Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Prudence

 

As Detroit finally sinks into bankruptcy we shake our heads and wonder if it could happen here. While Goochland County is a far cry from the once proud Motor City, we have our own burdens.

Upon taking office in 2012, the Board of Supervisors wisely turned its attention to getting control of the massive Tuckahoe Creek Service District debt. In addition to restructuring a portion of the financial obligation, the supervisors aggressively pursued economic development in the TCSD to ensure that the county is able to meet all of its financial obligations while keeping real estate and ad valorem taxes steady.

Indeed, as the fragile national economy sputters toward some kind of recovery, Goochland has started to see activity, especially in the eastern end.

While the Goodwill, Acme Stove and McDonald’s additions to Centerville are most visible, other concerns are moving to the county. Among them, an industrial fabricator and auto repair shop in Oilville and an asphalt plant on Ashland Road. While relatively modest, they bring jobs and tax revenue to the county.

Another indicator of a growth spurt is an increase in residential rezoning applications filtering through the system. Currently, two proposals for new communities are awaiting approval by the supervisors.

Both of these are located in the TCSD. One is in the northeastern corner of the county, the other in the Hockett Road corridor. At build out, together these will add a couple of hundred new homes to Goochland.

Located in areas served by water and sewer, these subdivisions will increase property values in the TCSD not to mention drastically enlarge the county utility customer base. More users means more folks to share the cost burden for running and maintaining public water and sewer systems. That alone is welcome news for the relative handful of people who are profoundly weary of escalating rates and fees.

On the other hand, the supervisors need to ensure that approval of these new homes will not obligate the county to provide additional services whose costs are not borne by new residents.

A rezoning application for 124 homes near the corner of Ashland and Pouncey Tract Roads, roughly behind the Aw-shucks complex, includes partial cash proffers. Scott Gaeser, the developer for that project, contends that onsite road improvements that have been and will be made have more immediate value to the county than cash to be used for transportation projects to be named later. Gaeser also contends that these homes will add few, if any, students to county schools and omitted both the education and road portions of the amount proffered per home.

(Note: the maximum amount of cash proffer is periodically set by the supervisors and includes a mechanism to reflect changes in property values. The cash proffer amount applies to residential rezoning of land anywhere in the county.)

The rezoning application for land on the east side of Hockett Road just south of the Parke at Centerville includes full cash proffers. However, it sidesteps installation of left and right turn lanes at the entrance to the property. Subdivisions with more than 49 homes are required to have at least two access points.

During the hearing at the July 11 planning commission meeting, counsel for the Hockett Road rezoning applicant explained that his client was negotiating to build a second entrance through the parcel to the north after the first 49 homes were done to complete the subdivision. The homes are expected to be priced in the $375-$500,000 range. High quality materials will be used in construction of the homes and vinyl siding will be prohibited.

To their credit, the planning commissioners seem to believe that a bird in the hand is better than two in the bush and contended that turn lanes should be part of the first entrance and be built at the outset.
Hockett Road is a logical place for residential development to occur. As it is already a heavily traveled road, requiring that left and right turn lanes be built at the outset is a no brainer Any kind of road improvements in this area will create some disruption of normal traffic flow. The people who travel Hocektt Road regularly should be subject to this annoyance only once.

There is ample precedent for requiring that left and right turn lanes be constructed at the beginning of a project. Perhaps installation of turn lanes should be required for all residential rezoning applications.

Citizens in the Hockett Road corridor made the troubling observation that a sign announcing the rezoning appeared only a few days before the hearing. The Department of Community Development needs to do a better job of letting people know about pending changes in land use.

The applicant requested deferral of a vote until the next planning commission meeting on August 1 to reconsider turn lanes.

As no discussion of adding more traffic to Hockett Road is complete without throwing the Broad Street Road intersection into the mix, Principal Planner Tom Coleman explained that the supervisors are looking at the issue.

When the Goochland secondary six year road program was approved earlier this year, it included an engineering study to examine the impact of rerouting Hockett Road through the parcel of land at the south side of the Ashland/Broad Street Road intersection. That would funnel through traffic to an already signalized intersection.

In addition to easing the current bottleneck, this approach provides road frontage for vacant land that is currently being used to grow corn. Allegedly, the owner of that property has expressed willingness to donate any rights-of-way needed to build the road.

Exactly when this would happen is lost in the mists of the cumbersome VDOT funding mechanism. The quick fix of installing a traffic signal at Hockett and Broad is also mired in the quicksand of VDOT policy. Until the stars align and the traffic count charts and graphs needed to reach the VDOT threshold for signalization are met, there will be no stoplight to ease the daily game of “chicken” that motorists play there every day.

The supervisors are understandably reluctant to impede any development in the TCSD. However, they need to take a deep breath and consider long term consequences of their actions.

