Sunday, May 1, 2011

What's urban about rural?

The UDA conundrum
In 2007, the Virginia Department of Transportation realized that the state’s growth pattern, sometimes called sprawl, was wreaking havoc on its budget. Burgeoning regions spawned new subdivisions and shopping centers that needed new roads, which VDOT was expected to maintain. As the statewide maintenance budget loomed to grow greater than the construction budget, VDOT searched for a remedy.
Only a few jurisdictions in the Commonwealth, including Henrico County, maintain their own roads. Every other road in the state is VDOT’s problem. Each time a subdivision is completed, roads, built by developers, are turned over to the state. The cost of their upkeep is added to the VDOT maintenance budget.
The answer to the problem, concluded VDOT, is to reduce the number of new roads in areas with the highest growth rates. Somehow, this notion was cobbled into legislation touted as a long term money saving scheme and became law.
The law translated into a mandate for the fastest growing areas, which includes Goochland, to amend their comprehensive land use plans to designate urban development areas (UDAs) with high density development options. These areas are intended to absorb all of the growth predicted for the ensuing twenty years or so. High density areas would require fewer roads and allow people living there to access services and amenities without needing to drive.
Enter the new urbanism and smart growth folks with their utopian visions of a return to the idyllic lifestyle experienced by those who lived in the villages of yore before the rise of the evil automobile that gave Americans the freedom to move about the country.
On April 26, the county held a session for property owners in the proximity of areas proposed for UDAs. Representatives of Cox Company of Charlottesville, a land use consulting firm retained by VDOT for Goochland to the tune of $50,000, presented their suggestions for Goochland UDAs. The final determination will be made by the board of supervisors.
Notice of this meeting was allegedly mailed to landowners in questions, even though most of those who attended learned about it via worth of mouth efforts. (A cryptic notice of the meeting popped up on the county website the day before.)
For reasons not explained during the session, of the 961 acres Goochland is required to designate as a UDA (specific formulas for arriving at this amount of land are included in the legislation) 547 were proposed for a parcel of land near the James River in Courthouse Village. Another 273 acres in the Manakintowne area of the Centerville Village and 132 acres in West Creek complete the total acreage.
The UDA mandate requires the localities to put zoning laws in place to support high density housing options that include apartments, townhouses as well as commercial uses. The mix of housing types is up to the county.
The UDAs will not change any existing zoning, and all land must be rezoned before being developed as a UDA, which, in theory, gives localities some control over the process.
The consultants never explained how these parcels were selected beyond that landowners were interested in participating.
Surprisingly, no one asked what sort of herbs the consultants and county planning staff were ingesting when they concluded that it makes any kind of sense to designate land accessed only by thoroughfares that are little more than paved country lanes as a sensible place to locate high density residential development and retail space.
Any UDA in Courthouse Village should be near existing main roads, such as they are. Courthouse Village is charming and has lots of possibilities but is accessible only by two lane roads, Route 6 and Fairground Road that will not be improved any time soon. To even consider large amounts of high density zoning there, especially well off the beaten track, is madness.
As citizens tried to understand the proposal, they asked the consultant how the proposed elements of the UDA compared to Mechanicsville or the Fan. The consultant said he was unfamiliar with those areas and was unable to relate them to his proposal casting.
After residents expressed strong disapproval of the proposal for Courthouse Village — there seemed to be few people from the Centerville area in attendance— the consultants admitted that sanctions for failure to comply with the UDA legislation are vague and perhaps nonexistent.
Both the no high density growth anywhere faction and the “smart growth” adherents concurred that the initial UDA proposals for Courthouse Village are inappropriate at best and disastrous at worst.
Several people spoke passionately about their regard for the small town feel of Courthouse Village contending that it would be destroyed by large scale high density development.
Others raised concerns about the impact of a UDA on surrounding land. “Once your draw this boundary you stigmatize every piece of property that is anywhere near it,” said one resident.
Members of a group that worked in the Virginia General Assembly to repeal the UDA legislation, which failed by one vote, explained that the law is so complicated that one in four legislators did not even know what the letters UDA represent. “But they are redrawing our maps and telling us what we have to accept.”
One angry gentleman said that he was insulted that there were no supervisors present (District 3 supervisor Ned Creasey was there.) “That’s why they all need to be replaced,” the citizen declared.
Comments included the observation that the large lot single family home market is not interchangeable with the townhouse market; “that’s not what we’re about out here; questioning the need to build more commercial space when there are vacant stores and offices and “please God, don’t do this.”
One man questioned the validity of returning to the idyllic village of yore where everyone walked wherever they needed to go and everything was close at hand.
“Of course they walked. No one had a car. Now we have cars and can go wherever we want,” he said. “I resent the Commonwealth of Virginia sticking its nose into our business.”
Several speakers expressed bewilderment that high density development would be considered anywhere in the county other than the Centerville area, which is served by the Tuckahoe Creek Service District; has roads and other infrastructure in place and is drowning in debt.
County Administrator Rebecca Dickson said that the county could “push back” against the UDA mandates and perhaps designate the smallest amount of acreage possible. She also said that the county’s UDA process, which was described by the consultant as being in the fourth inning of the game, is closer to the beginning.
Dickson stressed that the meeting was held only to gather feedback from people living near proposed UDAs. “Sounds like the people who live in Courthouse Village do not want a UDA there,” she said stating the obvious.
Hopefully, the planning staff will go back to the drawing board on this and concentrate on the TCSD for any UDA proposals.
The one positive outcome of the meeting is that so many people, though still a small portion of the county population are engaged and willing to take the time to make thoughtful and constructive comments on the matter.

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