Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Hold on to your wallets

We could all pay for TCSD bloopers

A matter close to home that has been festering for almost a decade could raise your real estate tax bill.

Earlier this year, the Goochland Board of Supervisors retained Davenport & Company to review the structure of the debt for the Tuckahoe Creek Service District and suggest ways for the county to deal with staggering debt service payments due in the next few years.

(The report is available in the finance department section on the county website at A recording of the actual presentation is in the supervisors’ tab. Be sure to read and listen to the disclaimer at the beginning of the report.)

Once again, an action that was supposed to answer questions only raised more and did little but stir the depths of an already muddy pond. The board took no action at the conclusion of the presentation.

Barring a dramatic reversal of the downturn in property valuations or significant development in the TCSD, the county’s options are to raise the ad valorem tax; increase the real estate tax rate for all county taxpayers by as much as ten cents per $100 of valuation just for debt service, said the Davenport representative. Under this option, a 15 cent ad valorem tax would still be levied on property owners in the TCSD in addition to the countywide rate.

Davenport also stated that the bonds may be restructured with new bonds, even though the TCSD bonds, as issued by the Virginia Resources Authority in 2002, cannot be restructured.

No explanation for the selection of Davenport for this task was given. Please listen closely to the start of the presentation, which states that the study did not review Davenport’s involvement at the inception of the TCSD.

Sadly, this smacks of an organization checking its own work, which removes even the appearance of impartiality.

The report paints a bleak picture at best.

Utility rates and ad valorem taxes will skyrocket over the next few years, which will translate into less development in the TCSD. Given that there has been virtually no development there for the past five years, this is truly distressing.

Suggestions offered for the county to dig itself out from a huge debt including an across the board real estate tax increase for debt service or using money from the general fund for debt service, which amounts to the same thing.

So, we could be paying higher taxes to cover debt not build new schools; hire more deputies, teachers and fire-rescue providers or keep the library and transfer stations open more hours.

The report alludes to initial assumptions made about growth in the TCSD that seem to have been based on wishful thinking. No feasibility study was ever performed to see if an 11.8 per cent ANNUAL growth rate was reasonable or achievable. In reality the growth rate there has been similar to current return on cash with several zeroes to the right of the decimal point.

Other documents indicate that the initial annual growth assumptions for the TCSD were closer to 14 percent. While, to the casual observer in 2002 when the local economy was chugging along that growth rare may have seemed achievable basic common sense and prudence should have lead financial professionals to investigate the reasonableness of aggressive projections.
Indeed, letters from the VRA discussing the TCSD financing question the “aggressive” growth assumptions used in analysis of the county’s ability to manage debt service.

So how did we get here?

It all seems to have started with the creation of the West Creek business park in the 1980s. A 3,500 acre amalgamation of parcels of land between Broad Street Road and Patterson Avenue just west of the Henrico County line, West Creek got off to a slow start.

Then Motorola announced intentions to build a $5 million chip factory in West Creek. Goochland’s future seemed bright. The plant would bring jobs and tax revenues and attract other companies to the area.

Motorola needed five million gallons of water per day to operate. Goochland and Henrico collaborated to supply the water. Lines were built through the old Oak Hill golf course. Parking lots were built.

By 1998, it was clear that Motorola was not coming. The good news is that it left behind raw land with nice parking lots instead of a white elephant plant. A few local companies built their corporate headquarters in West Creek. Growth proceeded at a graceful but optimistic pace.
West Creek was sold and the path of long anticipated Rt. 288 was established through West Creek.

Suddenly, the interior of West Creek was accessible. Then Capital One bought an interior parcel and was the catalyst for Rt. 288 as a toll free connector between Interstates 64 and 95.

Capital One consumed the remainder of the utilities initially destined for the Motorola plant. To accommodate more growth, additional capacity was needed.

At the start of 2002, various state officials on both sides of the aisle seem to have decided to ensure that Goochland would be able to afford public water and sewer.

In May 2002, the TCSD was established and funded by state issued bonds. It was the largest bond issue undertaken by the Virginia Resources Authority. This was a little like giving a Maserati, complete with huge car payments, to someone with a bicycle and a paper route expecting the paper route to explode beyond reason.

Sen. Mark Warner, who was newly elected governor at the time, changed leadership at the VRA just in time to grease the skids for the TCSD project even though his predecessor expressed serious doubts that Goochland could handle such a large project.