Today it seems unlikely that people purchasing homes in northwestern Goochland would enroll children in county schools. However, should an elementary school be built on county owned land on Hockett Road that could change. Today’s empty nest could well be tomorrow’s starter house replete with school children. Things change.

It is prudent for the supervisors to insist that developers mitigate the impact of their projects on county infrastructure and should encourage exploration of a myriad of avenues to that end.

 

 

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

The never ending story



On July 12 the Goochland Board of Zoning Appeals decided, by a unanimous vote, that it has jurisdiction over an appeal of approval of a county plan of development for property on River Road owned by the Benedictine Society of Virginia.

The session was held to rule on a motion made by the county to reconsider the BZA’s June affirmative interpretation of its tie vote on the jurisdiction question.

After BZA Chair Chris Williams, District 2, called the July 12 session to order attorneys for both sides requested the opportunity to point out problems with opposing briefs submitted on the jurisdiction question.

The county and Benedictine asserted that a majority vote of the BZA is necessary to establish jurisdiction, while the appellants, River Road neighbors of the property in question, contended that the tie vote rule applies only to the matter in question, not procedural matters.

Legal terms and case law citations filled the air as the four BZA members listened intently to arguments presented by both sides. Darvin Satterwhite, representing Benedictine, stated that the need for a majority vote of BZA members on the jurisdiction question is “black letter law.”

Benedictine alumnus Pat McSweeney representing the appellants stated that the BZA’s June interpretation of the situation follows state law that has been in force for 36 years.

Yasmine Hamad District 4 expressed frustration at the task before the BZA. She asked if perhaps the General Assembly or a judge was better suited to decide the jurisdiction issues than the BZA. She seemed dismayed that the BZA, comprised of citizens who are not lawyers, must base its interpretations and decisions on arguments before it. She also expressed concern about the amount of public money being spent to adjudicate a complaint against county actions made by a select few individuals.

Dr. Richard Carchman District 1 observed that as the kerfuffle over the county’s approval of the Benedictine plan of development involves three parties, perhaps the Circuit Court should determine jurisdiction.

In January, 2012, Goochland Circuit Court Judge Timothy K. Sanner dismissed a case against the Benedictine move to the River Road property on the grounds that it was premature because no one had been damaged by the action.

Part of the problem seems to be that state laws addressing the situation are contradictory.

The Commonwealth’s legislators on both sides of the aisle need to spend more time crafting coherent laws governing real world issues than frittering away their valuable time on social manipulation.

The BZA met closed session with its attorney Maynard Sipe for more than an hour. During this time, it seemed like the loudest sound in the board room was the accumulation of billable hours for several lawyers and a court reporter.

The appeal of disputes the safety of road improvements made at the entrance to the subject property and contends that downstream effects of topographical changes on storm water runoff were not properly addressed. The appeal also argues that the procedure used to approve the plan of development was incorrect.

Unless the county and/or Benedictine successfully appeals the jurisdiction decision to the Circuit Court, the next round in the dispute is scheduled for 10 a.m. on Monday, August 26 at which time all witnesses will testify in full blown proceedings.

More than $4 million, not counting legal fees, has been spent on renovations and improvements to the River Road property to facilitate the move of the high school from Richmond to Goochland.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Gridlock!


Did you attend the Goochland fireworks on the Fourth of July? If so, how long did it take you to get home?

Sheriff James L. Agnew estimated that the crowd was 25 to 30 percent larger than last year’s event, overwhelming the county’s road system.

Another source estimated the crowd somewhere north of 15,000. Goochland’s total population is just over 21,000.

Happily, there were no incidents, and everyone was well-behaved. Good thing, because the roads were so clogged that law enforcement and fire-rescue vehicles would not have been able to negotiate though the glut of cars on all roads anywhere near Courthouse Village.

Agnew contended that Goochland roads, especially around Courthouse Village, simply cannot safely handle the number of cars and people that attended the fireworks last Thursday.

The rockets’ red glare stopped about 9:20 p.m. and everyone headed for their vehicle. River Road West was in gridlock from west of the high school to well east of the light at Maidens Road long after the last blast of pyrotechnics. Folks went to their cars, ready to head home but nothing moved for a very long time and then at a snail’s pace.

All over the place, people were making U turns and asking for direction, which further slowed the exodus.

A deputy directing traffic on Route 6 where four lanes melt into two near Manakin reported that westbound traffic there was steady from early evening until after nine. On the up side, business was great for food vendors of all types in Courthouse Village. On the downside, were there porta-potties?

After 10:15, about an hour after the fireworks ended, a steady stream of traffic still flowed from Fairground Road onto Rt. 250 and turned onto Oilville Road, presumably thence to I-64.

