Thursday, August 26, 2010

Blinded by the light

How rural are LED signs?

The Goochland planning commission sent the issue of electronic signs back to the locker room at its August 19 meeting after holding a second public hearing on the matter. A workshop is planned to consider all of the ramifications of electronic signs before making any recommendations to the supervisors, who have the final say.

Currently, there are two such signs in the county, one at the Wawa, the other at the Oilville BP/Bullets. Both are on Rt. 250 in commercial use areas with no homes nearby.

Presumably, the electronic signs make it easier to read gas prices while driving down the road. The Wawa sign seems to be part of the standard design. The sign at Oilville is relatively new, often out of order and hard to see from some directions due to overgrown bushes.

The county sign ordinance is in the process of consolidation and clarification.

Hopefully this action will prevent a repeat of the 2007 “signgate” incident, in which hyper-zealous enforcement of a vague sign ordinance was used in a failed attempt to intimidate supporters of candidates challenging incumbent supervisors. The resulting flap was perhaps the first torpedo to blow a hole in the control of county administration by the old regime.

As written, the sign ordinance neither permits nor prohibits electronic signs. As long as the sign otherwise observes rules of size, setback and design, it is permitted the same as any other sign.

The proposed ordinance would allow electronic signs pretty much anywhere in the county and would include churches as by right users.

Some churches in Henrico, for instance, do have LED signs. There is one relatively small such sign on a church on Hungary Spring Road between Springfield and Staples Mill. It looks so out of place, that, at first glance, it seems to be a hallucination.

It would be interesting to know if there is any data indicating that LED signs increase the size of church congregations. It also seems like a frivolous use of funds.

Picture the charming churches found throughout the county. Now put an electronic sign in front. Not a pretty picture.

However, those signs do make it easier to read, say gas prices. The Wawa sign is small, the Bullets much taller. No matter what happens with the ordinance, those two signs are grandfathered in.

Unless the sign ordinance includes language to address electronic signs they will be permitted as long as they meet other sign requirements.

Several people spoke against allowing electronic signs anywhere in the county. Not one voice was raised in their support. Following the initial public hearing on electronic signs at the June 17 planning commission meeting, a committee comprised of District 3 commissioner Bill Neal and District 5 commissioner Courtney Hyers was formed to study the issue. They reported back at the July meeting.

At that time the commission voted to defer the matter until the August meeting and hold a second public hearing.

Some regulations are in order because the signs are available and strange things will happen if the sign ordinance does not address them.

The proposed regulations for electronic signs would limit their size to one half of the permitted size of static signs. The minimum frequency of message change would be 60 seconds.

Given the hazardous nature of many Goochland roads, anything that distracts drivers is dangerous. Broadcasting gas prices, for instance, is a minimal distraction. If you are interested in the gas price, you are looking for a number. Once you see it, your mind, hopefully, goes back to the road.

Other messages are more troublesome. Complex thoughts require more concentration and less attention to the road. Put several of these signs along the road and the attention lapse intensifies.

After a while though, the sings would fade into the woodwork and be ignored by passersby. This could lead to escalation of the complexity of the message and ancillary attention getting enhancements like changing colors and so forth.

For safety’s sake, limiting electronic signs to static displays seems to be the best idea.

Unfortunately, there is a fine line between restrictive sign regulations and freedom of expression guaranteed by the First Amendment.

The dreadfully ugly signs sprouting around the county are mandated by the regulations of the sign ordinance in place. These degrade the rural character everyone wants to preserve but few can define.

Charming unique signs set local businesses apart from generic chains. Limiting the style and shape of signage paves the way for urbanization.

Size and placement of signs should be regulated for public safety reasons including blinking LED displays. Signs should be well anchored and sturdy to withstand winds. Perhaps there should be a limit to the number of signs per parcel in commercial areas to prevent the dreaded visual clutter. Beyond that, government should keep its nose out.

Without trying too hard, you can drive down any major road in Goochland and find clusters of “temporary” signs. Some have been in place so long they have weathered to illegibility. The folks who deployed those signs did not bother to go through the long and expensive process of sign approval.

Should Goochland permit Led signs? Yes, small ones in commercial areas with static messages. Other than that, make the approval process painless so it will be honored more in the observance than the breach.

The LED issue should be addressed soon and not permitted to wallow in indecision for years, as has been county practice in the past. Signs should celebrate local enterprises. Goochland County must do all it can to support and celebrate those businesses not regulate them out of existence.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Don't stop thinking about tomorrow

Commission on the future revisited

District 4 planning commissioner Bob Rich revisited the Report issued by the Commission on the Future, which he chaired, on its fifteenth anniversary at the August 3 meeting of the Goochland Board of Supervisors.

