Sunday, November 28, 2010

Good reasons and real reasons

How smart is smart growth?

Buzzwords have replaced simple declarative sentences to explain important concepts. A request for a concise definition of a buzzword will often draw a blank stare of derision. If you don’t know, you should be too embarrassed to ask, is the not so subtle message sent in reply.

One such term that seems to be everywhere and is touted as the cure for pretty much everything but the heartbreak of psoriasis is “smart growth.”

This is a broad land use concept that allegedly seeks to protect us from the dreaded “sprawl,” which, according to its proponents, is eating up land at an alarming rate. Once land is covered with houses, shopping centers and roads to connect them, it will never revert to open space.

Proponents of smart growth contend that we “sprawl” is destroying the environment, society and running up a huge unsustainable tab in infrastructure costs.

What they advocate is basically recreation of healthy cities by allowing construction of only high-density housing options close to stores and services. Mixed use — putting housing, retail, business and other types of zoning on the same parcel of land governed by a master plan — is an example of smart growth. Proponents of mixed use contend that its residents can work, shop and play within walking distance of their homes. This requires fewer roads, less driving reducing traffic and protecting the environment.

West Broad Village in Short Pump is touted as such a place. The townhouses and apartments there seem nice enough, but on site employment opportunities are limited. It’s questionable if many of the people who work in its tenant businesses, mostly stores, earn enough to afford to live there. People who work in nearby Innsbrook still must drive to work except for those with a death wish who insist that Broad Street at rush hour is a suitable bicycle venue.

Walking within West Broad Village is easy and pleasant. Yet, even a trip to Target or to a movie requires a car.

Anyone who questions the validity of smart growth tenets is branded as a right wing nutcase.

A counter movement contends that “smart growth” is shorthand for the local implementation of the United Nations’ Agenda 21, Google the term for more information, which seems to advocate that concentration of population into small areas to easily control people for sinister purposes.

To further confuse the issue, the Commonwealth of Virginia has mandated that all “high growth” jurisdictions, which include Goochland County, must establish something called an Urban Growth Area (UDA) with residential densities higher than the established norm to absorb growth for the next few decades.

Higher density housing also, in theory, is supposed to lower the per-unit home cost.

Sounds great on paper.

People tend to move to Goochland for its rural lifestyle, whose definition is in the eye of the beholder, but generally includes a bit of peace and privacy.

However, given the high cost of land, which translates into expensive houses, there are a fair number of people, including teaches and deputies, who would like to live in the community they serve, that simply cannot afford to live here.

Many other long-term county residents are getting to the point in life where they are unable or unwilling to maintain large houses and property, but don’t want to leave Goochland.

Why not use the state mandate for higher density housing to target a very small area to be used for townhouses and even a continuing care senior citizen community?

A perfect location is east of Rt. 288 between Broad Street Road and Interstate 64. The roads are in as are sewer and water lines desperately in need of customers. Natural boundaries would prevent this zoning from bleeding into adjoining areas.

Detractors contend that apartments or townhouses will become slums in a few years. Housing value is more dependent on the general economy and well-managed government than density.

Many urban areas now considered slums were once homes of affluent people who abandoned them because of economic or political conditions. There is no guarantee that existing communities in Goochland including currently exclusive Kinloch and Randolph Square will not fall on hard times as the population ages and tastes in housing and economic conditions change.

It’s absurd to believe that folks who want to move to Goochland for peace and privacy would consider a townhouse. But it would be nice for aging Goochlanders, or those whose parents are getting on in yeas, to have care options closer to home. This would also be a source of revenue for the county and jobs for our citizens.

Townhouses and apartment would also provide homes for young people starting out who all too often move out of the county to live in an apartment and buy a first house.

Apartments over retail shops in parts of Centerville would help create the village that everyone seems to want in theory. This is not a new concept to Goochland. Many of our more seasoned citizens started out as young married couples living in apartments after World War II.

While it is absurd to assume that allowing only high- density housing will absorb all of the demand for large lots, it is time to permit limited land use for apartments or townhouses. A wide rage of housing options paves the way for a thriving community.

Healthy neighborhoods evolve. They cannot be engineered but can be encouraged by the proper environment. Goochland needs to seize this state mandate as an opportunity and not a punishment.

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