The county picked up the tab for deputy overtime. Agnew said that, should the county decide to hold fireworks in Courthouse Village next year, his entire staff would need to be on duty to handle traffic.

What drew the large crowd? Aggressive advertising was probably responsible for attracting the overflow crowd to our fireworks. The display was mentioned on at least one Richmond television station and who knows where else. Perhaps the excessive turnout was the unintended consequence of exuberant and well-meaning staffers who live outside the county publicizing the event without understanding how easily Goochland’s road system can be overloaded.

It would be interesting to know how many county residents whose tax dollars helped fund the display were discouraged or prevented from attending by the deluge of outsiders that glutted our narrow country roads.

Controlling that monster traffic jam with a handful of deputies was a thankless task. Blaming the Sheriff’s Office for the gridlock after the fireworks is like blaming a supermarket cashier for rising food prices.

Clearly, the fireworks turnout was a surprise. It’s hard to predict who will show up for a free event. Following a disappointing turnout a few years ago, the event was not held and resumed only when people complained about its absence.

In spite of lean economic times, Goochland has managed to hold the line on tax rates and still has fireworks. Local businesses have generously chipped in to help defray the cost of the display. If the immediate world is going to come to the county for fireworks, maybe it’s time to rethink the location and figure out what we’re going to do with all those people and cars when they get here.

On the other hand, maybe the traffic was so bad, the folks who drive “out to the country” won’t return next year.

 A sample, in case you were stuck in traffic. 

video
 

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Werewolves in Goochland?


There are probably no werewolves in Goochland, but there are a host of critters beyond the usual suspects of horses, dogs, cats, goats, chickens, llamas, and pigs. Then there is the Devil Monkey, who has been keeping a low profile lately.

At a July 2 workshop on animal control policies, Goochland’s supervisors had an eye-opening discussion about animals that do and may live in the county.

Norman Sales, county attorney, presented options for bringing the county code into compliance with state law in this area and presented the Board with alternatives for enhancing county rules on the matter. An interesting discussion ensued.

Animal control policy is complicated. In addition to regulating the number of a particular animal permitted per acre, the placement of kennels, for instance, on a parcel of land is also important, especially where the neighbors are concerned.

In the past few years, episodes of suspected animal hoarding resulted in gross mistreatment of those animals. Tightening county laws will address that issue while not impeding the good work of rescue groups like FLAG.

Dr. Jim Lavender, who is licensed by the United States Department of Agriculture to own exotic animals, discussed the complications of regulating dangerous critters, which include venomous and constricting reptiles. Lavender described the extensive measures he takes to ensure that his animals are well treated and not a danger to citizens. His most important rule, Lavender contended, is no public contact of any sort.

“They are here, you have them,” Lavender said of exotics.  If the animals are never displayed, USDA regulations may not apply. He suggested that the county look at federal regulations on exotic animals as a starting point for county law revisions.

An overview of what nearby counties consider “exotic” was presented. The supervisors were exploring their options in an effort to be proactive. The Devil Monkey aside, there have been no “issues” with exotic animals in the county.

However, that could change. Animal control officers Corky Marks and Tim Clough reported that they are getting calls from exotic animal owners in other counties that have adopted strict exotic animal regulations wanting to know if they can move their critters to Goochland.

Chesterfield does not generally permit its residents to own exotic animals. Certain exemptions are granted for circuses, veterinary clinics and the like.

Hanover allows exotic animals, but requires a permit. They have strict requirements about securing the animals, which are allowed only in areas where the keeping of such animals is consistent with the character and nature of the neighborhood, whatever that means.

Other localities do not have exotic animal ordinances.

Regulation of exotic animals is currently being contemplated only for public safety purposes. Law enforcement officers must know where these animals are and understand that they are empowered to kill these animals should they escape and threaten the population. House fires, when animals may be loose, are a special concern.

Ned Creasey District 3 asked if dangerous snakes are regulated by any governmental agency.

Lavender said there is no USDA overview of reptiles, birds, and poisonous spiders whose venom is deadly.

He believes that the county needs to regulate snakes; ensure that there is no public contact with them; and require that these animals be kept in welded steel, rather than glass cages. Antivenin, to counteract bites by venomous exotics should be available at area hospitals.

Right now, explained County Administrator Rebecca Dickson, anything pretty much goes in Goochland with regard to exotic animals. Sales will research the possibility of including venomous and constricting reptiles in an exotic animal control ordinance.

Lavender also warned about hybrid animals, such as the product of cross-breeding lions’ and tigers, which are enormous and totally unregulated. Wolves are another concern.

Noise implications of animal control were discussed. Since the county’s noise ordinance was declared unconstitutionally vague, residents made miserable by loud neighbors have begged the county to find a way to control noise. According to Goochland Sheriff James L. Agnew, the worst offenses are caused by a handful of people at both ends of the county.

