Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Are you ready to vote?

Are you ready to vote?

Next Tuesday, November 6 is Election Day. In Goochland County the polls will be open from 6 a.m. to 7 p.m. By now, you should know where your voting precinct is. If not, please call the registrar’s office at 556-5803.
If you live in Goochland County’s District 4 and vote at St. Matthew’s Church, it is especially important that you make up your mind and be ready to cast your ballot when you get into the voting booth. Also, as voter turnout is expected to be high, please try to vote during late morning or mid-afternoon if you can, to shorten lines during morning and evening rush hours.
There are probably 16 trillion other places online to help you decide which candidates will get your vote.
However, you will also have the opportunity to vote for or against two amendments to the Virginia State Constitution. PLEASE DO NOT WAIT UNTIL YOU GET INTO THE VOTING BOOTH TO READ AND THINK ABOUT THESE AMENDMENTS.
The amendments concern eminent domain, the power of government to take land from its owner, and changing the method used to determine the starting date of a “veto” session of the General Assembly.

The eminent domain amendment prevents governments from taking private property for any purpose other than public use and ensures just compensation to the owner of that property including lost profits. This amendment is intended to make it very difficult and expensive for governments to take private property for economic development or private use.
For instance, this would permit government to use eminent domain to take land to build a road or school, but not to sell to a private developer. It also ensures that the legislature cannot “change the rules” by passing laws without citizen approval at the polls.

The text of this amendment is:

Shall Section 11 of Article I (Bill of Rights) of the Constitution of Virginia be amended (i) to require that eminent domain only be exercised where the property taken or damaged is for public use and, except for utilities or the elimination of a public nuisance, not where the primary use is for private gain, private benefit, private enterprise, increasing jobs, increasing tax revenue, or economic development; (ii) to define what is included in just compensation for such taking or damaging of property; and (iii) to prohibit the taking or damaging of more private property than is necessary for the public use? 

Any measure that protects private property rights is good. Please vote “yes” for this amendment. 

The timing change of the veto session seems to be a housekeeping issue to ensure that the veto sessions do not begin on a religious holiday like Passover.  

It reads: “Shall Section 6 of Article IV (Legislature) of the Constitution of Virginia concerning legislative sessions be amended to allow the General Assembly to delay by no more than one week the fixed starting date for the reconvened or “veto” session when the General Assembly meets after a session to consider the bills returned to it by the Governor with vetoes or amendments?” 

As turnout for the presidential election is expected to be heavy, the less time each of us spends in the voting booth, the faster the lines will move.
Please visit http://www.sbe.virginia.gov/CandidatesList.html#Amendments for more information about  these ballot issues to ensure that you are an informed and efficient voter on Election Day, next Tuesday, November 6. Be a good citizen, be ready to vote!






Monday, October 29, 2012

Ode to joy

If the October 24 District 4 Town Hall meeting was any indication, all the parts of Goochland County government are working in harmony to make beautiful music. This is a nice change from the past decades of discord and dysfunction.

The first round of town hall meetings held last spring were a little rough. Staff did most of the talking and the newly elected supervisors and school board members made brief comments and fielded a few questions.

This time, the supervisors are comfortable with their role in government. Bob Minnick, District 4 supervisor, seemed happy to talk about the TCSD debt remediation. As furor over the high and escalating water and sewer charges and ballooning ad valorem tax rate swept him into office, this was good news for many of his constituents.

The District 4 meeting was well-attended. Newcomers seemed to outnumber long-term residents, which bodes well for the county’s future.

Minnick also outlined the board’s strategy for governing that focuses on areas including economic development, quality of life, and safety and security.

As the Centerville area is expected to be the epicenter of efforts to bring new business to the county, Minnick mentioned the expansion of overlay district controls from a swath on both sides of Broad Street Road to most of the village. This is intended to ensure quality as development occurs.

While this may be less precise than a village plan that designates particular areas for specific uses, it also provides the opportunity for greater flexibility. So, instead of mandating the sterile perfection of theme park style storefronts, businesses will have freedom, within certain parameters, to create space appropriate for their operations. This should result in a Centerville with an appearance different from Short Pump, which, after all, looks a lot like places in Atlanta or Minneapolis.