Tim Kaine then mayor of Richmond and state senator Walter Stosch have their fingerprints on the TCSD too. It would be very interesting to know who purchased the $63 million worth of bonds and locked in six percent for 30 years.

Davenport stated that it is unusual for municipal debt to be structured like the TCSD. There is no provision to pay off the debt before its 2036 maturity. That’s like taking out a 30 year mortgage and being unable to pay if off early. Interest payments were back loaded postponing interest payments for the first few years assuming sufficient appreciation and new development to generate revenue to make significantly larger payments later.

Sadly, none of these dreams came true.

Although the Davenport study was completed at least a month before its presentation to the supervisors, the county shielded it from a Freedom of Information Act request by contending that the document was work product.
That is way too reminiscent of the bad old days when this stuff was aired only behind closed doors. Seems like the supervisors waited to address this matter until folks were distracted by an earthquake and hurricane.

Why the multi-term incumbents are so eager to hang on to jobs that pay little and bring huge headaches? You’d think they would be eager to hand off this mess to successors. Could it be that they need to hide things that could come back to bite them?

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Planning commission punts

At its September 15, 2011 meeting the Goochland planning commission voted unanimously to defer a vote on an urban development area proposal for 60 days. It also asked county planning staff to downsize the proposal to the minimum acreage and maximum density.

Commissioners also voted 6 to 3 to amend the county’s comprehensive land use plan to designate the Bellview Gardens subdivision for residential use only.

The Bellview Gardens change generated far more discussion than seems to have been anticipated. When the last comp plan review was approved in 2009, the supervisors pledged to consider amendments between the usual five year reviews if conditions on the ground changed.

The last comp plan review got off to a great start in the spring of 2007. Meetings held around the county were well attended and generated useful citizen comment and suggestions. However, plan revisions were presented at a sparsely attended second round of meetings held the week after Thanksgiving.

Nothing happened with the comp plan until the supervisors approved the revisions in February 2009. Changes that seemed to favor some landowners near the Hadensville village were incorporated with no explanation or discussion. The supervisors were no doubt distracted as the former county administrator had recently slithered out of the administration building leaving county government in disarray.

At best, leaving Bellview Gardens designated as flexible use was an oversight. When the comp plan was overhauled in 2003, Bellview Gardens consisted of a few aging homes on a tract of land that mostly did not perc making it undevelopable without water and sewer.

In 2004, the remaining raw land there was sold to a developer who rezoned it for smaller lots and connected to Tuckahoe Creek Service District utilities. Many upscale homes were built and Bellview Gardens blossomed.

Its residents were probably unaware of the 2003 comp plan review and raised no objections. It was not until a proposal to locate a large Goodwill Store on the three lots at the front of the subdivision that the problem came into focus.

Owners of the front lots are angry that the Goodwill proposal fell apart and residents are angry that the values of their homes and safety of their neighborhood were threatened by the possibility of commercial development there.

Much of the kerfuffle could have been avoided with a bit of foresight by the county.

If the owners of the front parcels wanted to develop the land behind Bellview Gardens on a flex use basis, they should have been told to make a new entrance into the subdivision off of Three Chopt Road. That would close all access to the residential lots from Mills Road leaving it in place for access the larger flex use parcel.

No one seems to have looked beyond the notion that more lots in Bellview Gardens would mean more users for the TCSD.

Joe Andrews and Jim Crews, District 4 commissioners, contended that the highest and best use of the front three lots, which are located on or near Broad Street Road, is for some sort of commercial use. Andrews joined James Melton and Eugene Brice, both District 2, in dissenting votes.

Developer Mike Carroll, who represents the front three lots contended that incumbent District 4 supervisor Rudy Butler initiated the comp plan amendment to buy votes. Carroll characterized Goochland as a “third world country” and said that few businesses want to locate here because the county does what it wants to.

Both sides of this issue made some good points. At the end of the day, the interests of the people who bought houses and built a community in Bellview Gardens must be protected. The inability of anyone on the county level, including the planning commissioners and supervisors, to foresee the potential for disaster without addressing possible development of the parcels surrounding Bellview Gardens is shameful.

In this case, protection of the community must trump other concerns.
The commission then turned its attention to the urban development area proposal.

