Monday, September 13, 2010

The worst of all worlds

Back to the Stone Age

On September 8, a public hearing before the board of supervisors clearly illustrated that Goochland County is on a disastrous path. Our supervisors, being of different mindsets, often vote on issues with a 3-2 split, which in and of itself is not a bad thing. Lockstep unanimous voting is the trademark of decisions made in secret.

James Eads, District 5, is often the tie breaker. He sides both with the supervisors who decline to increase the real estate tax rate and with those who seem hell bent on discouraging meaningful economic development. The result, a stalemate worse than the stagflation of the Carter administration in the late 1970’s that crippled our nation, that will ensure that Goochland returns to its backwater status.

Eads seems to delight in asking tangentially relevant questions during public hearings. It’s hard to tell if he is unprepared for the session or merely delights in kibitzing to ensure that serious issues are never resolved.

The matter before the board concerned prezoning of 132 acres land near the Interstate 64 Oilville Road interchange from business and agriculture to B-3 to facilitate economic development there. At the planning commission meeting, rumors of a truck stop coming to the area caused the planners to recoil from the application and fire a silver bullet of recommendation to deny approval to the supervisors.

Included with the application for the supervisors’ consideration was a proffer to exclude truck stops; land for rights of way for road widening and cash money on the table. They also proffered that no buildings would be higher than 60 feet even though the B-3 zoning district permits 100 feet. Owners of the land in question spent at least $200,000 on traffic and water studies. Their proffers included significant amounts of cash money to get projects underway, all to no avail.

Director of Community Development Don Charles reminded the supervisors that they had expressed some interest in the prezoning concept a few years ago to encourage economic development and be proactive for prospective businesses.

Eads obsessed on the forever nature of proffers included in the applications. While landowners have the right to apply for a change in proffers, the supervisors are not obligated to grant those changes.

Although Eads repeatedly asked for “clarity in the process” he ignored any remarks counter to his thesis and did a good job of muddying the waters of fact presented by the county staff..

Residents of the Autumn Breeze subdivision in Oilville who protested the prospect of a truck stop were clearly unaware of the opposition to the creation of their community because it would increase traffic; its cookie cutter nature was not an appropriate design for the Oilville village and would flood the school system with children, all of which came to pass.

It would also be interesting to know if any of the people who live in that subdivision realize that their property borders potential commercial development. What do they think is going to be built on the south side of Rt. 250? Locals still contend that the creation of Autumn Breeze is a severe disruption of the rural beauty that these new residents claim to love so much. Building those large houses served by well and septic on small two acre lots is not rural and helped to set a precedent for the sprawl they all decry. It was interesting to note that no one mentioned the threat to the water table posed by Autumn Breeze.

What about the property rights of the landowners? People move here, buy a few acres and scream if anyone wants to develop anything else. Then, they complain about the long drive to Short Pump. Those who have lived here for generations and held onto their land with an eye to realize some financial gain are being held hostage by a handful of new residents who pay no attention to land use issues until the bulldozers are next door.

One of the property owners explained that they have been approached over the years about developing their land. However, when told that it would take three to five years to develop prospects went elsewhere taking their tax revenues with them.

Speakers chose to ignore the fact that the subject property is located in the Oilville Village overlay district, which means that, before any plans can be put into place, they would have to be approved by the fearsome Design Review Committee, which enforces these rules. Ask any business that has located here recently about trying to get away with inadequate landscaping; lights that do not protect the night sky or use of low end building materials.

Andrew Pryor, District 1 contended that the prime property at the interchange, parcels on Rt. 250 near Oilville Road, is already zoned B-1. Charles opined that those parcels are too small for significant development. Sadly, Pryor lacks the imagination needed to move the county forward. His constituents will be most harmed by lack of economic development. There will either be less money for government services, including schools, or higher property taxes.

Eads moved to decline the application, Pryor seconded.

Chairman William Quarles Jr. District 2 observed that since the comprehensive plan defines the location and boundaries of a village and identifies acceptable land uses therein, citizens must realize that they may not be happy with the reality of those uses.

This decision puts the local development community on notice that Goochland County has little interest in working with landowners and developers for mutual benefit. It’s a good thing that Goochland has a high per capita income because we’re not going to get money for services from anywhere but our own pockets.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Between a rock and a hard place

Regulate with a scalpel not an axe

Rezoning applications considered by the Goochland Planning Commission at is August 19 meeting illustrate the challenges facing the county as it tries to enhance its commercial tax base.

Republic Services, Inc. owner of the 623 Landfill on Ashland Road wants to build a materials reclamation facility on its property and use land between the existing landfill and the Henrico border for “borrowing” activities to provide cover soil for the eventual closing of the facility, expected in about 15 years, depending on the economy.

The 623 Landfill accepts only construction debris, not household garbage or medical waste. Unlike the county’s landfill under Hidden Rock Park, the 623 Landfill was carefully constructed to protect the environment and is heavily regulated by the state Department of Environmental Quality.

The reclamation facility, which will recycle some of the material brought to the landfill, had no opposition. Its building will be located near the existing facility, operate only during normal business hours and have doors that face west.