Some landowners in Centerville raised concerns that more stringent design requirements on new construction while “grandfathering” the stuff that’s already there will not attract new money to the area.

Minnick said that there is “lots of economic development in the works” in addition to that already revealed.

A strange discussion, led by county administrator Rebecca Dickson, explored the special character of Centerville architecture. In fact, it is the people, not the buildings that set Centerville apart. As the northern gateway to Goochland, the appearance of Centerville is important. We need to move away from the feeling that you’ve left civilization and are “in the sticks” to the notion that Centerville is a unique place worthy of exploration.

School Board Chair Beth Hardy, who represents District 4, talked about positive developments in our school system. She said that she said that there is lots going on to enhance an already wonderful school system “and it’s all good.”

She said that the past ten months have been a heady experience with lots of emails, phone calls and conversations in the Food Lion concerning the schools. She skipped over the enormous amount of time the new school board put in getting things on track.

Hardy said that the school board is working on a wide range of initiatives to improve the rigor and quality of education to ensure that every county student is ready to succeed in the next phase of their lives when they graduate.  Hardy praised acting superintendent Dr. Pete Gretz for doing “a phenomenal job” during the transition from old regime to new.

She also said that the school board is very cognizant of the lean economic times and now includes budget reports in monthly meetings to ensure that things stay on target. Advisory committees that seek to engage the entire community for the betterment of our schools are also forming. (Please visit the great school system website at www.glnd.k12.va.us for more information. There is a lot of good stuff here for your perusal.)

Hardy then introduced Dr. James Lane, recently appointed superintendent of Goochland Schools. Although Lane’s first official day of work will be in mid-December, he has been hard at work on a listening tour to glean the community’s perceptions and expectations for our education system.

Lane and his family plan to move to the county and take an active part in the community. He and his wife are actively house hunting and he expects that the chimney Santa will use to deliver gifts to his son this Christmas will be in Goochland.

Lane said that Goochland has an excellent reputation among school divisions in the state and he hopes to make it even better.

Information presented at the meeting was generally not new. What is new for the county is the active solicitation of citizen input and willingness to listen to ideas and concerns.

Now that the new boards have tackled the most pressing items on their agendas—the TCSD debt for the supervisors and a new superintendent for the school board—they are moving down a carefully triaged laundry list of tasks.

Long ignored matters are being addressed. Mistakes will be made, but they will be acknowledged and fixed, not swept under the rug as in days of yore. As all the parts of county government work together and with the community, the tune we all sing will be sweet.




Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Eating local never tasted better

More than 100 people gathered at the Deep Run Hunt Club on October 21 as an autumn sunset kissed the land, to celebrate the bounty of Goochland.
Delectable appetizers on the terrace of the Deep Run Hunt Club

A Farm to Table dinner, sponsored by the Center for Rural Culture(CRC) combined the skill of three of Central Virginia’s finest chefs with local food to produce an exquisite meal. The experience will be long remembered by everyone there.

The evening began on the terrace with an extravaganza of locally sourced sumptuous finger food and regional wine or beer. Good food and conversation was enhanced by the autumn glory of the surrounding trees.

A four course meal prepared by three of the area’s premier chefs: Executive Chef Randall Doetzer of Julep; Executive Chef Lee Gregory of the Roosevelt, and Chef Carlos Iga, personal chef and specialty caterer, who donated their skill and time for the event.

Although every morsel was delectable, the centerpiece of the repast was the braised short ribs prepared with grass-fed beef from Brookview Farm in Manakin-Sabot. Local foods enjoyed by the diners included shitake mushrooms, butternut squash, pumpkin, chard, goat cheese and greens. Wines from the Barboursville Vineyards were paired with each course to further enhance the meal.

Volunteer servers did a great job moving food from kitchen to table; others wove burlap tablecloths, country flowers, greenery, and handsome candles into an elegant backdrop for the feast.

Held as a fund raiser for the CRC, the inaugural Farm to Table Dinner highlighted the quality and variety of locally produced edibles, not to mention the culinary talent of the region.

Founded about eight years, the CRC, a non-profit organization, works to pass along our rural heritage to newcomers and the next generation to ensure it is not devoured by the steam roller of progress.

