Friday, February 26, 2010

Between a rock and a hard place

Finding a safe path through the budget minefield

On February 23, the Goochland supervisors got their first official look at the county administrator’s recommended budget for fiscal year 2010-11, which begins on July 1.

County administrator Rebecca T. Dickson, who has been on the job a tad over six months, gets high marks for the detailed budget documents presented to the board and made easily accessible to the public. This is a welcome change from past practices, which made a condensed version of the proposed budget available to interested parties for $10.

The proposed budget is available in hard copy at the Goochland Branch Library and at the county website It contains a wealth of useful information about county operations. Sunshine is a vital element in public policy.

Following excruciating public hearings, deliberations and hopefully, deep thought, the supervisors will set tax rates for 2010 on April 6.

The budget process, contentious even in bountiful years, could get ugly before it is over.

No one in local government, not even District 1 Supervisor Andrew Pryor, who has been in office for more than three decades, has ever dealt with revenue shortfalls of this magnitude.

It’s easy to suggest either more budget cuts, or tax rate increases and ignore protests of dissenters. The wisest path though the fiscal minefield is perhaps a combination of the two extremes.

The trick is to set priorities and stick to them. However, as Dickson pointed out in her remarks to the board, all functions are interrelated and cuts in one function will affect others.

At the end of the day the county must be in a position to function well and provide core service to its citizens. The budget crisis offers the opportunity to prune deadwood and plan for the future.

The choices are painful. Some county employees will lose their jobs and functions will be eliminated or combined.

Services will be curtailed. Library will be drastically reduced. In FY 2009, 84,548 visitors were logged. That does not count those who did not use a computer or check out materials. This will have a significant impact on the 18,000 or so residents— the 2,000 inmates at local prisons, who are counted in the population, don’t have library cards— who depend on the library.

Public comment at the workshop meeting was thoughtful and compelling.

A member of GEPA presented his work on the school system maintenance and transportation system, which is available at

Other speakers urged the supervisors to increase the tax rate to prevent further cuts.

Karen Myrick of Maidens presented a nickel to the board following a passionate plea to increase the tax rate by that much. She urged them to be careful, compassionate and collaborative in their budget deliberations.

Robin Lind of Manakin gave a thumbnail history of the county for the three decades he’s lived here.

“When we moved to Goochland 30 years ago, the population was 12,000 and the starting salary for teachers was $12,000,” he said.

Lind cited the improvement in local schools, professional, competent service provided by the Goochland Sheriff’s Department and Fire-Rescue Volunteers, which need adequate funding to function well. He too left a nickel for the supervisors.

Jane Christie, a GEPA parent, entreated the board to require greater detail in the school budget. She contended that the proposed budget presented by school board and Dr. Underwood, which lists about 60 percent of the requested funds in one line item, hides unnecessary administrative positions created in the past three years.

Dickson said that the budget is a work in progress and warned that FY 12, in which further declines in real estate values are expected, will be more difficult.

The recommended budget represents a 10.59 percent decrease for general government.

Recommendations include razing the Fairgrounds Building; eliminating curbside recycling for the eastern end; curtailing hours of operation at the western convenience center, which includes one job loss; reducing the size of the planning commission from 10 to five members and furlough days for county employees.

Dickson’s thorough look at county operations also resulted in a recommendation that the changes in contract hauling and procedures and processes, again a new and welcome concept for Goochland government.

Based on the recent reassessment, Dickson valued a penny of real estate tax at $380,000.

Dickson said that, based on revenues generated by the 53 cent tax rate, the county must identify an additional $421,00 in cuts. This would mean more job eliminations and could result in other actions including some sort of charge for EMS calls. A tipping fee at the convenience center could also be levied.

The schools still need to identify $1,032,000 while refusing to acknowledge the GEPA suggestions. This amount could increase, depending on final numbers from the state.

With no tax increase, the county will need to reduce spending by up to an additional $2.5 million in FY 12.

As to the tax rate, a four cent increase to 57 cents per $100 of valuation would mean no further cuts. Because tax rates apply to calendar rather than fiscal years, this would also help with the shortfall being realized in the current fiscal year.

Although the 53 cent rate has been in force for the past few years, it is by no means sacred.

As property values skyrocketed in mid decade, the tax rate was reduced. In 2007, the same people who contended that the Tuckahoe Creek Service District was fiscally sound, presented a tax rate scheme based on a six percent annual increase in property values that would go on forever.

