Thursday, January 31, 2013

Making lemonade



It’s budget time again in Goochland County. The Supervisors and School Board are carefully scrutinizing funding requests for the next fiscal year, which begins on July 1. Following public hearings on the budget, the supervisors will set the tax rate for calendar 2013 in mid-April.

Once again, they are using a great deal of ingenuity to fund core services with limited resources. Once again, hard choices must be made.

The January 22 public hearing on the proposed 2013-14 school budget included informative exchanges between Superintendent Dr. James Lane and the School Board that illustrate the paradigm shift in budget processes, and attitudes, from days of yore.

For the third time in a row schools were told by the county to expect level funding. Instead of throwing a tantrum and warning that failure to increase school spending would unleash a “death spiral” for Goochland education, the school board calmly developed a budget using those numbers.

Last fall, the school board and Lane decided to build a budget around three priorities: attraction and retention of high quality teachers, administration and staff; to maintain or enhance innovative instructional programs; and increase the operational efficiency of the school division.

Every school board member rolled up their sleeves and looked hard at every penny in the budget seeking ways to contain costs without impinging on the quality of education. Working closely with Lane and other school staff, they found ways to: pay for a school nurse at every school; increase the number of slots for the Maggie L. Walker and Blue Ridge governors’ schools; begin a career and technical education program; and even shake loose a few dollars for the band and new science equipment.

(For the detail oriented, extensive information on the proposed budget is available on the school website: www.glndk.12.va.us . Live streams of school board meetings are also there.)

 

The January 22 discussion was quite technical. The school board displayed intimate knowledge and understanding of the complex funding mechanisms involved in public education. Lane’s grasp of the details of the school division is especially impressive given that he officially started work in mid-December. 

Following Lane’s presentation, there was discussion about a few items and tweaks were suggested. The evening was so productive that an additional session scheduled for January 29 was eliminated. This board does a great job of building consensus among its members.

Only one person spoke during the two public comment periods. Few people attended the meeting. It seems likely that many more were watching the live stream of the meeting online.

Two years ago, irate parents packed school board budget meetings demanding answers—that they rarely received--about funding reductions. Those meetings were not even recorded and school board members rarely returned phone calls or answered emails.

In 2013, several of those irate parents are on the school board. They return phone calls and answer emails to make sure that parents understand the school budget. Lane has also pledged to be accessible and responsive to parents and citizens.

Would the school board like to have more money for our educational system? Of course, but it realizes the reality of the current economy. However, just in case the county finds a little extra change in the couch cushions, they also have prioritized a list of expenditures that did not make it into the budget.

Our schools are moving forward in pursuit of excellence. Lane believes that Goochland Schools can be among the best in the Commonwealth and began pursuing that goal from day one with the full support of the School Board. Instead of whining about getting lemons, our schools are making lemonade for the benefit of all. How sweet it is!

 

 

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Other people's money



About a dozen people sat around a table at the Company 3 fire-rescue station on January 10 to discuss the future of the Centerville Village at a county sponsored meeting. Only a few own land there.

Everybody else pitched in their two cents about what the village should or should not be. They want to determine how the Broad Street corridor will be developed. Many oppose a proposed McDonald’s restaurant, which has applied for a conditional use permit, because it would corrupt the rural character of the area. If that’s rural character, would corruption be so bad?

Centerville evolved as businesses located there to fill a demand. Some are gone. A video rental store, for instance, morphed into a physical therapy clinic.

With a small customer base and minimal governmental encouragement, the existing structures were built with an eye toward economy and utility, not aesthetics. Except for the bizarre two story brick fa├žade of the Food Lion, most of the buildings are low slung with peaked rooflines, giving the area a residential feel.

The tricky part is finding balance between design standards that foster an upscale rural ambiance, whatever that is, and accommodating new business, especially those with their own “branding” design elements, like Golden Arches.

Several of the people at the meeting were opposed to fast food franchises of any kind, citing unwanted traffic and congestion.  Dan Schardein, who runs the county’s community development shop, pointed out that if the proposed restaurant were an Applebee’s, no CUP would be needed.

So what? If we want a hamburger, we can go to Short Pump.

Yes, we can take our sales tax dollars over the eastern border and help fund Henrico County. We can keep waiting for the perfect project to wander in and set up shop in Centerville. We’ve been waiting more than a decade and not much has happened.