It sponsors the online Local Roots Food Co-Op that connects consumers with area food producers on a year-round basis. A series of homestead workshops that include mushroom growing and deer processing are offered to pass along “rural” skills. For more information about all of these, visit the CRC at centerforruralcultre.org.




Monday, October 22, 2012

Sounding off

The Goochland Planning Commission voted unanimously to defer action on the Orapax Plantation sporting clays conditional use permit at its October 18 meeting. According to Tom Coleman, the county’s principal planner, the Orapax requested deferral until November 15 to permit completion of a sound test on the proposed shooting range site.

Coleman also said that Orapax plans to retain a sound consultant to perform the study. It was unclear if commissioners or citizens will be notified of the time of the study, which presumably includes actual weapon discharge.  When the commissioners deferred the matter at their October meeting, it seemed as though they preferred to attend a test shoot to get a feel for the loudness and vibration of the shooting. The change to a professional study seems to indicate compilation of objective data that could be used to justify the Orapax contention that the proposed sporting clays range will not generate objectionable levels of sound.

The commission also voted to hold a public hearing on the Orapax application at its November meeting, after the sound test. This will give both sides the opportunity to comment on the sound study and provide the commission with enough input to make a recommendation to the supervisors.

Ironically, the people who attended the planning commission meeting, which started at 6:30 p.m. to accommodate expected extensive public comment about shooting range, had no compunctions about noisily leaving the meeting when the commission moved on to another agenda item. They then proceeded to hold an extended discussion in the hallway outside the meeting room that was loud enough to be distracting to those trying to follow the rest of the meeting.

There is plenty of space on the front steps of the administration building, or in the hallway leading to the rear entrance for public hearing after parties.

Rudeness is not an acceptable part of any public hearing. Although time limits for speakers are made quite clear at the outset, many folks believe that they have a right to natter on as long as they like. Often, these extended comments wander from the point and needlessly extend the hearing.

County boards and commissions do a good job of providing opportunities for public input. Citizens should do their part by being succinct and respectful of others in attendance at meetings.

Although the Orapax CUP recommendation was deferred, the planning commission packet, which is available on the county website www.co.goochland.va.us, is worth taking a look at.

According to a brief history of attempts by Orapax to legally establish a sporting clays course, in 2007, county zoning law was amended for the purpose of discouraging sporting clays. This happened under the guise of changing the accessory use clause of A-1 zoning to prevent construction of illegal garages or sheds.

The proposed ordinance was proposed, on an emergency basis, following the conclusion of the annual budget hearing. It seemed as though the “emergency” was the recent filing of an application by Orapax to establish a sporting clays course as an accessory use to a hunting preserve, as a putting green is to a golf course.

That attempt by Orapax to secure approval of sporting clays failed after what seemed like a very irregular hearing before the Board of Zoning Appeals ended in a tie vote, upholding the county’s denial of the use.

Regardless of the appropriateness of a shooting range at Orapax, and compelling arguments can be made for and against that, the matter must be handled fairly. If the county can get away with manipulating the zoning process to obtain a certain outcome for Orapax, it can do it to any landowner, which is not acceptable.

This matter will test the mettle of the new board. No matter what the outcome of the board vote is, significant constituencies will be furious. Their discontent may well lead to legal action and hard feelings will fester, perhaps until the next local election. This board has said it is committed to doing the right thing for Goochland regardless of the impact of their decisions on future elections. Stay tuned.  

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Thinking about tomorrow

If you caught a glimpse of the magnificent cavalry troop that traversed Goochland in the last days of September, you saw “rural” in action.

Phyllis Silber, executive director of the Goochland Historical Society, which sponsored and orchestrated the event, thanked the Board of Supervisors at its October 2 meeting for support from the Sheriff’s Office, Paul Drumwright of administration, and Dr. Pete Gretz, acting superintendent of schools.

Re-enactor Rick Smith of the Second US Cavalry (www.secondcavalry.org,) who portrayed the ill-fated Col. Eric Dahlgren, also thanked the community at large for a warm and enthusiastic welcome.

“There are no words to tell you what a great community you have here,” Smith, who wore his Union cavalry uniform, told the supervisors.

