Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Rock and roll

The earth moved on August 23, 2011 in central Virginia without warning and caused widespread damage. Since then we’ve been jolted with several aftershocks. There will be more.

On October 16, the Great Southeast Shakeout (http://www.shakeout.org/southeast/index.html)is scheduled. This event, sponsored by a host of emergency preparedness/management agencies, has lessons about surviving an earthquake. The website includes links to a great deal of interesting and useful information.

Our weather of late has been relatively benign, so it’s easy to be complacent. Satellites keep a watchful eye on the weather and give plenty of advance notice of the arrival of hurricanes.

But tornadoes can pop up in the blink of an eye spawning death and destruction in their path. Remember the derecho that smashed through the region a few years ago that left downed trees and power lines in its wake?

Bordered by Interstate 64 and the CSX tracks along the James River, much of Goochland is vulnerable to a hazardous materials incident that could happen in a instant.

While September, the traditional height of hurricane season, is national preparedness month, it’s also a good time to give at least a fleeting thought to being able to take care of yourself and your family for a few days with no outside help. In a widespread emergency, first responders, the people you expect to come to your aid when you dial 911, could be overwhelmed. The ability to take care of yourself and your family is vital.

Remember the aftermath of Hurricane Isabel in 2003? High winds knocked out power to a large part of eastern Virginia for extended periods of time.

Last winter’s bitter cold and the deep snows of 2010 brought other challenges.

Grocery stores are over run the day before a storm, but what if you had no warning? As you read this, would you be able to stay where you are for three days if told to shelter in place?

Please take a few minutes as the days grow shorter, to check the batteries in your smoke alarms, find your flashlights and fire extinguishers and make sure they are in working order. Tuck a little extra non-perishable food in your pantry, and maybe some bottled water if you don’t have a generator to keep your well pump going.

As many of us range far afield from home during the workweek, it’s a good idea to designate a meeting place in the event your family is unable to get home.

For more strategies to prepare for the unexpected, visit ready.gov. A little foresight and common sense goes a long way to being safe not sorry.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

A broad brush

The phrase “another tool in the toolkit” as applied to land use is getting stale. However, the notion that zoning policy should be flexible to ensure appropriate--not restrictive or runaway--growth and development is a good thing.

Goochland’s Planning Commissioners have begun work on the regular five year update to the county’s comprehensive land use plan (comp plan) mandated by the state.

The existing plan is basically sound, but way too complicated. Some policies are not supported with zoning ordinances. (See the planning section of the county website www.co.goochland.va.us for the entire 2028 comp plan.)

In the spring of 2007, the last comp plan review got off to a rousing start with well-attended community meetings all over the county. Citizen made substantive and thoughtful comments about how and where Goochland should grow.

Just after Thanksgiving that year, when folks were focused on holiday activities, a draft comp plan that allegedly addressed citizen insights was presented at a second set of poorly attended meetings. No further action was taken on the 2028 comp plan until 2009, when the administration was reeling from the utilities mess and the sudden retirement of the county administrator. As approved, the 2028 comp plan contained provisions not previously discussed in public.

This time around, with a different board of supervisors, planning commission, and many new additions to the planning staff, the goal of the comp plan review is to craft a streamlined, high level document that will be supported by detailed zoning ordinances.

If the comp plan is to be used as a “guide” in land use decisions, broad goals and policies are needed rather than “weedy” details.
Indeed, the first comp plan revision of the 21st century included details about the width of sidewalks and street grids in the Oilville Village. Since then, new development in the Oilville Village has consisted of a nice, but cookie cutter residential community and an attractive strip shopping center that do not connect to each other.

The intent for this go round is to paint land use goals with a broad brush, letting comprehensive zoning ordinances spell out the details of things like sidewalk width, setbacks, landscaping requirements, and so forth.

To that end, the planning commissioners have been holding workshop sessions to address one section of the comp plan at a time.
On September 4, the planning commission discussed land use/village/community character goals and strategies.