District 4 Supervisor Bob Minnick listened carefully to all of the comments. He refrained from asking just how much the opponents would be willing to pay in property taxes to fund local government services--including the paid EMS crew on duty at Company 3 that night—if that development does not materialize soon.

Minnick pointed out that if design standards are not put into place, the differentiation between Short Pump and Centerville is that “we become the other side of the tracks.”

Enhanced design standards should be general enough to permit the flexibility attractive to developers, yet restrictive enough to ensure an upscale and profitable result.

Some speakers contended that the design standards should include images of acceptable styles. Proffers on the land behind Satterwhite’s Restaurant include such conceptual elevations. It’s still for sale.

Trends in architecture change. We don’t want to be stuck in time. Centerville is not a theme park. Ideally, it will be an area that attracts a variety of thriving businesses, not just stores.

The term rural character must be fleshed out or discarded. We cannot continue to paraphrase former U. S. Supreme Justice Potter Stewart who quipped: “I can’t define it, but I know it when I see it” when discussing pornography, in land use matters.

We all have our personal criteria for what’s rural. But how does that apply to new construction in Centerville. For instance, would an Arby’s, which is known for its distinctive store designs, built to look like a stone barn paying homage to our equestrian traditions be acceptable?


The overall appearance of Centerville can be improved only so much because the water tower AKA “the giant plunger in the sky” looms over everything. Unless they use giant redwoods, no amount of landscaping is going to hide that. Ideally, new construction should be compatible with what’s there. Given the hodgepodge, that will also be a delicate task.

The county’s comprehensive land use plan was touted as being the vision of Goochland’s future as expressed by all of its citizens.  In fact, not more than 200 of the county’s approximately 20,000 residents participated in the meetings for the last update of the comp plan. The final result failed to address some concerns, and incorporated changes with no public input. Will of all the citizens? No, more like the agenda of the few.

Let’s not forget that the landowners in Centerville spent a lot of money hooking up to the TCSD water and sewer lines. They will not recoup their investment by growing corn or grazing cows along Broad Street.

After decades of the playing a high stakes game of Lucy and the football with the county, landowners are probably cynical that they will ever be permitted to develop their property to its highest and best use. Zoning options are very limited there. Goochland needs to figure out what mixed use will look like here and craft an ordinance to support it soon.

One person said that the county must be prepared to let McDonald's “walk” if it insists on building a futuristic design and not let the landowner choose “high profit development over what we want.” It’s not their money, it’s not their land and it shouldn’t be their choice.

 

Friday, January 11, 2013

The year ahead

Random observations

Goochland moves into 2013 with a full agenda. The Board of Supervisors spent its first year in office putting out inherited fires. Its crowning achievement was the stabilization of the Tuckahoe Creek Service District debt. The School Board got a handle on its budget and selected a new superintendent, Dr. James Lane, to guide the county’s education system.

So what’s next?

Economic development is now on the front burner. Apartments and a large office building will be coming out of the ground in West Creek in coming months.

Centerville is starting to bloom with new business.

Goodwill--in a superbly appropriate location--opened this week. Stakes marking the footprint of the Acme Stove Company building have been set in front of the Food Lion. It looks like McDonald’s is also coming to Centerville. This will bring additional tax revenue and badly needed starter jobs for our young people.

A new Goochland-centric economic development website will go live soon. This will put a wealth of information about doing business in the county and an inventory of available properties at the fingertips of site selectors and developers.

Both boards will be spending lots of time with sharpened pencils to craft budgets for the next fiscal year, which begins July 1. Money will be tight once more.

At the supervisors’ January 2 meeting county assessor Glenn Branham cautioned that 2012 was another challenging year for property values. He said that this year’s assessments are down overall by one point four percent. This is somewhat better last year’s decline of four percent, but still no cause for celebration. Branham said that the change varies throughout the county. Properties in the east either declined slightly, or actually rose in some cases; while properties in the west dipped as much as ten percent over last year.

Annual assessments will be mailed on January 15. The appeal period ends on February 15, so if you’ve got questions about your valuation, call Branham’s office right away. Instructions and phone numbers are included in the mailing.

Branham said that new construction on the Capital One West Creek Campus, the West Creek Medical Center, and the Goodwill facility increased the total value of land in the county.

Honoring their pledge to rotate chairmanships, Ken Peterson, District 5 was elected chair of the Board of Supervisors and Manuel Alvarez, Jr. District 2 assumed the vice chair position.