Created at the urging of the late District 5 supervisor Eva Foster, the Report, crafted by a wide range of Goochland citizens, was a clear agenda for moving Goochland into the 21st century. (A copy of the Report is available at the Goochland library in the historical reference section to the left as you enter the main library entrance.)

Commission members were drawn from every part of the county and all walks of life. Additional citizens served as task force volunteers and addressed several arenas of concern for the county. These were: economic development; education; government; leisure services; public safety; utilities and human services.

The Report makes fascinating reading. Some of the goals have been achieved, some ignored, others, including meaningful economic development, have been so badly botched the results would be comical were they not so important to the county’s future.

Painting a beautiful picture the vision statement says: “In the year 2010, Goochland County is a community of which all its citizens can be justifiably proud. We have a cooperative alliance of public citizens and elected officials whose implementation plan for orderly growth has preserved the rural character of the County while maintaining the fiscal integrity of its government. We have a superior school system, kept pace with the growing demands of public safety and provided citizens with the opportunity for compassionate care and leisure time activities such that Goochland County is an enviable place for its citizens to live, work and enjoy life.”

Some of the goals, like a paid fire-rescue chief, are in place. The excellence of our school system may be in the eye of the beholder, but is far better than it was in 1995. Economic development might as well be a phrase in Urdu for all of the attention or understanding it gets from the supervisors.

Each category was examined separately. While this provided a snapshot of major facets of our community, it failed to address the importance of their interconnectedness.

Economic development, the source of funding for the Commission’s worthy goals, was treated as though it was in place and assumed that education, law enforcement, fire-rescue and utilities would have ever increasing funding.

When the Report was written, the Motorola chip to be built in the West Creek office park was just over the horizon. Everyone assumed this plant would fill county coffers and act as a magnet for additional investment in Goochland. The future was bright, but there was no Plan B and stuff happens.

Unfortunately, those oft counted chickens never hatched. The good news is that the county is not stuck with a white elephant manufacturing plant. The bad news is that West Creek looks more like a nature preserve than an economic engine, although the two are not mutually exclusive, and the county is scrambling to find new revenue sources.

While Motorola never came, the completion of Rt. 288 as a four lane limited access road brought eastern Goochland closer to all portions of the Richmond metro area providing a different set of possibilities. The Report’s generic warnings about growth pressures in eastern Goochland became all too true as “beautiful downtown Short Pump” morphed from ironic comment to bounteous reality.

The most cautionary comment is in the Report’s executive summary that recognizes a need to move beyond “personal preferences, individual differences and past ways of doing business” by means of a “cooperative effort between the citizens, their elected representatives and county officials” to create a “sense of total community spirit” to fulfill the destiny of Goochland.

Until the loose thread of stale checks in the utility department began to unravel the fabric of stranglehold by a few individuals on county government and policy there was no chance that such cooperation would materialize. Now there is hope and change has begun.

There is still much to be done.

Goochland needs a comprehensive county wide utilities plan more now than in 1995. The Report was the first formal mention of transforming the county government system to one with a county manager eliminating the elected Treasurer and Commissioner of the Revenue. This matter comes to the fore every few years and crawls back under the table after meaningless discussion on the part of the supervisors.

By state law, the county’s form of government cannot be changed without public hearings and approval by voters in a ballot referendum.

The Report envisioned an excellent school system with “cost efficient management and cost effective facilities.” We still have no clue if the schools have cost effective management and taxpayers need a greater degree of trust that their money is being well spent for education, which is a worthy use of public funds.

As to facilities; not too long after the Report was issued, there was a movement for a new high school/middle school complex. During one session of public comment on the subject Andrew Pryor District 1, who was not convinced of the need for a new high school, asked for the number of children in the third grade. He applied the drop out rate, which was abysmally high at the time, licked his pencil, carried the two and declared that, given the number of third graders and drop out rate, there would be plenty of room in the high school for years to come. Oddly, no one gasped when the drop out rate was mentioned.

Current Board chair William Quarles Jr. should recall the discussion because his God daughter made eloquent remarks in support of a new school.

It is long past time for Goochland elementary school to be replaced. Aside from school system needs, GES would be an ideal location for a community center and provide eventual expansion room for county administration. Economic conditions will prevent this from happening in the near future, and band aid solutions will cost more in the long run than building a new elementary school a few years ago.

The Report urges increasing availability of natural gas in the county. Although several natural gas pipelines traverse Goochland, only one subdivision is connected. If the county had any say in the location of these pipelines, why didn’t it insist that landowners be able to tap into them? Has anyone investigated locating a natural gas electricity cogeneration plant here?