The reenactment, which began at the Rockville Equestrian Center on Thursday, September 27, finished with cavalry “skirmishes” at Tuckahoe Plantation the following Sunday. On Friday afternoon, the troop staged an educational program for county students at the home of Judee and Ed Wilson, which, according to Smith, “left about 200 elementary students grinning from ear to ear.” The 100 or so re-enactors, who came from as far away as Oregon to participate, had a good time too.

Smith said that the re-enactors were honored to put on the program for county schools. (Visit the school system’s great website at www.glnd.k12.va.us for details of this event.)

The re-enactment traced the route of the 1864 raid, staged to free Union prisoners on Belle Isle and either capture of kill Jefferson Davis and his cabinet. It failed, essentially because no one thought to bring a GPS. They got lost, the James River was too high to safely ford anywhere in Goochland, and Dahlgren was killed.

Staging the event was the result of nearly two years of careful planning and hard work by Silber and Dr. Bruce Venter, a local historian and Dahlgren expert, and the collaboration of many Goochlanders.

Goochland’s equestrian tradition, respect for history, and little change on much of the land traversed in the “raid,” made it the perfect venue for this re-enactment.

The very fact that Tuckahoe Plantation, where Thomas Jefferson may have learned to read, is pretty much as it was during the Civil War, and not a subdivision, is no accident.

Thanks to some generous and farsighted landowners, who have, at their own expense, placed conservation and historic easements on their property, parts of Goochland will never sprout crops of houses.

Leigh Dunn, the county’s environmental planner, gave the supervisors a primer on this form of land use.

Currently, there are 5,374 acres under conservation easements in Goochland, said Dunn. (Details are included in part A of the OCT. 2 board packet on the county website: www.co.goochland.va.us.) Some easements are held by the county, but most are handled by outside entities, especially the Virginia Outdoors Foundation (virginiaoutdoorsfoundation.org).

Hank Hartz of Oilville, who represented District 4 on the Goochland Planning Commission for eight years, and is former chairman of the VOF Board of Trustees, explained that the program is entirely voluntary. While landowners do receive federal tax credits for placing an easement on their land, it is usually far less than the development value of the property.

Landowners, said Hartz, place easements, which are donated, because they are committed to their property, not for the money. He also explained that the county must confirm that easements conform to the comprehensive land use plan before they are approved. That prevents a landowner from placing a “spite” easement on property to reduce its taxable value. For example, a conservation easement could not be placed on West Creek, because it is designated for economic development.

Placing a conservation easement on a parcel permanently reduces its value, hence the federal tax credit for the difference between highest and best use and easement value. The cost of appraisals and legal work involved in placing an easement is borne completely by the landowners.

During the days of ballooning property assessments, the reduction in land values as a result of an easement also shrank estate taxes, which made it possible for families to hold onto land over generations.

Hartz pointed out that the easements on Tuckahoe Plantation, for example, make it economically viable for its owners to keep it undeveloped. Without the easement, he opined, it would be a subdivision.

Dunn explained that most of the land currently under easement is taxed at the land use rate, although not in the land use program. (Under land use, property, which must be actively used for either agricultural or forestall purposes, is taxed at state determined per acre rate.) As the easement land was mostly in land use before the change in classification, there was little impact on collected revenues.

The latest iteration of the county’s comprehensive land use plan promotes the conservation of 20 percent of the county’s undeveloped agricultural and forestal land. This follows a similar state initiative endorsed by governors on both sides of the aisle to ensure that Virginia is not developed from the ocean to the mountains.

The holder of an easement, the county or VOF, is responsible for monitoring the property to ensure that it adheres to agreed upon conditions.

Purchase of development rights, said Dunn, is a different animal that involves one entity, often a local government, buying outright the difference between the agricultural and developed value of a parcel of land. Goochland did this in 2009, when it spent $155,000 to match state funds to purchase development rights.

There have been instances in other places, where localities decided that purchasing development rights was more cost effective than building schools and other infrastructure to serve new residents attracted by large subdivisions. Right now, it seems like Goochland is a long way from that sort of scenario.

Susan Lascollette, District 1, said that the use of tax dollars to permit some land to be taxed at a lower rate it not an appropriate use of public funds and wanted it stopped.

Dunn explained that the county’s purchase of development rights program has been inactive for several years. It is highly unlikely that this board will ever resurrect it.