Virginia General Assembly in House bill 3203 mandates that all areas with high growth rates designate specific parcels of land for high density development. Ideally, the UDAs will be served by public water and sewer and have adequate road access.

The legislation contains a formula to determine the minimum amount of land for a UDA based on the population growth for the previous decade. Supposedly, the higher density housing will absorb all of the residential and commercial demand for new development for the next 20 years.

Goochland’s magic number is somewhere between 470 and 1,056 acres.
While UDAs might make some sense for northern Virginia whose growth is driven by its proximity to Washington, D.C., the concept is absurd for Goochland. People move here to pursue a certain lifestyle, not for its proximity to jobs.

The Goochland UDA proposal as presented by principal planner Tom Coleman was an embarrassment at best.

Allegedly the result of two sets of community meetings held in Courthouse Village and Centerville, the plan features clots of land randomly scattered with no apparent thought given to the interconnectedness that is supposed to be part of a UDA.

The “walkable” component of a UDA applies only to internal circulation for each parcel. Crossing parts of Fairground Road or the new improved Broad Street Road speedway in Centerville on foot requires a death wish and will only get worse.

Several commissioners asked Coleman how the specific parcels of land came to be included in the UDA. His response was vague. Some parcels along River Road West opposite the high school seem to have been designated by the consultants hired for us by VDOT with $50,000 tax dollars. Others were included at the request of the property owners. Parcels were being added after the informational packet for the meeting was prepared and Coleman said that parcels could be added or deleted up until the final vote by the board of supervisors and could be changed going forward.

Coleman also said that staff has not spoken with all of the landowners whose property was included in the Courthouse Village UDA but offered no explanation for this.

Brice observed that the parcel selection process is a mechanism to make the “rich richer” while excluding others who own land in the targeted areas but are unaware of the initiative. He contended that the county failed to make an “earnest effort” to get the word about UDAs out to the community.

Indeed, notices about the first round of community meetings allegedly sent to landowners who might be affected by the issue were sparsely received because they were mailed to the address on the property records and, in cases where property taxes are escrowed as part of a mortgage, went to banks instead of owners.

Given that Courthouse Village is accessible only via narrow, winding two lane roads from any direction and that utility capacity there is limited, any UDA compliance in the county should be in Centerville.

The parcels in Centerville are located along Broad Street Road, easily accessible to utilities and roads but seem to have little relationship to each other. That only paves the way for disparate development.

Paul Costello, who has organized a thoughtful series of community meetings exploring the village concept and what that can mean to Goochland, told the commissioners that no UDA should be designated before a coherent plan to develop Centerville is in place.

Various iterations of a “Centerville plan” have surfaced for that past decade or so, but none have been approved by the supervisors. While such a plan would never be written in stone, it would provide a starting point to create the sense of place that defines a village. It’s well past time for the supervisors to stop worrying about who they will offend if they put some sort of Centerville plan in place.

The commissioners seemed overwhelmed by the proposal. They asked some questions, but appeared unprepared for the discussion. Few commissioners bothered to attend the community meetings for the UDAs even though they knew that the matter would come before the planning commission.

Melton suggested deferring a vote on the matter so that the commission could “marinate” on the proposal, an apt choice of verbs. A great deal of thoughtful consideration must go into any decision on UDAs made by county leaders.

Several speakers contended that UDAs are part of the United Nations Agenda 21 policy, which they characterized as a mechanism to destroy property rights. They also said that a movement to repeal the UDA legislation failed in the General Assembly in 2011 and will be reintroduced in 2012. Governor McDonnell is also reportedly investigating repeal of the UDA mandate.

The commission voted unanimously to defer the matter for 60 days, which will put if before the supervisors no earlier than January 2012. They also asked staff to return with a proposal for the minimum acreage and maximum density permitted under teh mandate.

Any decisions will be made by a newly elected board. Hopefully, the General Assembly will repent and get its nose out of local land use matters.

Regardless of whether or not UDAs are implemented in Goochland, we do need some more realistic development options in the Tuckahoe Creek Service District, which includes the Centerville Village.

As presented the UDA favors some landowners and puts others at a disadvantage. A better alternative would be to make the higher density zoning available in the entire TCSD mindful that all changes must go through the rezoning process. That would give the supervisrs the option of deciding when there was too much development. Let market driven competition rather than politically motivated mandates and preference guide the speed and density of development. The time for dithering is long past.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

And so it begins

Benedictine screams for attention

During local election years an issue emerges from left field to dominate campaign discussions. These items generate huge quantities of smoke that obscure far more important matters.