Going forward, lack of broadband options for a large portion of Goochland is of greater concern than natural gas. When the Report was issued, the internet was in its infancy. This is an area where local government’s role should be that of a catalyst to create an environment that attracts private sector investment rather than becoming an ISP with tax dollars.

One goal that Rich said he never thought would come to pass was an additional James River access point for recreation. The nascent Tucker Park at Maidens Landing proved him wrong.

Paul Drumwright of the county staff ( has been charged with compiling a list of unmet Report goals and adding new ones. He will Report back to the supervisors later in the year with his findings.

As we near the end of the first decade of the new century, it is definitely time to put on the face of Janus and simultaneously look back and forward to figure out how we got off course, where we need to go and, more importantly, how to get there.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

How do you solve a problem like Oilville?

Cash cow or Trojan horse?

At its July 15 meeting, eight of the ten appointed members of the Goochland Planning Commission (Eugene Bryce District 1 and Bob Rich District 4 were absent), recommended denial of a proposal to pre-zone land near the Interstate 64 Oilville exit. Bill Neal District 3 cast the lone aye vote.

The planning commission is a powerless advisory body. The significance of its vote was to move the matter to the board of supervisors for a final vote, expected to occur at its September 7 meeting.

This was the first meaningful attempt by the county, acting as applicant for the zoning change, to break the logjam of ineptitude and malaise that has long crippled economic development in Goochland.

The vote followed a confusing and lackluster presentation by county staff, which allegedly favored the concept.

Citizens of District 4, location of the proposed zoning change, had no representation during the discussion because Jim Crews, one of the District 4 planning commissioners, also the listing agent for most of the land in question recused himself and Rich was absent.

Rumors preceding the hearing indicated that a modest chain hotel and family restaurant were planned for the area.

Yet, William and Helen Carter owners of the Oilville Exxon said that large companies, including Pilot and Wilco, had expressed interest in establishing truck stops there. Although county staff said that all landowners around the Oilville interchange had been consulted about participating in the prezoning, the Carters said no one from the county had approached them.

Although some of the land around the Rt. 250/Oilvile Road intersection has been zoned for business for decades, only gas stations with associated businesses have materialized.

The major fly in the development ointment is the lack of sewer and water in the area. Possible solutions to this problem have been ignored by the supervisors for more than a decade.

The latest proposal would encourage commercial uses as permitted in the B-3 zoning classification, which allows structures up to 100 feet high, using commercial drain fields and wells until $14 million in development is up and running. At that point, the county would partner with the businesses and landowners to build a package wastewater treatment plant whose cost would eventually be covered by revenues generated by a service district.

Partnership with VDOT for the wastewater treatment facility at the Oilville rest area is no longer an option.

While truck stops are a necessary part of the interstate transportation system, Oilville Road is not the place for them.

The Piney Grove exit off of Interstate 81 in central Pennsylvania is a worst case outcome of this scenario. At Piney Grove, a rural area, a Pilot truck stop perches on scarce flat land across the road from a three-story chain hotel whose lack of landscaping or other aesthetic amenities make it look as though it had been dropped on the site from a helicopter.

Proximity to the interstate guarantees custom from travelers who fear to wander too far from the main road lest they be accosted by the locals.

With little nearby competition, this interchange provides some jobs and tax revenues for the area. It is, however, dismal at best. Oilville can and should develop at a higher level.

Reasonable design standards included in the Oilville Village overlay rules will ensure inclusion of landscaping, vegetative buffers and dark sky lighting. This will not only enhance the appearance but increase the profitability of the businesses that locate there. Care must be taken, however, to prevent these standards from becoming punitive in their restrictions.

A few years back, a B-3 zoning category was created for areas within about a half-mile radius of interstate interchanges. This category permits everything allowed in existing B-1 and B-2 zoning, but increased the height limitation to 100 feet and includes convenience stores as a by right use.

The height increase, proponents contended, was needed to lure hotels to Goochland. Years after the zoning change, the county is still hotel free.

Evie Scott of Maidens, an architect by trade, pointed out that all major hotel chains have configurations that conform to 60 foot height restrictions. She said that all of the new hotels in Short Pump meet the 60 foot limit. So why the 100 feet? Scott also urged the county to add design element requirements to the B-3 zoning to ensure attractive development. She contended that the 100 foot height limit in B-3 be reduced to 60 feet because higher buildings are out of scale for the rural nature of Goochland.

This is why the county needs an economic development person who knows that hotel chains have these options and how to sell a location in Goochland.