In general, Goochland’s comp plan has been based on a “village concept” that strives to encourage growth inside of areas designated as villages to keep the dreaded sprawl out of the countryside and preserve the rural character.

Results of the 2010 census indicated that growth was spread evenly throughout the county, so maybe the village concept needs a bit of tweaking.
Instead of swaddling goals and strategies in dense layers of text, staff used bullet points for suggested revisions.

The first, and probably most important goal, is balanced growth, aiming for a 70/30 tax base ratio of residential to commercial use. This includes targeting major villages, Centerville, Courthouse, and, if it ever gets utilities, Oilville, for growth. Although there has been a fair amount of residential development, especially in the northeast part of the county, connected to the Tuckahoe Creek Service District, balanced growth urges that water and sewer be reserved for commercial and industrial use.

Another suggestion is to change the designation of Crozier, Hadensville, Georges Tavern/Fife, and probably Sandy Hook, from village to “rural crossroad community.” This would recognize the reality that limited commercial activity providing services to the immediate area will be the extent of growth in these locations for the next few decades.
Manakin and Oilville will be classified as emerging villages, whose further development will be driven by expansion of public utilities and demand.
Identified as a gateway to the county, Centerville is expected to be the epicenter of growth and development in the next five years. The county seat, Courthouse Village, is also designated as a major village, but growth there will be restrained by limited water and sewer and road access.
Suggestions for updating the Centerville section include: reviewing the overlay district regulations and changing if necessary; installation of street trees, sidewalks, distinctive lighting and street furniture; underground utilities; construction of service roads north and south of Broad Street; and concentration of commercial use on Broad Street in the “village center.”

The goal is to create an environment conducive to “high quality” development. This is where the McDonald’s detractors howl that all is lost because “off the rack” design templates for fast food emporiums will be allowed to circumvent design standards because they will contribute lots of tax revenue to the county coffers. The Taco Bell in the planning stages supports this thesis.

The protests that McDonald’s is desecrating the rural beauty of the Centerville Village, a commercial area with a gracious plenty of cinder block buildings, seems a bit ingenuous. However, it would be nice if, going forward landscaping requirements include evergreens to provide all season screening.

The concurrent discussion about the possibility of some sort of mixed use zoning—no decisions have yet been made—is important to Centerville development. A carefully designed mixed use project, with density appropriate for a ruralish location, would set a high bar for subsequent development to emulate. This would be market driven.

Rural enhancement areas, pretty much everything outside of a designated village, encourage agricultural and related uses. Residential enclaves here should be low density.
Perhaps the most interesting factoid presented at this workshop, according to Coleman, is that there is a movement to define “Manakin-Sabot” as a specific community within the zip code. It would encompass the gracious estates of the equestrian heartland along Manakin Road, Millers Lane and environs that have long been lumped in with Kinloch, Broad Run and The Meadows. While elegant in their own right, these uber upscale residential communities have a very different feel from the rest of horse country.

According to Coleman, this was the result of the recent kerfuffle over a proposal to transform a horse farm into a large worship center.
Over the next few months, more workshops will take place. Expect discussion about the comp plan at next month’s round of town hall meetings. Both the planning commission and supervisors will hold at least one public hearing on the comp plan revisions before they are approved, probably during the summer of 2015. This is the time to pay attention to land use matters.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Treading carefully

Goochland County's current supervisors have had a busy few years and they still have much to do. 
After Labor Day, they began to delve into the possibilities of mixed use and higher density residential zoning. To be clear, no decisions have been made. As "balanced development that contributes to the welfare of the community and preserves its rural character" is a declared goal of the recently approved strategic plan, this discussion is timely.

Before its September 2 meeting, the Board gathered with members of the planning commission for a discussion on the matter that included a background presentation by planning staff.