As values increased, the supervisors could take credit for keeping the tax rate low even though tax bills — everyone had more of the hundred dollars’ of valuation— would rise.

While there may have been some expectation that the rate of increase would slow, no one expected values to fall off a cliff.

Some people believe that Goochland’s tax rates should be higher because ours are so much lower than surrounding counties. We get fewer services. If you are healthy, law abiding and have no children in school, your county services amount to use of the library and the convenience center.

While property values generally decreased, some went up. Landowners in the TCSD are faced with increases in the ad valorem tax and utility rates. Many residents live below the poverty line and struggle to survive.

Unlike other taxes, local taxes stay close to home.

Finding the balance between fiscal responsibility and irreparable harm to county functions will be hard. At the end of the day, no one will be happy.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Lessons of the past

Two local events of note

Right here in little old Goochland you have two opportunites to learn about and reflect on dark times in history.

On Sunday, February 28,

You are cordially invited to a free viewing of the film:
Locked Out: The Fall of Massive Resistance
followed by a Community Conversation
facilitated by Community Action Dialogues for Greater Richmond
Sunday, February 28th, 2010
Registration begins at 2:45 p.m. Event: 3:00 - 5:30 p.m.
Goochland High School Auditorium
3250 River Road West, Goochland, VA 23063

Locked Out: The Fall of Massive Resistance
WCVE PBS produced this 60- minute documentary in partnership with the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. "Locked Out" tells the stories of the students impacted by Massive Resistance. Following the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education decision by the U.S. Supreme Court, mandating school desegregation, Virginia's government instead chose a path called "Massive Resistance," closing many public schools instead of integrating them. "Locked Out" offers first-hand accounts of the negative effects of this abuse of public power and yet how it also paved the way for future progress.
To RSVP or for more information
Email to or call 804-556-6911

Sponsors: Goochland Democratic Committee, Goochland Republican Committee, and the Goochland Middle School PTA

Then, on Thursday, March 4

The Goochland Republican Women's monthly meeting will be Thursday, March 4, 7:00 p.m. at the Manakin Firehouse, Route 6/River Road West, west of 288. The meeting is open to the public.
President and executive director of the Virginia Holocaust Museum Jay Ipson will speak on "How Big Is Your Neighborhood?" The World War II saga of survival and flight of Mr. Ipson's parents from Nazi and then Russian occupied Lithuania is chronicled in the book Izzy's Fire by Nancy Wright Beasley.
For more information, please call Mary Martin at 784-4386.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Odds and ends

Lots of stuff in the hopper

Business as usual seems to be a thing of the past in Goochland, a development that is long overdue.

The emerging revelations about the profound mismanagement of the Tuckahoe Creek Service District will reach to the next elections. In the meantime, identifying the problems in the system and fixing them will consume much of the time and energy of county administration, resources that could be put to better use elsewhere.

Citizens need to trust that their tax dollars are being spent wisely, which is apparently a new concept for the three supervisors who cast blind eyes on county management.

Speaking of spending money wisely, outraged parents continue to get only arrogant and insufficient response from the superintendent of schools and school board when they ask detailed, intelligent and important questions about the school budget.

Crafting a lean budget that protects core services is a mighty challenge for the entire county and pretty much everyone in America.

The schools this year, however, are throwing a tantrum when told to cut back. The school board and superintendent are acting like a jockey told to lose weight before a race. Instead of switching to a low fat diet, getting a close shave, short haircut and perhaps an enema, the jockey threatens instead to cut off an arm and a leg to meet weight requirements.

What outrageous nonsense. The refusal of the superintendent to justify the administrative positions in question does nothing to support her allegations that she knows better than anyone else which jobs are vital to the school system. Unfortunately, that bunch cannot be sent to the barn.

The economic meltdown has slowed zoning activity to a crawl. A flurry of conditional use permit applications by churches provides the opportunity to see how the county protects its landowners.

Good land use decisions should balance private property rights against the public good. Of late, those decisions seem to be made with the sole aim of avoiding litigation.

The supervisors will hold a public hearing on a CUP application on the Grace Chinese Baptist Church of Richmond on March 2.

The congregation, which, with the exception of one family, lives in Henrico, bought the land next to the Wedgewood Properties’ compound because it was affordable. While they seem like a nice group of people who just want to have their own church home, they, like everyone else in the world today, are on a tight budget.