Ideally, the Oilville interchange should develop in a manner similar to that of the Gaskin Road/ I64 interchange with small chain hotels, family restaurants, single story professional offices and neighborhood scale businesses.

Blanket prezoning of the Oilville interchange, an attractive concept at first blush, leaves too many opportunities for mischief. A better alternative would be for the county to craft a fast track zoning process, perhaps holding hearings before the supervisors and planning commission back to back. This would considerably shorten the almost year long zoning process currently in place yet provide opportunity for citizen oversight and comment.

Ultimately, market forces will determine which businesses locate in Goochland. The supervisors need to create an attractive, workable economic development plan, or make it clear to their constituents that rural character does not come cheap.

Goochlanders must realize that “don’t raise my taxes,” “don’t lay off any teachers” and “don’t allow any more development” are mutually exclusive statements.

Due to their whistling past the graveyard approach to long-term strategies for county funding, the supervisors may be left with a choice between truck stops and higher property taxes. The chickens are coming home to roost and leaving behind lots of manure.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Paddling through summer doldrums

August supervisors’ meeting

The August 3 meeting of the Goochland Board of Supervisors was short and relatively sweet. There were so few controversial items on the agenda that the “local” newspapers didn’t bother to attend.

During a workshop held before the regular 3 p.m. session, the supervisors learned that work on the multipurpose room additions to Byrd and Randolph elementary schools are nearing completion with costs expected to come in under budget.

According to Goochland County Administrator Rebecca T. Dickson, the RES project will cost about $155,000 less than projected and the BES $194,000 less, which will return about $500,000 to the capital improvement budget. District 5 supervisor Jim Eads suggested that some of the savings be used to fund needed safety improvements at the existing school bus maintenance facility. The matter will be addressed at the September 7 meeting.

A report on final bids for the Centerville RT. 250 widening project also came in below estimates, $2.7 million versus the planned $6 million. Because the bids were so much lower some of the difference will fund a traffic signal in front of Company 3, sidewalks on the south side of the road and some street trees. This will free up about $150,000 in the county’s capital improvement budget, earmarked for that signal, for other uses. No word on how those trees will be watered. Work is expected to begin in September and be complete by October 2011.

Ned Creasey, District 3, asked if “sleeves” will be installed under the road beds to simplify future utility work. The noncommittal answer seems to indicate that contingency was not considered.

Staff initiated a discussion on the inclusion of wind turbines as a by right use in some zoning districts, which the board referred to the planning commission. At least two public hearings will be held on the matter before a possible vote by the supervisors to change the zoning ordinances providing ample opportunity for citizen input.

Wind turbines offer a way to be more environmentally sensitive and save money on energy.

As presented by Leigh Dunn, modern wind turbines generate little noise and only monopole versions would be permitted in Goochland. A draft ordinance included in the presentation restricted the turbines to one per parcel of land.

Supervisors Andrew Pryor, District 1 and Creasey contended that farmers with large tracts of land should have leeway to install multiple turbines, especially if those turbines are well out of sight and hearing of neighbors. Dunn explained that modern turbines operate with little sound. (See the board packet on the county website under the supervisors’ tab for complete information.)

The proposed height limit of 100 feet was also question by Pryor and Creasey because the higher the turbine, the greater the wind speed.

County maps of prevailing wind speeds presented by Dunn indicated that only a small part of the county has prevailing wind speeds in excess of 10 miles per hour.

The estimated current cost of the turbines, $15,000 each, will probably limit the number of interested parties. Power generated by the turbines could result in reduced use of electric provided by local power companies, or, perhaps, permit the user to go “off grid” to generate all energy needed on the property.

Dunn explained that the proposal was not the result of interest expressed by anyone in the county, but rather an attempt to be proactive about the possible use of wind turbines in Goochland. She also said that research indicates that turbines in small concentrations have little impact on migratory birds.

Another proposed zoning change would make parks a by right use in some zoning districts. The county owns several parcels of land throughout the county, which could be used as parks in the future and this will ease the way.

Land located south of Rt. 6 and just west of Rock Castle Road formerly known as the Borne property will henceforth be known as Leake’s Mill Park. Originally acquired by the county for use as a landfill, the parcel will be a multiuse park with playing fields and passive recreation options.

The name reflects the longtime ownership of part of the land by the Leake family, who once operated a mill on a creek near the rear of the parcel. This naming is the result of a careful collaboration among the county’s Recreation Advisory board and the Goochland County Historical Society. Carol Salmon, a member of the GCHS helped with the research. Thanks to all involved for a meaningful approach to the task.