Outgoing Chair Ned Creasey District 3 thanked his fellow board members and staff for their cooperation and support.

Peterson thanked Creasey for his leadership as a supervisor and board chair. He observed that Creasey’s work as a supervisor is the latest chapter in a lifetime that put service before self. Creasey is a Navy veteran; served as a police officer; and is a life member of the Goochland Volunteer Fire-Rescue Association with Courthouse Company 5.

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The School Board elected John Wright District 5 and Michael Payne, District 1 as chair and vice chair respectively. Outgoing school board chair Beth Hardy District 4 is to be commended for doing an extraordinary job of keeping everyone focused during an exceptionally challenging year that had a very happy ending.

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In its continued search for affordable broadband options for the entire county, the supervisors approved a resolution supporting an initiative by Stratcom International, LLC. This company uses TV whitespace made redundant by digital television to deploy wireless internet.

According to details presented by Alvarez, who also chaired the Goochland High Speed Internet Committee (GHSIC,) this could make affordable wireless internet available in parts of the county too sparsely settled to attract traditional providers. The resolution of support lets the Federal Communications Commission know that Goochland has a need for this service. More pieces need to be put into place by private sector providers but this is an interesting option. Details are included in the board packet, which is on the county website www.co.goochland.va.us. No county expenditure is involved.

It is quite amazing what happens when local government seeks viable solutions rather than saying “that’s not our job.”

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The supervisors went into closed session, a rare occurrence for this board, to consult with County Attorney Norman Sales about the county code provisions dealing with roads and plans of development.  Perhaps that means that the Benedictine matter is close to resolution.

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Residents who live on Manakin Road near its intersection with Three Chopt Road near Centerville raised concerns about pending road improvements. Apparently every time VDOT--the state agency whose motto is Oops!--attempts to improve drainage in the area, things get worse.

When “road improvements” have been made in the past, land was taken from yards on the south side even though the north side of the road is open land except for a church that sits well back from the roadway.

District 4 Supervisor Bob Minnick has been working with the residents to fix the situation. Community meetings held late last year only heightened worry that fixing the intersection would make matters worse.

James Trice, Sr. said that his drain field has been compromised by overspill from the roadway. He said that he raised questions about the proposed “improvements” at the community meetings and never got answers.

Minnick said that VDOT plans to mark the location of the improvements so that the residents can see what will happen. Mike Cade, VDOT Residency Administrator for Goochland contended that the improvements will fix the drainage issues and move runoff away from existing homes.

The county needs to keep a close eye on this matter and protect its citizens from state incompetence. After the Centerville Speedway debacle, putting blind faith in VDOT is not a prudent option.

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On January 15, the supervisors will hold its first formal budget workshop. Tax rates for 2013 will be set in April.

 

 

 

 

 

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Half loaves



At its inaugural meeting of 2013, the Goochland Board of Supervisors voted 5-0 to grant Orapax Plantation a conditional use permit to operate a commercial sporting clays shooting range.

In an attempt to find middle ground by “splitting the baby,” the board neither declined the application, as recommended by a majority of planning commissioners and hundreds of citizens, nor granted the liberal operating conditions sought by Orapax.

No one was pleased with the outcome, so it was a good decision.

At the end of the day, or rather well after 1 a.m. on the day after the hearing began, the supervisors granted the CUP to permit operation of the course between the hours of 10 a.m. and four p.m. from September 1 to April 30. The duration of the CUP was pared to two years and a bond to cover lead clean-up costs was added. The maximum number of shooters per day was reduced to 18 from 24.

Orapax had requested operating hours from nine to five, year round, and especially wanted permission to operate the course on Sunday, its busiest day.

Although a few speakers, including one young woman sporting a large pistol on her hip, tried to make the issue about gun rights, the matter hinged on noise, environmental concerns, and negative impact on land values. The ongoing feud between Orapax owner Andrew Dykers and adjoining landowner James Gottwald added a counterpoint of sound and fury. For the most part, this is a “not in my backyard” issue.

A 436 signature petition opposing the CUP with was presented to the supervisors. Each board member commented that they had spoken to many more citizens than those who filled the board room and an overflow space for the hearing.

Gottwald’s minions were well organized and motivated. It would be interesting to know how close the Orapax supporters, especially those not from Goochland, live to shooting ranges.