Although they say they want to become a part of the community and respect our rural character, they also plan to plunk a large, stark building in the midst of modest homes and a restored farmstead. Unfortunately, there is little beyond the good will of the members of Grace Chinese Baptist to ensure that any of this will happen.

One of the conditions that the county wants the church to adhere to is construction of both left and right turn lanes at the outset. The church wants to delay the left turn lane for three years so it can accumulate some additional funds.

The planning commission, in its great wisdom, recommended that the county go along with that request.

So, people who actually live here and drive on that stretch of Board Street Road every day will be inconvenienced by construction delays twice, once when the church is built, and a second time three years later for the left turn lane installation.

Then there is the proposed design of the buildings. The main structure intended for worship and fellowship is large, high and stark. When built in the middle of the property, currently a field, it will look a bit like a factory dropped from a helicopter. There is nothing to prevent the congregation from erecting a pre-engineered metal building for their church as long as it meets the building codes.

Once the CUP hearings are over, there is no further opportunity for citizen input on the project.

A church on the subject parcel of land that blends with existing structures nearby is a great use for the property. Citing the size of the ATT tower next door is a bit of a red herring. As telecommunications technology evolves, that tower may be torn down. It is already far less visually intrusive that it was only a few years ago.

This is not about freedom of religion, but about being good neighbors. The Joyners, whose property adjoins the parcel in question, were required to meet stringent requirements when they applied for a CUP. Their property values and other rights have received little consideration in this entire process.

The conditional use mechanism provides control beyond the building codes for certain uses. Had the building proposed for this property been less than 10,000 square feet, no CUP would have been necessary. The supervisors are obligated to protect the health safety and welfare of Goochland citizens. They can and should mandate the left turn lane and plead for a building more compatible with its neighbors.

If Grace Chinese Baptist really wants to fit into the community, it is hard to understand why it turns a deaf ear to the song being sung by the neighbors — your church is welcome here, but please make the entrance safe and please don’t put up a huge ugly building.

Budget deliberations continue next week as the supervisors hold their first workshop on the matter. Perhaps some long serving members will finally understand the reason that Goochland needs many more businesses.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Local knowledge

Ride along with a deputy

In spite of the amazing proliferation of cop shows on TV, few of us give any thought to local law enforcement until we see those blue lights flashing in our rear view mirror.

The Goochland County Sheriff’s Department Citizens Academy, which begins on Wednesday, February 24, provides an opportunity to learn about local law enforcement.

Sessions are held on Wednesday evenings and cover a wide range of topics that include county courts; traffic operations; a visit to the Henrico County jail; interactions between Goochland deputies and state troopers; identity theft; motor vehicle accidents; canine operations and crime scene investigations.

There will also be an in depth look at how the sheriff’s officer performs routine law enforcement duties and deals with extraordinary situations.

A tour of the sheriff’s office includes a chance to see our outstanding dispatchers in action.

Those who complete the program are also eligible to ride along with a deputy on a regular duty shift, which provides insights about Goochland County unavailable anywhere else.

The class is limited to 25 people and the sign up deadline is February 15.

To sign up stop by the sheriff’s office, which is located in the county courthouse complex or call 556-5349. The sheriff’s office operates 24/7 and is the only agency in the county whose phones are always answered in person.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Let the Sun shine in

Cleaning up the TCSD mess

Members of the Tuckahoe Creek Service District Advisory committee received, perhaps for the first time since the inception of the public utility project almost eight years ago, detailed information about its operation and finances at a meeting held on February 1, 2010.

It was not a pretty picture.

The TCSDAC, comprised of major landowners in the district appointed by the board of supervisors, was supposed to have received regular reports on the progress of the project. Comments made by current members who include C. B. Robertson, Ben Johnson, chairman Scott Gaeser and Thomas Pruitt indicate that the TCSDAC’s understanding of its role in the project is unclear.

While the TCSDAC met often and was treated to regular dog and pony show reports by former county officials who have since been relieved their duties to “pursue other interests” it now seems as though the group rarely received any substantive, or, for that matter, accurate, information.

County administrator Rebecca T. Dickson; VaCO, VML consultant John Wack; county engineer Gary Duval and Don Charles, Director of community development presented information gleaned from months of research.

For about a year, first Charles and then the others, have been working to obtain a true picture of all aspects of the TCSD from financing assumptions to pipes in the grounds.

That was apparently quite a challenge, because few records seem to exist and those that have been found are incomplete, contradictory or just plain confusing.