Meanwhile, the Planning Commission held its own workshop on the update of the county's comprehensive land use plan following its September 4 meeting. The confluence of the two initiatives is a very positive development. If all goes well, the comp plan will designate areas appropriate for certain  kinds of development, which will be supported by zoning ordinances.

The eastern part of Goochland has been designated as a "growth" area for a generation. Until "Beautiful Downtown Short Pump" became reality, significant growth in Goochland seemed like wishful thinking.

While Centerville has many of the elements--roads and public utilities--to support commercial, high density residential use, there are no zoning options in place to make this possible. The row crops and grazing cows along Broad Street are not rural character props, but exist because there are few land use options there.
In early 2012, the supervisors approved a proposal for multifamily housing limited to 60 acres in West Creek. This paved the way for the 30 or so acre upscale apartment complex, The Retreat, just coming online opposite Wawa. West Creek still has approval for multifamily housing of some sort for the remainder. To date, no other plans for multifamily housing in West Creek have been made public.
Higher density housing could mean lower cost homes, which are in short supply for our deputies, teachers, and fire-rescue providers. School Superintendent Dr. James Lane contends that the high price of homes in Goochland can be a barrier to retaining good teachers, who prefer to live in the community they serve, if they can afford to. Options for seniors to stay in Goochland when they downsize are also limited.

Moving land from agricultural to business or residential use increases its value, which in turn, raises revenue. Downside consequences of higher density development is congestion, an increased demand for government services, and loss of the county's rural feel.

Balancing the benefits of more intense development versus the cost is a very delicate task. Indeed, the cost of building new schools to accommodate incoming families and hiring additional deputies and fire-rescue providers could easily outstrip the amount of additional tax revenue.

The notion of mixed use--allowing one or more different land uses on the same parcel--is relatively straightforward. The possible manifestations are many.
In its simplest form, mixed use exists when the proprietor of a business "lives over the store." Urban high rises with varied uses, or large, master planned complexes that contain several types of residential, office, industrial, and retail in "bays" in close proximity are other examples. Matt Ryan, Director of Economic Development, discussed existing mixed use projects in Central Virginia, which ranged from Oyster Point in Newport News to an eight acre version in Powhatan with 48 apartments and 107,000 square feet of retail space.

The question that the supervisors and planning commissioners are wrangling with is "what kind of mixed use is appropriate for Goochland?"

County administrator Rebecca Dickson explained that the supervisors, in general, desire to be able to accommodate some type of "mixed use product" as a general concept, not focused on a particular parcel of land. Only Centerville and Courthouse Village are served by public water and sewer, a necessity for high density residential communities.

West Broad Village in Short Pump has been both lauded and panned for its approach to mixed use. Originally touted as an option for young professionals and empty nesters, WBV has instead, become a mecca for young families.

Currently, the maximum residential density allowed in Goochland, outside of West Creek. Is 2.5 units per acre in residential planned unit development (RPUD) zoning. Coleman said that there are currently 648 dwelling units in the Centerville Village. An additional 193 homes are in some stage of the building process as The Parke at Saddle Creek and The Retreat. Two other subdivisions, which have received zoning approval but not started to build, Reader's Branch and Swanson Ridge, will add another 306 homes in the Centerville Village. 

The Parke at Saddle Creek is a de facto mixed use because the southeast corner of Manakin and Broad is zoned for commercial use, just waiting for someone to come along and develop it. Currently, it is used as a mulch yard.
There are five parcels of undeveloped land in the Centerville Village's Broad Street Road corridor of 20 or more acres, which could be lend themselves to mixed use of some sort.

Ned Creasey, District 3, said that he would like to know what higher density uses, housing in particular, will cost in county services like law enforcement, schools, and fire-rescue, in relation to expected revenue.

Some supervisors said they would like to see what developers want to do before they approve an ordinance. Dickson explained that developers will not submit plans without an ordinance in place "to design around." Indeed, drawing a master plan for a mixed use project is an expensive proposition.   Developers want a fair shot at approval before  committing their money.

