planning Commission meeting when he informed the group that, as a result of expected revenue shortfalls, the county administrator will recommend that the supervisors reduce the size of the commission to five.

Commissioners are paid $100 and mileage per meeting.

This is a long overdue move. For some reason, lost in the mists of time, Goochland has had a ten member planning commission, two from each district. Neighboring jurisdictions get along nicely with far fewer planning commissioners.

Henrico, for instance, whose land area is slightly smaller than Goochland, but whose population is about 15 times larger, has five planning commissioners.

The planning commission, whose members are appointed by the supervisor for each district, is charged with reviewing zoning and other land use changes.

The commission holds public hearings on land use matters and makes recommendations to the supervisors, who have the final say on such issues.

Because the planning commissioners address only land use issues, they are able to delve deeply into the various aspects of rezoning, conditional use and related matters. They have a public forum that provides the opportunity to discuss the consequences of land use changes and provide useful information to citizens in this area.

Public hearings before the planning commission often attract large numbers of residents concerned about pending changes in their area. Understandably, few people welcome rezoning, especially when farms are transformed into subdivisions. The planning commission tries to ensure that changes in land use meet county regulations, especially those concerning health and safety.

The final details about development are ironed out at the staff level with little public scrutiny. Often, there is little discussion about land use matters at the supervisor level before votes are taken, so the deliberations of the planning commission are an important step in the development process.

During public hearings, residents often trot out a standard list of objections. These include increased traffic; increasing the drawdown on the water table; concerns about soil hydraulics and septic systems; attracting “the wrong kind of people” and inappropriate location.

People in Goochland, especially those who have lived here fewer than 10 years, do not favor additional development of any kind. Sometimes they raise legitimate concerns about a specific proposal. The planning commission is supposed to consider the validity of these comments, as well as the merits of the application before taking its vote.

In order to understand the ramifications of proposed land use changes, it is vital for planning commissioners to be familiar with the property in question as well as county ordinances and regulations.

Not that long ago, it was obvious from comments made by commissioners during their deliberations that each had visited and walked the parcels in question and took the time to carefully consider the consequences of the proposal.

In the past few years, newly appointed commissioners seem to have little idea what they are supposed to do, particulars of county zoning ordinances and even where properties under consideration are located. This is all too obvious from the often bizarre and inappropriate comments made during their deliberations.

Candidates for the planning commission, in some cases, seem to have been selected for reasons other than their understanding of or interest in land use matters. Supervisors seem to have been so desperate to fill vacant seats that they appointed anyone who would take the job.

The planning commission has no power. The supervisors, who frequently ignore the commission’s recommendations, have the final say in land use. These decisions often seem to have been made long before they get to the public hearing stage.

Some of the commissioners seem clueless about the matters at hand. Whether this is caused by lack of interest or preparation, it serves no one well. They might even be embarrassed if they listened to a recording of their discussions.

In 2003, there were naturally occurring vacancies on the commission in each district. The supervisors could have easily reduced the number of planning commission seats to five with little heartburn but declined to act.

With the drastic decline in applications for zoning changes and conditional use permits, this is an ideal time to reduce the planning commission. Perhaps a smaller group will result in thoughtful, pertinent consideration of land use matters instead of the confabulation that often results with the current group.

Goochland has no need of a ten member planning commission. This is one budget cut that is good news.

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