Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Planning for tomorrow


At its March 5 meeting, the Goochland Board of Supervisors finally reduced the size of the County Planning Commission to five members. This change has been contemplated for at least a decade, but the previous regime could never get three votes together for the change.

The current board hoped to make the change upon taking office, but three Commissioners appointed by the former board refused to comply when asked to submit their resignations by the incoming supervisors at the beginning of 2012.

Last year, the supervisors changed the composition of the Planning Commission to seven members, one from each district and two at-large. As the term of appointment for the bitter clingers expired this month, the supervisors voted to reduce the size of the commission to five members and appointed John Myers to represent District 1.

This is a good start. The next step is to encourage all Planning Commissioners to take advantage of training programs provided by the state so they understand their task.

For the past few years, the Planning Commission has been something of an embarrassment. Appointees often came to meetings unprepared to discuss the matters at hand. That, however, did not stop some of them from illustrating their ignorance. Some seemed quite unaware of the location of the land under discussion. In the not so distant past, Planning Commissioners took the time to not only visit, but walk, parcels of land on their agenda so they would be able to comment wisely on zoning changes.

As an advisory body, the Planning Commission has only the power to make recommendations about land use matters to the Board of Supervisors, who make all final decisions. The Commission does, however, perform the important function of taking a close look at proposed changes in land use including rezoning and conditional use permits.

Public hearings before the Planning Commission provide an excellent opportunity for the community to express its opinions on land use matters in more detail than is generally possible before the supervisors who have oversight on a wide range of issues. As county staff is now largely comprised of people who live outside of Goochland and are relative newcomers, citizen input on a high level is vital to ensure that Goochland develops in an orderly manner.

Ideally, the Planning Commissioners tweak zoning change applications to accommodate public sentiment and common sense to ensure a positive result for all concerned.

For the past few years, the Commission pretty much wandered in the wilderness searching in vain for its purpose. A good example of this was its public hearing on a zoning ordinance change application to allow apartments on a morsel of land in West Creek.

The Commission’s task was to make recommendations on the suitability of the proposed change. As the apartments would be the catalyst for construction of the first internal road in West Creek off of Broad Street Road, approval seemed like a no brainer. In addition to many stringent design and other conditions included in the application, the project may also bring a traffic signal at its entrance.

However, the Commission veered from its task of addressing the suitability of the proposed land use to worrying that the county would be unable to bear the fiscal burden of several hundred apartments that might swell the school population. That’s not the job of the Planning Commission. It’s up to the supervisors to deal with the consequences of development.

In February, the Commission took up a CUP application about a McDonald’s on an out parcel of the Broadview Shopping Center on the corner of St. Matthew’s Lane and Broad Street Road.

The Commission spent way too much time discussing the design of the proposed restaurant and its placement on the lot. The Commission did recommend that McDonald’s toss $10,000 into the pot for a badly needed traffic signal at Hockett/St. Matthew’s Lane and Broad Street Road. Unfortunately VDOT—the state agency whose motto is “Oops!”—still does not support the traffic signal.

There was a great deal of discussion about wanting a building with something other than a flat roof. A glance at the aerial photograph included in the packet, makes it quite clear that many buildings in Centerville have flat roofs. Be that as it may, the Design Review Committee is charged with addressing aesthetic concerns of construction in overlay districts like Centerville, not the Planning Commission.

Hopefully, the streamlined Planning Commission will avoid the practice of its predecessors in advancing personal agendas, as was quite obvious during the Orapax and Benedictine hearings.

The new Commissioners are a fine group of intelligent, engaged citizens.  To do the best job, they need more familiarity with land use concepts and applicable laws. They also need to be mindful that the most important part of their task is to find the delicate balance between property rights and public good.

It is important that every district be represented in land use discussions.  Past Planning Commissions strove for perfect attendance. That has fallen off in the past few years to the detriment of the community and the process.

Change is in the air for Goochland in the coming years. A competent, committed Planning Commission is vital to ensure that those changes are positive and not haphazard.




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