Following nearly five hours of civil, and surprisingly engaging, public hearing the supervisors wrangled with their decision.

District 5 Supervisor Ken Peterson, who assumed the board chairmanship during the afternoon’s annual organizational session, got a baptism of fire wielding the gavel at his first public hearing.

Susan Lascollette District 1 contended that the crux of the matter is property rights. Sporting clay shooting ranges are permitted anywhere in the county that firearms may be discharged. Many people have them in their backyards and use them as much as they like with no penalty or regulation, she said. The commercial aspect of the proposed course is the complicating factor.

District 2 supervisor, Manuel Alvarez, Jr., who has probably taken the most heat on the matter, offered revised conditions in the form of a motion. He said that restriction of range operation to hunting season would protect peace and quiet during the summer months.

Many of the detractors contended that the sound generated by the sporting clays course would make their lives miserable. Longtime residents characterized sound generated by a sporting clays course operated at Orapax in the late ‘80’s as loud enough to significantly disturb the peace at their homes and compared the sound to a war zone.

Although a sound study was held at Orapax last October, opponents contended that a handful of shots cannot meaningfully duplicate the impact of the operation of the sporting clays course.

Orapax failed to perform a live fire demonstration.

So many “scientific” facts and figures were presented during the hearing that they lost meaning. Astronomical numbers of lead shotgun pellets were predicted to rain on the shot fall zone and leach lead into the James River. Orapax said there will be little sound impact and most neighbors would barely be able to hear it.

Andrew Dykers diluted some of the numbers by explaining that shotguns become too hot to handle if more than a few shells are fired in close succession.

The negative impact the sporting clays course would have on the value of property and ability to sell it was cited by many speakers. Some nearby landowners who planned to build homes said they will sell their land rather than live within earshot of the sporting clays. One landowner, who had planned to establish a winery and retire to a family owned property on Dogtown Road, said that the sporting clays course would end that dream.

County assessor Glenn Branham said that the assessed valuation of the approximately 40 homes within a one and one quarter mile radius of Orapax could be reduced by five percent if the sporting clays course proves to generate more sound and vibration than the October test.

Some speakers cited the recent eminent domain amendment to the Virginia Constitution and contended that approving the CUP would amount to a "taking" of use of their land for the economic benefit of a private business.

The Board’s decision resembles the action of an exasperated parent trying to quell a squabble between quarrelsome children unable to amicably coexist. Neither side was willing to budge or even consider middle ground, so the board created some.

Comments made by Ned Creasey, District 3 seemed to indicate that the supervisors were frustrated with the lack of accurate, impartial, experiential data on which to base their decision. Creasey said he did not want “to create a monster” and urged Orapax to explore sound muffling techniques to mitigate noise impact on neighbors.

Creasey said that the supervisors don’t need a lot of experts to measure the impact, just the sound of normal operation. Peterson concurred, observing that there was a lot of speculation included in allegations made on both sides of the issue.

Over the years, the county resorted to devious and underhanded measures to prevent Orapax from operating a sporting clays course. The supervisors said they want to be fair to everyone.

Orapax now has an opportunity to prove that it is able to operate the course in an environmentally responsible manner with minimal adverse impact on its neighbors. Adjoining landowners will be forced to base their reactions on the facts of the new course, which is close to the River and downhill from Route 6, not generations-old bad memories.

The two year duration of the CUP is significant. It will be eligible for renewal, assuming it is not revoked for failure to comply with specified conditions, in January, 2015, the year of the next local elections.

This will be a long enough trial to gauge the sound of the course during different seasons and atmospheric conditions. It will also encompass at least one full calendar year to help Branham determine the impact, if any, on property values. All supervisors will undoubtedly receive calls of complaint when the course is in operation, providing ample listening opportunities.

There is little doubt that the Orapax matter will loom large in the 2015 local elections, especially in District 2, whose former supervisor William Quarles, Jr., sat in the front row during the entire session.

County administrator Rebecca Dickson assured the supervisors that the county will be able to ensure compliance with the CUP as a regular zoning matter. This includes overseeing lead abatement measures and somehow monitoring the number of shooters on the clays course and hours of operation.

It remains to be seen if the decision will generate lawsuits.

This was a tough decision, putting the supervisors in a lose-lose position. They took the high road by refusing to give in to either side and did what they believed was best for Goochland.