A conservation easement is a gift of open space to the future. Goochland is blessed to benefit from the generosity of some of its citizens.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Can't never could

A night of new beginnings

After years of impotent shrugs from county officials on matters like the Tuckahoe Creek Service District debt and dearth of Broadband in Goochland, our new supervisors rolled up their sleeves after taking office and sought new answers for old, and seemingly un-answerable, questions.

During the evening session of its October 2 meeting, the Board of Supervisors approved a resolution to authorize the sale of new bonds to finance part of the debt and heard the report of the Goochland High Speed Internet Committee (GHSIC.)

Both of these agenda items are the product of a new way of addressing the challenges that face Goochland. Neither initiative offers a magic bullet solution, but each is an important piece of a large and complicated puzzle.

County Administrator Rebecca Dickson explained that the new bonds will go to pricing on October 25, before the election, which is critical to take advantage of the current favorable interest rates. She said that the plan is “the very best transaction on the table.” This is a long term solution that is expected to reduce out year costs by 30 percent.

Board vice Chair, Ken Peterson, who is a key member of the county finance team, said that the initiative is a pivotal piece of solving the TCSD problem. He expressed appreciation for the cooperation of the new management at the Virginia Resources Authority for its willingness to cooperate in the plan.

Details of the plan are included in the October 2 board packet, which is on the county website.

Compared to broadband deployment to the entire county, complicated financial matters seem straightforward.

In the past decade or so, the internet has changed our world. The low population density of rural areas is unattractive to private sector providers who need high numbers of customers per wire mile to be profitable.

The GHSIC, which was created by the Supervisors in April, was formally disbanded on Tuesday. Working subgroups will continue to play a part in ongoing tasks. These include compiling requests for information, which has the side benefit of letting providers know that Goochland is a potential customer; and requests for proposals to obtain some realistic costs for possible solutions.

All members of the GHSIC are to be commended for their generous donation of copious amounts of time and expertise to the project. GHSIC vice chair Marshall Bowden, who presented the report to the supervisors, pointed out that many members of the committee have broadband access in their homes, making their efforts a true community service.

Included in the report, which is available at: http://www.co.goochland.va.us/Home/GoochlandCountyBroadbandeffortsinformation.aspx, are cost estimates for countywide broadband deployment.

Please note that these numbers are for information only. They range from $14.5 million for fiber to home to $1.4 million in construction costs for seven new towers that would make wireless options accessible to most homes in sparsely populated areas.

Relax. Aside from that fact that Goochland has no money for such expenditures, the supervisors have given no indication that they believe the county should get into the broadband business.

Bowden explained that success in rural broadband deployment is related to access to large sums of money like tobacco settlements or collaboration with existing utility infrastructure. Goochland has neither. To further complicate matters, we have too many people and too much wealth to be eligible for rural broadband initiatives.

GHSIC recommendations include adopting a multifaceted approach. That means that some places will be able to connect to Comcast, others have increasing alternative options including Verizon wireless and satellite providers. The drawback on the last two methods is that they do not provide consistent speed. Wireless connection speeds fluctuate dramatically depending on the number of users accessing a particular tower and weather conditions.

The GHSIC began its work by reviewing the Broadband study of 2008, but worked to compile its own list of existing communications assets. Mapping the location of fiber in the ground was more difficult. In the past few weeks, committee members discovered high capacity fiber lines throughout the county. They are still trying to figure out who owns them. Curiously, the county has no record of these lines, but VDOT right-of-way permits may offer clues.

While there is fiber running along Rtes. 250 and 6, access to this is very restricted. Bowden compared this fiber to an interstate highway with no on ramps. Finding ways to gain access to this fiber will be a delicate, and ongoing, task.

Bowden said that the county needs to create an environment that encourages collaboration with local businesses and private sector providers as well as find and actively pursue grant and other funding opportunities to “be bold and innovative” regarding broadband.

The county’s role in extending the reach of broadband to the entire county is that of a catalyst. This could include short term funding of some towers, or simply easing the rezoning process to ready a tower site. Anything to encourage and attract the private sector to invest in Goochland should be actively pursued.

In the past few years, several subdivisions have successfully negotiated to bring Comcast to their neighborhoods. Every time this happens and lines are extended, it raises the possibility of adding other users in a sort of capillary action.

