Friday, February 25, 2011

Visions of the future

Urban density in the country?

You’d think that the Commonwealth of Virginia has more than enough on its plate without poking its nose into local land use issues. Not so.

Alarm at the rapid pace of growth in some parts of Virginia, Goochland included, led the state to mandate that jurisdictions with high percentage growth rates designate urban development areas (UDAs)to concentrate development and combat dreaded sprawl. The size of the required UDA is determined using a formula based on the number of acres “consumed” by recent development and can very depending upon the permitted density in the UDA.

Goochland’s required UDA acreage varies between 433 and 961 acres. The higher the density, the lower the required acreage. For instance, apartments, which have a much higher unit per acre density than single family detached homes, could satisfy the UDA acreage with a much smaller footprint.

The nuts and bolts process of creating UDAs is funded by grants from VDOT, the state agency that was so short of funds under the Kaine administration that all of the interstate rest areas were closed a few years ago. Then last year, VDOT found enough unspent money to reopen the rest areas and get many other transportation projects off the ground.

One fiscal benefit of UDAs, their supporters contend, is that concentrating development decreases the amount of new roads that need to be built to support that development, which in turn reduces the cost of ongoing road maintenance. The annual maintenance of state roads is allegedly the highest item in the VDOT budget.

To make the UDA pill easier for localities to swallow, VDOT provided a grant of $50,000 to pay consultants it selected to help Goochland craft its own UDA policy.

Goochland is required to revise its comprehensive land use plan to show the desired location of UDAs — there could be more than one — and amend zoning ordinances to support them. The county is not required to do anything to ensure that the UDA development actually happens.

Tom Coleman, the principal planner for Goochland County recently made presentations about UDAs at the county administration building in Courthouse Village and at Company 3 fire-rescue station in Centerville.

The Centerville on February 22 meeting was well attended. Many of the people in the audience were residents of Belleview Gardens, who are battling a pending rezoning that would place a large Goodwill Store at the entrance to their community.

Comments and questions were thoughtful and civil. In general, citizens seem to understand the benefits of increasing the commercial tax base in Goochland but no one wants it in their backyard.

The presentation was informative, as far as it went. Please visit the county website and go to the planning department page. An outline of the UDA presentation is there along with the preliminary reports from the consultant.

These documents contain a great deal of interesting information about population growth projections, county employment and so forth. According to the consultants, Goochland’s population could grow to be more than 35,000 from its current 21,000 by 2030. That’s still about 10 percent of Henrico’s population and Goochland has slightly more land.

Newcomers to Goochland seem most alarmed about the growth patterns in the county. Long time residents worry that the “smart growth” proponents will put land use policies into place that will further erode their private property rights.

Indeed, demands that some speakers made about wanting more power to decide how land they do not own will be developed, were troubling.

The UDA issue is yet another area where finding good balance between the public good and private property rights is crucial.

Local developer Scott Gaeser spoke eloquently in favor of encouraging growth in the county’s villages to protect the rural areas from development. Gaeser pointed out that the zoning on his land, including Manakintowne in
Centerville, has been in place for 20 years and pretty much limits him to building a gas station.

He believes that the notion of encouraging development in villages served by public utilities and a good road system is sound and achievable.

The vagueness of the UDA process is also disturbing. If specific areas are designated for UDAs with higher density, what about other parcels of land in a village? This could degenerate into yet another boondoggle for the good old boys leaving other landowners out in the cold.

What sort of high-density housing will be appropriate? In some minds the term “apartments” means low income housing projects. It can also mean condos overlooking the golf course. Some also worry that apartments will add more students to our school system. High density housing can also mean age restricted communities that place few demands on schools.

There were lots of questions about roads. Workable villages, contended Coleman, have grid transportation systems to provide more than one route through a village.

He said that there are no plans to extend Mills Road, currently a residential street that is the only access point to Belleview Gardens, to Three Chopt Road to the north.

Versions of the county’s proposed thoroughfare plan clearly show Mills Road connecting with Three Chopt. It is hard for citizens to have confidence in statement made by county officials when they “forget” such details.

Several speakers generally supported the notion of higher density development in both Courthouse and Centerville Villages, but only if market driven and funded by private sector money. There is great concern that UDAs will prevent those who own property outside of village areas will be unable to rezone their land as they see fit.

These meetings are the first step toward creating UDAs in Goochland. Additional meetings, hopefully with more detailed specifics, are expected in coming months.

The most positive aspect of UDAs so far is people are paying attention and asking questions. More citizens need to give land use matters their attention before the bulldozers are on the lot next door.

Too often important decisions are made in response to input from a small number of citizens. That must stop for the good of all.

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