One possibility is to make noise complaints civil, rather than criminal offenses, which would make it easier to sanction the noisemakers. More work will be done on the noise issue.

A local show dog breeder asked the supervisors to exclude local show breeders from the commercial kennel category when crafting ordinance revisions. While these breeders may sell an occasional puppy, they are not primarily in the dog selling business.

Proposals for new ordinances will be prepared for the Board’s review and action in coming months. Bob Minnick District 4 suggested that citizen input is an integral part of crafting ordinances that are reasonable and effective for the benefit of all concerned.

Before the supervisors can vote a proposed ordinance into law, at least one public hearing must be held.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Monday, July 1, 2013

Muddy waters



For a while, it looked like the kerfuffle over the relocation of Benedictine College Preparatory (BHP) was resolved. The school and the county worked through all of the details of converting the property into an educational facility. The school found an adjoining property owner willing to sell some land to facilitate construction of the wider entrance required by VDOT.

Construction started and stopped, and started again. Now it is complete.

Just when it seemed like things were moving forward, an appeal concerning the plan of development approved by the county in accordance with standard procedure, was filed with the Board of Zoning Appeals by some people who live near the school.

Allegations in the appeal focus on concerns about the plan’s failure to adequately address the downstream consequences of runoff from the newly expanded entrance. Although VDOT would seem to be primarily responsible for all matters dealing with access to state highways like River Road, the matter was bounced back to the county.

If the motivation behind this appeal is fear that changes to grading and increased paving will cause storm water runoff to damage adjoining properties, the current heavy rains should provide ample, irrefutable evidence to either refute or support the allegations.

The county and BCP contend that the appellants: Andrew Thexton, James E. Harris Jr., Delano and Berlene Richardson have no standing to bring the complaint and that the BZA has no jurisdiction to rule on the matter. Resolution of the appeal challenging the January 29, 2013 approval of a POD is still up in the air after two protracted BZA sessions.

At the June 17 session the BZA voted 2-2 in the matter of jurisdiction after meeting in closed session with its attorney Maynard Sipe.

The tie vote usually is construed to uphold the county’s position, because, according to its own bylaws, a majority vote is required for the BZA to overturn the extant policy.

However, the prevailing notion this time is that the tie rule applies only to matters in the appeal, not procedural issues like jurisdiction.

The county and BCP disagreed with that interpretation and moved to have the jurisdiction vote reconsidered on July 12. If the BZA still considers itself to have jurisdiction it will reconvene in August to hear testimony of witnesses about the particulars of the January appeal.

At the June 17 hearing, BCP headmaster Jesse Grapes said that the school will open as scheduled for the fall semester. County Attorney Norman Sales said that the county is able to issue a certificate of occupancy for BCP regardless of the pending appeal.

To the untrained eye, topographic maps included in the POD indicate that the land around BCP slopes toward the James River and Rt. 288. As water flows downhill, any erosion should be on BCP property. If detailed arguments are eventually heard by the BZA, no doubt civil engineers on both sides will present mind numbing evidence to support their contentions.

The gracious plenty of rainfall the area is now receiving should provide ample opportunity to gather evidence to support or refute the storm water runoff issue and help to resolve the matter.

Aside from the concerns about storm water runoff, vaguer issues seem to be muddying the waters. The District 5 seat on the BZA remains vacant, so its citizens have no representation in the proceedings. At an organizational meeting in late April, District 1 BZA member Dr. Richard Carchman contended that an empty seat for the district where the matter is located does not pass the smell test.

Yasmine Hamad, appointed to the District 4 seat earlier this year, has become an integral part of the BZA. Board of Supervisors’ chair Ken Peterson, who represents District 5, said that finding someone free of bias in this matter that is willing to jump into this fray has been challenging. He is leery of making any appointment that could be construed as trying to influence the outcome one way or the other. District 5 residents with no opinion in the matter willing to deal with irate phone calls and massive briefs, should contact their supervisor.

Peterson did explain that the Board recently voted to add alternate members to the BZA to ensure that a tie scenario does not happened again.

When the smoke has cleared, the winners in this dispute will be the attorneys involved. According to the county’s online check register, Goochland has shelled out more than $45,000 in outside counsel fees since last December. The opponents and BCP have also retained counsel. A legal stenographer was hired by BCP to record the proceedings. The meter is still running. Guess who pays that tab?

To be sure, no one should be deprived of due process or denied a mechanism to question actions taken by the county that could harm their property. Members of the BZA should strive to make impartial rulings based on the law rather behind the scenes maneuvering.

However, if this BZA appeal is one more attempt to sandbag BCP’s move to River Road, the opponents need to get over it. Barring an act of God, the school will open for classes this fall at the River Road site.