The county can act as a clearing house for information sharing about broadband options throughout the county to help citizens find the best solution for their area.

Going forward, the county, with help from GHSIC working groups, will be open to the possibilities provided by changes in technology and an improving economy.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Light at the end of the tunnel

At a special called meeting on September 24, Goochland’s supervisors considered a plan to refund the Tuckahoe Creek Service District debt. There finally seems to be a light at the end of the TCSD tunnel and it is not an oncoming train.

Unlike the previous regime’s “it’s not our problem” approach to TCSD development and debt, this board understands that the TCSD will be either the county’s salvation or downfall, and prefers the former option.

County Administrator Rebecca Dickson explained that, since taking office in January, the supervisors put the highest priority on finding flotation devices for the TCSD debt anvil.

To that end, a complete set of fresh eyes were put on the problem.

This team is comprised of: District 5 supervisor Ken Peterson, who brought extensive high level professional experience in negotiating debt restructuring to the task; county staff including Dickson and John Wack, deputy county administrator for financial affairs; bond counsel, Kutak Rock; and financial advisor Public Financial Management.

New VRA members receptive to Goochland’s efforts to deal with its debt also made the proposed financing changes possible.

In a major attitudinal shift from the old regime, the new board has embraced a full speed ahead approach to economic development that includes: hiring Matt Ryan as economic development director; dedicating resources for a Goochland-centric economic development website, which is expected to be in operation by Thanksgiving, and working closely with the state, major landowners and anyone else who can bring businesses to Goochland.

Dickson said that other initiatives to mitigate TCSD issues are being explored by the county. These include selling water to “another party” to increase water usage, and increasing the size of the TSCD. Adding land and users to the TCSD will spread the cost of operating and maintaining the county’s utility system.

Taming the enormous debt, however, will go down as one of the most significant actions of this board.

For reasons lost in the mists of time, and conveniently forgotten by those involved, the county entered into an unusual, some might say peculiar, agreement to borrow $62.7 million from the Virginia Resources Authority (VRA) in 2002.

Dickson characterized the 2002 TCSD financing package as “quite unique,” depending on a large amount of economic development, which “never came.”

Among the many problems with the initial deal, was that the county failed to comply with a requirement that the maximum annual payment, $9 million, be set aside in a reserve. Goochland never had that, said Dickson.

High level discussions about the existing bonds and ways to reshape the debt have been ongoing for most of 2012. Several scenarios, said Dickson, were “developed, vetted, altered and vetted again” before the final proposal emerged.

The proposed restructuring will extend the life of the debt for five years, but reduce the annual payments to around $6 million. Portions of the debt are callable and will be replaced with newly issued bonds taking advantage of the currently favorable interest rates.

West Creek principal Tommy Pruitt congratulated the supervisors on the debt plan. “None of you were there at the creation of this unique mess,” he told the Board. “You were elected to solve problems.”

Pruitt explained that uncertainty about the ad valorem tax discouraged business activity in West Creek because it was impossible to provide long range tax cost projections. He noted that the proposal has Peterson’s “fingerprints all over it” and, while not the total solution, is a great start.

Board chair Ned Creasey District 3, commended the team for its efforts. “You did the undoable,” he said.

Dickson said that the restructuring will spread out the debt payments, providing time for the TCSD to grow. She said that they hoped this would make it possible to hold the ad valorem tax at 32 cents. No mention was made of a reduction in water and sewer rates or the ad valorem tax, although that may happen as both the value of the TCSD and number of utility customers increases.

Creasey also said that, because Goochland is morally obligated to pay off the debt, he could not promise that the entire county would never be saddled with debt service costs.

This is a good indication that the board is basing its decisions on factual, current data, not wishful thinking. The use of conservative growth assumptions also bodes well for its success.

The strategy that will be used to accomplish this feat, which many believed was impossible, is quite financially sophisticated. Details may be found on the supervisors’ section of the county website www.co.goochland.va.us.

A resolution on this initiative will be voted on by the board tomorrow evening, October 2, during the evening portion of its regular monthly meeting. The session will also be available via live streaming over the internet.

Although there is ample blame to lay at the feet of those who created the unique mess of the TCSD, this board has chosen to fix the problems it inherited and work toward a better future. Other levels of government could learn from events in Goochland.