The bad news for TCSD landowners and customers of the utility is that the ad valorem tax and utility rates will increase, a lot.

Residential water and sewer rates will rise 25 percent in fiscal year 2011, which begins July 1, 2010 and another 25 percent in FY12. The ad valorem tax will increase four cents in tax years 2010 and 2011 and three cents per year through 2015 to a projected rate of 43 cents per $100 of assessed valuation in addition to the county real estate tax.

Wack presented the following illustration of the annual impact of rate increases.

A residential TCSD customer whose home is valued at $500,000 will pay $1,350 in ad valorem taxes (the 27 cent rate for calendar year 2010), $187 for water usage and $298 for sewer for an annual total of $1,835. In fiscal year 2011, that cost will be $2,079 and in FY 2012, $2,344. That assumes ad valorem rate increases effective January 1 and utility fee increases effective July 1 and usage rate of 4,000 gallons per month.

These changes will be reevaluated annually.

Wack, who has been wading through the details of the TCSD for months, explained that the Virginia Resource Authority bond issue, which was extraordinarily back loaded, was not the only debt associated with the TCSD.

Wack said that the initial rate calculation assumptions may have included periodic rate increases but that, in fact, there has been only one rate increase in the five or so years that the system has been in operation.

The true outrage is that Wack was unable to state definitively what happened with the rate structure. For a system that is so young and so small the dearth of documentation is evidence of the dreadful mismanagement of the system from the outset.

Dickson explained that the county has spent $434,000 so far trying to get its arms around the TCSD.

“We put our land up as collateral to borrow the money to build the infrastructure, “Pruitt said. “The county was obligated to manage the system and did a very poor job for the first four of five years. We (TCSD landowners) should not have to pay Goochland to figure out what it did wrong.”

County staff and consultants have worked for several months to compile a document presented by Charles that
reads a little like something compiled by troops entering an foreign city trying to understand the existing water and sewer system and creating an operational plan going forward without any help from the locals.

The TCSD was established about eight years ago, it’s only been online for about five years. All this allegedly occurred under the aegis of Goochland County. There is so little documentation of basic items like water meters and fire hydrants that a process referred to by Charles as “data mining” is being employed to figure out what is going on.

There does not seem to be a complete inventory of easements. This gives credence to rumors that some people donated easements for water and sewer trunk lines to cross their property and others were paid.

There was an assumption that landowners in the TCSD would donate easements to help keep costs down, which in turn would eventually lead to lower ad valorem taxes. Apparently that was just a rumor. Landowners who did connect to the TCSD found the experience expensive, insulting and aggravating.

On Charles’ to do list is the need to establish a fire hydrant program with the fire department. Some hydrants put in when the water lines were installed are vey hard to access. There have been reports of that at least one county volunteer firefighter was injured while attempting to access a hydrant while fighting a fire. Why wasn’t the fire-rescue department included in the design process for the water lines?

There were no schedules for routine maintenance of the system nor any costs built into rates to pay for upkeep. Pumps, meters and pipes have a useful life, which can be extended by good maintenance practices. Did the designers of the TCSD believe it would run forever or did they expect the world to end before something broke?

That’s just the nuts and bolts side of the mess.

The financing is yet another excursion into the wonderful word of smoke and mirrors.

When the TCSD was established, there was much discussion of the $63 million Virginia Resource Authority bond issue. That amount included a $6 million arbitrage account that was invested and its interest used as a cushion to ensure the county was able to meet its debt obligation. Although some landowners in the TCSD were told that the ad valorem tax would be around 15 cents per hundred, it was imposed in 2003 at 50 cents. The rate came down as assessments soared.

The repayment schedule was steeply back loaded so that payments starts out relatively small and increase over the life of the debt.

Wack said that he had never seen what Pruitt termed a “debt scheme” structured that way. Wack said that the repayment schedule seemed to have been based on the assumption that property values would increase dramatically over the life of the debt. The annual debt service for the TCSD bonds will increase from its current rate of under $3 million to nearly $6 million by FY 2018.

That’s only part of the fiscal liability picture.

As part of the TCSD, the county entered into a wastewater agreement with the City of Richmond, above and beyond the VRA debt, for $21.3 million. This debt was to be retired through charges included in sewer rates.

The projections for the number of sewer customers were undoubtedly compiled by Rosy Scenario. Unfortunately, the number of customers is so far below expectations that none of the debt has been paid in the five years that the TCSD has been online. Hence the need for hefty rate increases.