To no one’s surprise, Henrico residents, whose property abuts the land in question, oppose the borrowing activity, which would remove many of the trees that currently form a natural buffer between the landfill and their homes.

Accessed by Kain Road off of Pouncey Tract Road, this area is a charming rural enclave in the shadow of Short Pump. People settle in here for a generation or two, not until the next transfer or promotion. The only cookie cutters here are found in kitchens. Modest homes sit cheek by jowl with upscale dwellings, all on large lots.

One resident of this area told the planning commission that his home is close enough to the quarries and other existing heavy industry in the area that backup alarms already form part of the soundtrack on his land.

The extension of Gayton Road north of I64, whose construction is already under way, will have a greater impact on this area than the Republic proposals. The only access point to the Republic property from the Henrico side is a track secured by a locked gate for emergency service use only.

Goochland has always considered the area east of Ashland Road destined for industrial uses, the kind that make noise and sometimes shake the ground.

Cecil Wise, who lives and owns a business in the area, said that he built his home relatively close to rock quarries knowing that the house would rattle from time to time. His father, said Wise, was a member of the county’s first planning commission and he understood the necessity of bringing business to the county. This area, anchored by quarries mining large granite deposits, is the logical choice for heavy industry.

According to the attorney representing Republic, in similar circumstances, Henrico requires a much smaller setback from nearby homes than the 1,000 feet mandated by Goochland. In fact, he said, land adjacent to a nearby platted but undeveloped subdivision is currently zoned for heavy industry by Henrico and protected by smaller buffers.

One of the applications presented by Republic asks to rezone a parcel from A-2 to M-2, heavy industrial. Proffers accompanying that application, said the attorney, indicate that most uses on this parcel of land would be of the lighter M-1 zoning, except for a vehicle maintenance facility.

He contended that anomalies in Goochland land use ordinances permit borrow activities as a by right use in land zoned M-2 and a conditional use for land zoned for agricultural use. There is no M-1 borrow option.

According to the Republic presentation, the borrow activities, in addition to preparing cover soil for the landfill, will level existing rolling ground preparing the way for its eventual use as an industrial park. The proposed borrow activities will not enter the water table.

Local attorney Darvin Satterwhite, representing the owner of land in Goochland adjacent to the site, objected to the M-2 zoning. He contended that the county’s comprehensive land use plan has always indicated that the property between the landfill, the county line and the interstate is destined for “flexible use” not heavy industry.

Satterwhite contended that vehicle maintenance is heavy industry, an M-2 use, and therefore not appropriate for the site in question.

To further complicate the situation, Republic also wants to shrink the 350 foot buffer mandated by Goochland on the portion of the borrow site that does not abut existing homes to 180 feet with a landscaped berm. (Think high earthworks with bushes on top.)

Republic’s attorney contended that the proffers included in the application devote about 32 percent of the land in question to setbacks and buffers, including those bordering existing streams, on the property and that should be more than adequate without the addition of a 350 foot buffer for vacant land.

Republic’s presentation included an attractive rendering of the berm and photographs of existing berms in other locations. The berm would screen the homes from the borrow land once it has been cleared and absorb sound better than trees.

There was a lot of “inside baseball” discussion of setbacks and land use.

The planning commission voted to defer a vote for 30 days so they could consider the proffers presented by Satterwhite.

Until Rt. 288 came along, few people realized that the landfill was there. Even though it is close to I64, trees hid the large debris pile. Now it is revealed. The Kain Road residents fear that a similar fate will befall their homes when the existing tree cover is removed.

When this landfill was created decades ago, eastern Goochland was rural. Things have changed, but the landfill is still there. Republic has been a responsible member of the business community. It is hard to fault the Kain Road folks for their concerns. However, by the time that the borrowing activities are in full swing — not until at least mid-2012 according to the presentation— changes on the Henrico side will have a greater impact on these homes than the Republic plans.

This sweet spot close to Interstate 64 and Rt. 288 is a prime location for industry. Rock quarries, asphalt plants and other heavy uses are nearby and have been in operation for years. Concentrating heavy uses in the interior of industrial land will pave the way for lighter uses around the edges. This follows the existing pattern of setting heavy industry development well back from Ashland Road.

The 623 Landfill is an economic bird firmly clasped in Goochland’s hand.

Neighboring land owners have a right to voice their concerns about a use change but it is unrealistic to expect that a significant portion of this land will remain undisturbed forever.

Republic is making a herculean effort to mitigate the borrowing activity. The vehicle maintenance shop should be closer to Ashland Road for sound and sight considerations. In the long run, the berm may provide a better buffer option for the Henrico folk than trees, whose ongoing health is an unknown.

A more subtle subtext of the Republic proposal is its representation by the Williams Mullen law firm, which is working with companies interested in relocating to Virginia. If Goochland enhances its reputation as being difficult to work with, it could find itself once again on the outside of regional economic development initiatives.

The planners and supervisors have to carefully consider this proposal, but the interests of Goochland in the long and short term must be their prime concern.

At its 623 Landfill, Republic Services does a good job in a dirty business. It jumps through a maze of environmental regulations as a matter of course. It’s been a good corporate citizen. Planning for the productive (read tax producing) use of its property when the landfill is closed is good business and should be encouraged.