Monday, April 8, 2013

One size does not fit all

Goochland Countys newly streamlined Planning Commission conducted its first meeting on Thursday, April 4. Tom Rockecharlie, who now represents District 5, and Joe Andrews, District 4, were unanimously elected and chair and vice chair respectively. Other members are: Matt Brewer, District 2, Derek Murray District, 3 and John Meyers, recently appointed to the District 1 seat.

A moment of silence followed in remembrance of architect John Lewis who represented District 5 on the Design Review Committee. He gave countless hours of his time and skills to advocating for controlled growth in the county. Lewis was also passionate about preservation of Goochlands James River view shed, which he believed to be the sole surviving stretch of the waterway that remains relatively untouched by civilization.

The Commission then turned its attention to a zoning ordinance revision to implement rigorous design standards for the Centerville Village overlay district. This area runs along Broad Street Road from the Henrico County line to just west of Satterwhite's Restaurant. It extends up Ashland Road to Interstate 64 and dribbles south of Hockett and Manakin Roads. Most of the parcels along Plaza Drive are also included.

Ideally, these standards will ensure high quality development in one of the main entrance corridors for Goochland. The new standards seek to increase property values; encourage high quality development; and protect current land owners from the adverse impact of development on adjoining parcels.

One aspect of development that is not, and cannot, be addressed by any design standards is the issue of ugly. Codified standards are objective. While size, materials, setback, colors and so forth can be listed as acceptable or prohibited, how those elements are combined cannot.

The McDonald's soon to be built in front of the Goodwill is an example. It will be built of accepted materials, meet all setback, height, lighting and storm water management requirements. But, some people consider its appearance blight on the rural character of Centerville. Many others don't really seem to care and welcome the tax dollars it will bring to Goochland. Two years from now, most will not even notice that it is there.

Environmental Planner Leigh Dunn explained that the proposed standards are intentionally nonspecific to permit maximum flexibility. For instance, a large façade must be broken up by differing design elements to lessen its massiveness.

A good example of this is the John Rolfe Commons in Henrico. The main structure in this huge strip mall is curved and broken into smaller sections visually by changes in façade, materials, and design. There are more rows of parking in front of the Martins and fewer near smaller storefronts.

As usual, the devil is in the details. To their credit, the Commissioners conducted a thoughtful conversation about the matter rather than rejecting it out of hand or passing it by rote. They discussed the effect that application of the proposed standards, which included approved materials, setbacks, landscaping, and lighting would have in different scenarios.

The amount of parking to be allowed in front of a building generated many comments. While permitting no more than two rows of parking in front of a building seems reasonable for a small store like McDonalds, it would not make sense for a larger concern. Possibilities mentioned here included Lowes, Target and other dreaded big box entities, something previous commissions regarded as unacceptable.

Rockecharlie wanted to know how the proposed standards would apply to an auto dealership. Myers questioned the exclusion of stucco as an approved siding material and terra cotta tile for roofing. Dunn explained that those materials are not traditionally used in the area.

Businesses wax and wane. Requiring relatively generic structures will help to prevent abandoned eyesores should a specific entity fail.

Because the Centerville Village is so large and comprised of many undeveloped parcels with a wide range of characteristics, creating uniform design standards will be tricky.

In the village core, roughly the area between Ashland and Manakin Roads and along Plaza Drive, new development will occur on relatively small infill parcels between and among existing buildings. A good portion of the land along Ashland Road and on the north side of Broad Street east of Ashland Road consists of large parcels of raw land facing fewer constraints.

Using a threshold based on parcel size to deal with issues like parking and storm water management could simplify things. The Commission favored encouraging contiguous small parcels to use mutual BMPs--the landscaped depressions that capture storm water and allow it to seep back into the ground instead of gushing into streamsinstead of digging one on every lot. That may work well in theory, but if each parcel needs a BMP in place to obtain a certificate of occupancy, they cannot wait for development on the lot next door.

Murray commented that he would not permit his young children to walk on the new sidewalk recently built at the edge of Broad Street Road because it is too close to traffic. The real question about walkability is just how many people will park once and hoof it to several different destinations. It seems quite unlikely that many people will choose to walk across Broad Street Road.

During the public hearing on the ordinance change, owners of property in the overlay district raised concerns that the standards would place an economic burden on existing businesses and act as a deterrent rather than incentive to new economic development.

Tom Kinter, who hopes to build a self-storage facility on Three Chopt Road against Rt. 288 pointed out that the requirement to screen all rooftop mechanical devices from view would require him to screen a roof visible only to traffic zipping by on 288. In that case, a single row of bullet-proof low maintenance shrubs, like the ones already growing there, would provide ample screening for anything on a rooftop below.

Existing buildings would not be affected by the new standards, but they would apply to renovations.

Instead of ignoring comments by property owners, the Commissioners took their concerns to heart and tried to look at the issue from a business, rather than government authority, point of view.

Following a good bit of discussion, the matter was turned back to staff to tweak the proposal to incorporate suggestions made during the discussion.

The Commission is expected to take up the next set of revisions at its May meeting for a possible vote on a recommendation to the Board of Supervisors.






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