Henrico has been sending some wastewater through the TCSD pump station located on the north side of Rt. 6 just west of the Henrico county line for several years. The user fees that they paid Goochland pretty much paid for the chemicals that control odors.

That arrangement, which was in effect while a new Henrico facility could be completed, will end in the near future further reducing the wastewater revenue stream.

Charles said that no one really knows if the eventual end of Henrico’s use of the TCSD pump station was part of the initial assumptions used to establish TCSD sewage rates.

Wack said that he discovered some indication of plans for incremental increases in sewerage rates, but there was only one rate increase since the inception of the system.

As sold to the public, the TCSD was supposed to be self- sustaining through ad valorem tax, connection and usage fees. The mantra “those who benefit from the TCSD will pay for it” was heard often. That was at best an exaggeration, at worst, a lie.

So far, the county’s general fund loaned the TCSD close to $5 million. Of that only the most recent loan, about $3 million to build a water line in Henrico County pays interest to the taxpayers of Goochland.

As more details of the operation and total lack of management of the TCSD come to light it is apparent that the elementary school students at the Goochland Gifted Center could have done a much better job of building and running a public utility system.

The time has come to clean up the mess and go forward.

Sadly, the cure, whose total picture is not yet clear, will include higher ad valorem taxes and utility bills. It also includes aggressive pursuit of economic development.

Those who put the onus for the TCSD troubles on the bad economy are trying to deflect blame. The project was pretty much dead in the water when the economy was red hot. The supervisors must take responsibility for repeatedly refusing to put zoning into place that would attract business.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Dollars and sense

Supervisors dip toes in budget pool

At their February 2 meeting, Goochland supervisors addressed a myriad of items. Most of them were tinged by the county’s fiscal woes.

Beginning with a separate work session preceding the afternoon portion of the meeting, County Administrator Rebecca T. Dickson presented a pro-forma capital improvement plan (CIP) for fiscal years 2011-2015.

In a refreshing break from past county practices, Dickson’s proposal, which may be viewed at the county website as part of the supervisors’ meeting packet, provides a “guide for efficient and effective” capital improvement funding for the county.

A capital improvement, as defined by the proposal, is generally considered to be something that costs more than $50,000 and does not recur annually. The proposal provides a method for the orderly “acquisition, development, enhancement or replacement of public facilities to serve the county citizenry.”

Projects will be identified and prioritized by a committee comprised of representatives of county departments.

The establishment of a systematic method to address the county’s needs is a welcome change from the
secretive and capricious prioritization methods used by the former administration.

With county revenues expected to be limited for at least the next three years, many projects will probably sit on the back burner until funds are available. The CIP will be reviewed and updated annually.

Overall debt will not exceed 12 percent of the general fund expenditures. According to Dickson’s presentation, that amount, as of June 30, 2009, the end of the last fiscal year, was 10.6 percent.

Projects in the proposed CIP include land acquisition for parks and recreation; fire-rescue vehicles; improvements to the county’s communications system and exterior improvements to the old middle school property.

There is also a list of projects with little expectation of funding before the 2015 fiscal year.

Money accumulated from cash proffers, which can be used only for capital projects, are factored into the funding equation.

This is a good indication that county finances are finally moving along the right track.

During the afternoon session, Dickson presented an update on current fiscal conditions. Things are not quite as bad as previously forecast, but the county is nowhere near the edge of the fiscal woods.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the meeting was a remark made by District 1 board member Andrew Pryor following a presentation made by Herb Griffith on behalf of the Goochland Electoral Board. Griffith asked the board to send a resolution to the General Assembly asking that political primaries be funded either by parties or the state.

Last year’s democratic primary cost Goochland County $12,832.33, or $13.72 for each of the 935 ballots cast. That amount, said Griffith, does not include peripheral costs of polling places.

Pryor, who has been a supervisor for more than three decades, had no idea that the county picks up the tab for primaries.

An update on the progress of potentate for countywide broadband access included news that Verizon is investing in its 4G wireless infrastructure and might have it in Goochland sometime on 2010.

In yet another welcome innovation, Dickson updated the supervisors on legislation under consideration by the General Assembly.

One bill, which would move the payment of cash proffers to the issuance of a certificate of occupancy from application for a building permit, current county policy, could adversely affect Goochland.