Don Charles director of community development explained that the county could receive a generous monetary grant form the Community Foundation to develop the park if a portion of the land is placed under a perpetual conservation easement.

The supervisors voted to approve application for such an easement to be held by the Virginia Outdoors Foundation, which is expected to consider Goochland’s application at its September meeting. Charles said that if all of the conditions are met, the county could receive up to $500,000 to develop this park freeing up funds in the county’s capital improvement plan for other uses.

Isn’t it interesting how all of these pieces of what seemed like an unsolvable puzzle have come together in the past year?

In another long overdue action, the supervisors voted to combine the schools and county into one entity for health insurance purposes going forward. While costs are determined, at least in part, by the experience rating — how many claims are filed in a particular period— the more people in a group the better.

Dr. Jeff Spence, who spent part of the year as a census worker, reported that about one third of the homes in the county are nearly impossible to locate because they have no numbers displayed at the street. He urged the supervisors to encourage residents to clearly mark their homes so that emergency responders can easily locate them in an emergency. Chairman William Quarles, Jr. District 2 said that the county should investigate ways to help the economically disadvantaged mark their homes.

One citizen said that he believed that the government already pays for too many things that people should take care of for themselves. He also expressed his displeasure with the supervisors using tax dollars to take trips to Hawaii and the Homestead.

He also wanted any change in county government to be decided by ballot referendum. Quarles tried to reassure the citizen that the supervisors would make no changes without pubic input, but failed to say that such changes, to a county manager form of government for instance, must be approved by referendum according to state law.

Fire-rescue chief Bill MacKay reported on two structure fires, one a garage, the other a barn, in the east end of he county were handled well by fire-rescue crews in spite of punishing heat. He said that there had been no brush fires, a worry in hot, dry weather and attributed this to care taken by citizens when burning trash, etc.

Goochland EMS, said MacKay, has received much favorable publicity for its leading edge pre-hospital care and a successful resuscitation through CPR performed by a volunteer and off duty career provider at a health club in Henrico.

Sheriff Agnew told the board that suspects in the rash of lawn tractor and four wheeler thefts had been identified to a grand jury. Indictments will soon be filed, ending that crime spree. Our law enforcement officers are busy and short handed due to the budget casualty of a position, deputies on sick leave and one called up for active military duty, said Agnew.

We are blessed with amazing deputies and fire-rescue volunteers and career providers. Be sure to thank them for their hard work and commitment to public service in spite of budget cuts.

The board went into closed session late in the afternoon to discuss in part “…specific legal matters requiring the provision of legal advice pertaining to the County’s recent financial audit…” We can only hope that the supervisors are finally investigating ways to recoup the cost of the audit and the $434,000 expended by the county to decipher the financial end of the Tuckahoe Creek Service District.

During the evening session, the supervisors voted to declare Goochland a drought disaster area.

Public hearings were held on applications for conditional use permits filed by owners of two long established local businesses.

Edward and Lucy Tyler whose land close to the Fluvanna border has been the sight of an automobile sales and graveyard business for more than 50 years, were told that they needed to obtain approval for the graveyard when they applied for a building permit.

According to comments made by Bob Hammond, director of planning and zoning, neighbors have no problems with the situation. The large number of cars on the property was discovered by examination of an aerial photograph of the property during the permit process.

The permit was granted with little fuss, although some residents of the eastern end of the county objected to an automobile graveyard and contended that leaking fluids could contaminate ground water.

Sylvester and Robin Bryce were told that they needed to obtain a CUP for the house they use as an office for their heating and air conditioning business. Although similar businesses operate from private residences in the county without the need for a CUP, use of the structure solely as an office triggered the CUP requirement. This too was approved.

At the onset of the discussion about the Bryce application, Quarles stated that Bryce is his brother. County attorney Normal Sales advised that, under Virginia conflict of interest laws, Quarles was deemed to have no conflict. When the vote was taken, Quarles wisely abstained.

Both of these applications illustrate the quandary of zoning laws.

The Tyler business was in operation long before zoning came to Goochland around 1969. By all accounts, Tyler is an asset to the community, yet the county decides to, in essence, punish him for applying for a building permit.

Automobile graveyards, especially those unintentionally created by inertia, are not appropriate for more densely populated areas.

However, conditions in remote western Goochland are quite different. While having one size fits all zoning regulations seem fair on the surface, their enforcement can cause undue hardship to citizens who are just trying to make a living.

Goochland needs more small businesses like those operated by the Tyler and Bryces. We need to find a way to balance the good intention of zoning laws with nurturing our entrepreneurs.