In 2007 discussion about overzealous and improper enforcement of zoning regulations about the size of campaign signs obscured substantive subjects. The Tuckahoe Creek Service District, for instance, has had a dramatically negative impact on the future of Goochland County.

So far this year, clamor over an application for a conditional use permit to allow Benedictine High School to relocate from its current site near the Virginia Museum to property on River Road, which has been owned by the Benedictine Society for some time, is front and center.

On Tuesday, September 6, the supervisors voted 3-2 (Jim Eads, district 5 and Ned Creasey District 3 against; Rudy Butler District 4; board chair William Quarles District 2 and Andrew Pryor District 1 for) to defer a decision on the matter for 90 days. This means that a lame duck board will vote on this matter.

The rationale for the delay, until after the November 8 election, was to combat a well-orchestrated misinformation campaign that targeted all parts of Goochland via mailed flyers and electronic telephone messages.
The mailed flyers contend that Goochland taxpayers could be saddled with the cost of road and sewer improvements for Benedictine. Those statements are false.

Goochland roads are paved and maintained by the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) with minimal input from the county. Should the existing on site wastewater treatment plant fail the county would condemn the property. That action would close the school until the problem was fixed. Benedictine would either replace or repair the treatment plant or close down.

As the property is not currently taxed this would have little impact on county finances.

Following the vote, Michael McDermott of Maidens contended that counsel for Benedictine, Darvin Satterwhite, also does legal work for Butler and Pryor, which constitutes a conflict of interest. McDermott said that the vote should be taken again without input from Butler and Pryor. His request was ignored by board chair William Quarles, District 2.
Quarles struggled to maintain control of the proceedings as the audience clapped in support of some speakers.

The public comment period then degenerated into a free for all as local minstrel Jim Connor expressed his support for Benedictine in song accompanied by banjo. Eads interrupted Connor in the rudest way possible and members of the audience jumped into the fray. (Please listen to the recording of the event at under the board of supervisors’ tab recordings for the evening of September 6.)

Connor further commented that if Goochland is going to treat Benedictine students like dirt they can find a better place to go.

Speakers made arguments for and against the move. Increases in traffic; concerns about sewage and water use and alteration of the character of the River Road corridor were cited by many citizens.

Others contended that the extraordinary character of the Benedictine corps of cadets will be an asset to the county.

Some stated that Benedictine is running out of money and Goochland County could be left holding the tab if its runs out of money.

That logic is flawed. If Benedictine runs out of money, it will close and the property be sold to pay its debts. If the water and wastewater facilities do not meet county health department standards, it will be closed until those deficiencies are corrected.

At least one speaker condemned the faction of Benedictine alumni that hired a firm to try to manipulate public opinion in the county by making false allegations about the use of Goochland tax dollars.

One gentleman asked about the cost of replacing the existing on site wastewater treatment plant and impact on the sheriff’s office and fire-rescue providers. He opined that if the alumni opposed to the move used the funds spent on the disinformation campaign to support the school, Benedictine would be in better fiscal shape.

Questions about the amount of water used were also raised. The application contends that the students at Benedictine will use far less water than the per student figure supplied by the state board of health. There is little agreement on the amount of water per student that Benedictine will need. The property is limited to 10,000 gallons of water per day. All student body numbers are based on that amount.

Several “factual” estimates “proved” that there will be adequate water to supply a larger student body, which is expected to grow slowly over the next two decades.

Other projections seem to indicate that the ten thousand gallon per day water limit for the property is barely adequate for the existing student body. One speaker asked why water use statistics at the existing Benedictine facility in Richmond were not used in the application.

Creasey pointed out that the disinformation campaign and inaccurate information flying around is disturbing and reflects poorly on the character of those behind it.

Indeed, the flyers, funded by an anonymous organization calling itself Sprawl Busters, arrogantly assume that Goochlanders are stupid and easily manipulated. Given the angry response from citizens throughout the county, they were correct.

The ugly conflict between Benedictine alumni factions has no place in Goochland government and reflects poorly on Benedictine.

Important questions were raised during the public comment period and hopefully, their answers will help the supervisors make a better decision.
However, we still don’t know why these questions were not addressed during the application process so all needed information was available when the application was before the supervisors.