Dickson said that so many bills flow through the General Assembly that it is difficult to keep track of them all, and asked citizens to keep an eye out for legislation that could affect Goochland and pass the information along.

Goochland Sheriff’s Deputy Chris Cranor, who serves as the school resource officer, told the board a little bit about his job. A resource officer has been in county schools since 1999.

Stationed at the high school, Cranor serves as a positive role model whose job includes mentoring and helping students, some of whom he met he taught the Drug Awareness Resistance and Education (DARE) to them in elementary school.

Because the school system is a microcosm of county society, his presence off
Cranor said that he has met more citizens while working with the education system, he makes weekly visits to all three elementary schools, than anywhere else in the county.

As part of his “show and tell” Cranor displayed items confiscated from students that included: an ammunition bandolier that a student wore to school without a weapon more as a misguided fashion statement; a drug smoking pipe made out of plastic soft drink bottles; a bottle of iced tea that turned out to contain Bourbon and a razor sharp double sided dagger confiscated from a elementary pupil a few years ago and a set of numchucks.

Cranor said that his positive interaction with students at county schools has prevented incidents from occurring and led to arrests in local crimes.

The evening session was held in spite of dreadful weather.
Springfield Baptist Church was granted a conditional use permit to build a church on a parcel of land on the eat side of Manakin Road, just south of Interstate 64.

Comments made during the public hearing suggested that there was a lot of misinformation floating around about the proposal. The rumor mill is not the best conduit for information about land use changes and the planning and zoning folks need to widen the scope of people they invite to community meetings that are part of the rezoning process.

The conditions imposed on Springfield Baptist concerning turn lanes and buffers are actually less stringent that those imposed on Salem Baptist a few years back. Salem was required to build a privacy fence, plant a double row of evergreens and install a well and irrigation system to keep the trees alive. That was in addition to requiring full left and right turn lanes into their property on Rt. 250.

The approved CUP for Springfield, which was approved by a 4-1 vote with District 4 supervisor Rudy Butler in dissent, included only a right turn lane, with the provision that actual traffic patterns be evaluated when the basement of the new church is finished for use. This approach lets the church get started on its building while providing a way for the county to address the left turn lane issue sometime in the future.

Butler argued that left and right turn lanes should be built at the outset of a project to ensure safety for all county citizens.

The school board presented its proposed budget to the supervisors following passionate informed dissent by several parents representing the Goochland Education Parents Association (GEPA). Visit their website for more details on their comments on the school budget.

School superintendent Dr. Linda Underwood, whose arrogance rose to new heights when she contended that she is better able than mere parents to interpret state code as it applies to the classification of employees.

School board chair Raymond Miller, District 2, seemed quite amazed when District 5 supervisor James Eads asked if the school officials had even tried to present a budget that was $2.6 million less than last year.

After a bit of verbal obfuscation, he finally admitted, with Underwood’s prompting, that they had not.
Miller, who has been on the school board for decades, tried to come up with justification for the school board’s refusal to even prepare a proposed budget that is $2.9 million smaller than last year.

“We know what that would look like,” Underwood said, offering no details.

Miller also stated that “he has worked under a number of superintendents” during his tenure on the school board. It’s hard to tell if he was a bit flustered by speaking in public, of ignorant that the school board is responsible for the actions of the superintendent.

Ignoring the GEPA remarks, Miller and Underwood insisted that the proposed school budget was the result of a great deal of public and parental input. Their remarks were all to reminiscent of a pushy telemarketer refusing to allow pesky facts to interfere with closing a sale.

Exhibits presented by Miller and Underwood showed that the per capita cost (that is the cost per resident, including the guests of the state) is the lowest in the region.

Eads rebutted this contending that the cost per student is one of the highest in the region.

Eads pointed out that, while some people believe Goochland is a wealthy county, due to the presence of a few very affluent families, the true economic picture is far different. Seventeen percent of our population earns less than $20,00 annually.

A few parents urged the supervisors to raise the real estate tax rate to fund schools.

The next round in county budget discussions is expected to be on February 23.

It was nearly 10 p.m. when the supervisors addressed the expansion of the county’s B-1 zoning ordinance to include convenience stores as a by right use and add travel plaza/truck stop as a conditional use.

Two speakers opposed the addition stating that truck stops are not the kind of business use that will preserve the county’s rural character.

While that may be true, it is difficult to understand why the county did not begin to exploit the possibilities for economic activity at all Interstate 64 interchanges when the road was built decades ago.

Classifying truck stops as a conditional use will ensure that every proposal will receive careful scrutiny by both the planning commission and supervisors with a public hearing before both bodies.

The vote was 4-1 with Eads abstaining.

We need more profitable businesses in the county. Capturing revenues from those who travel I-64 I is one way to do that. Landowners are tired of paying the lion’s share of the cost to run the county.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Going to the chapel

Safety should trump all

A conditional use application filed by Grace Chinese Baptist Church of Richmond to build 11,900 square feet of facilities for worship, fellowship and instruction on a 22 acre parcel of land on Rt. 250 between Centerville and Oilville was addressed by the Goochland Planning Commission at its January 26 meeting.

The property is on the north side of Rt. 250 just west of its intersection with Three Chopt Road between the ATT tower and the Wedgewood Properties/Joyner land.

Commissioners voted 9-0, to recommend approval of the application to the supervisors, who are expected to vote on the matter at their March 2 meeting.

The CUP application was filed with the county in August, 2009. Since that time at least two meetings were held with representatives of the church and neighboring property owners to share information and gather community input about the project. These community meetings have become a standard part of the process for major changes in land use.

Neighbors raised concerns about insufficient site distance in both directions at the proposed entrance to permit safe access and egress to the property. At the hearing, photographs and traffic studies were presented as evidence that there is adequate site distance.

Because Rt. 250 is two lanes wide the county required both a left and right turn lanes to keep traffic moving safely past the church property, which has more than 1,350 feet of road frontage.

The church agreed to install the right turn lane as part of its construction, all but one of its 71 member families live to the east of the church, but asked that the left turn lane be deferred until 2013. The request, which the planning commission included in its recommendation, includes a bond to ensure that the lane is built. All of the land for the turn lanes will come from the subject parcel, however, portions of the right turn lane could impinge on a wetland. This will require the blessing of the Army Corps of Engineers.

However, given the county’s dismal record of enforcing this sort of thing — remember the Richmond Strikers who promised for years to build turn lanes that were part of their CUP for land on Pouncey Tract Road but never did — both turn lanes must be built at the outset.

The members of Grace Chinese Baptist are fine folks who have been borrowing space for worship for a long time. They are anxious to move into their own church home, which is understandable.

However, in addition to the one member who would use the left turn lane to enter the property to attend church, vehicles will undoubtedly come from both directions during construction. The road has no shoulders and it takes very little disruption in the flow of traffic to cause major backups that can extend miles.

The safety of travelers on Rt. 250 must trump the budgetary concerns of the church. West Creek Church and Salem Baptist were also required to build turn lanes in both directions. The CUP application indicated that the church plans to use some of the land for outdoor recreation. Should this include a soccer field, expect cars to come from every direction and soon.

Another concern raised by neighbors was the proposed design of the church. An elevation of the proposed structure shows a large worship/fellowship building with a long low structure containing classrooms attached. It is not the most attractive building, but, because the land is outside of any village or overlay district, the church can build pretty much whatever it chooses as long as it meets building codes and observes height restrictions. Neighbors objected to the high looming nature of the proposed building. Church representatives contended that the building would be dwarfed by the communications tower.

Comments made during the hearing seem to indicate that the church may be on a strict budget. Given the location of the property, in a rural area next to a restored barn, it is curious that the architect did not make the church visually reminiscent of a barn. According to church spokespersons, the congregation needs a high ceiling. A barn like building would easily accommodate that requirement while harmonizing with the agricultural nature of the area. It might even be more economical to build.

There is no time limit on the CUP, which means that there will probably be little oversight on the part of the county as to whether the conditions are being observed. In recent years, churches have been granted CUPs with no time limits.

Churches are required to obtain CUPs only if they build facilities in excess of 10,000 square feet. A religious facility built on Three Chopt Road a few years back did not need to go through the CUP process because it stayed below the square footage threshold.

Perhaps it is time for Goochland to consider a special zoning classification for churches. Conditional use permits are a Band Aid approach to land use changes that offers too many opportunities for arbitrary, if not discriminatory, treatment of property owners. It often does little to safeguard the property rights of neighbors.

This case illustrates the delicate nature of land use decisions. Whose rights and interests take precedence? Ultimately, land use laws are designed to deprive landowners of their property rights. Finding a workable balance between private property rights and public good is all too often an elusive goal. That doesn’t mean we should stop trying.