Ken Peterson, District 5, said that a strategic plan goal is to provide a variety of housing types while maintaining a fiscally responsible revenue base without overwhelming county services. "How do we do that?" He asked, articulating the crux of the matter.

Planning Commission Chair Joe Andrews, District 4, contended that details should be spelled out in ordinances and not left to the vagaries of the Design Review Committee or staff interpretation.  "Developers  need to know what is expected of them upfront, they don't like surprises. The more everyone understands the rules, the better, Andrews declared.

Coleman said that the Board needs to decide how much commercial development is enough because developers need to know what is mandatory versus what is preferred.

After obtaining a general consensus from the supervisors and commissioners to move forward with the investigation of how mixed use zoning could work in Goochland, Dickson said that staff will bring back some possible mixed use applications--remember this is still in the early discussion stage, no decisions have been made--for further discussion.

In the coming months, higher density development in Centerville will get a lot of scrutiny by the supervisors. Given the outstanding Tuckahoe Creek Service District debt and growth pressures, it is inevitable that some sort of "mixed use product" will emerge. It is important that the citizenry pay attention to what is going on here. The supervisors seem very wary of multifamily housing--apartments-- even though, so far, according to Dickson, The Retreat had added no children to the school division.


Saturday, September 6, 2014

Summer's end

The Goochland Board of Supervisors had no public hearings, or evening session, at its September 2 meeting, but addressed some important ongoing issues.

After about a year of discussion and digesting citizen feedback, the Board adopted its strategic plan. It is posted, in its entirety, on the county website, www.co.goochland.va.us. The final version contains a great deal of good information about the county and assumptions going forward. It is interesting to note that Goochland’s population skews toward the older and more affluent, but, as yet, no upscale retirement communities are located in the county.

Supervisors expressed satisfaction with the adopted strategic plan, but contend that it is a fluid document and expect it to change over time.
The next round of town hall meetings has been scheduled for October. There will be a session in each of the county’s five districts providing an opportunity to discuss items of interest with supervisors and school board members. A wide range of topics, not just schools, are covered. The strategic plan, as well as the upcoming review of the county’s comprehensive land use plan will be on the agenda.
During citizen comment, Rhona Blank of Randolph Square expressed deep concern about the possible closure of the River Road Bridge over Tuckahoe Creek for an extended period of repair next spring. She explained that she has medical issues, which sometimes result in the need for emergency medical service transport to a Henrico hospital. Thanks to a mutual aid agreement with Henrico, ambulances from Station 17 near the corner of Gaskins and River Road, about 1.2 miles from Blank’s home, often respond to emergencies there. Manakin Company 1 is not staffed 24/7 and is farther away.

Blank said that, should the bridge be closed, area residents would use Blair Road, whose inadequacy for heavy traffic has been a sore subject for years. She contended that the increased EMS response time to Randolph Square could result in life threatening situations.

According to Blank, VDOT—the state agency whose motto is “Oops!”—claims that the total closure of the bridge during repairs saves about $385,000 and five months versus closing one late at a time. If VDOT had used the appropriate turn lane template for the southbound Manakin/Broad corner a few years back and not had to build the corner twice, the money it didn’t spend there could be used to close the River Road bridge one lane at a time.

In other VDOT news, representatives are working with residents of Elm Creek Drive in Manakin to restore that road to the way it was before “improvements” that no one believed necessary made their lives miserable. Had this agency never heard of the adage “measure twice, cut once?”
Marshall Winn, the VDOT spokesperson, said that the Ashland Road culvert repair is expected to be advertised for bid in December, with work to start as soon as practical. He also said that VDOT is looking in to beefing up the pavement on St. Mathew’s Lane so it may be used as an alternate detour during those repairs.

In a sane world, some of the equipment deployed in the widening project for Interstate 64 would be diverted to repair the Ashland Road culvert as soon as possible.

Winn also reported that a speed study on Hockett Road does not indicate a need for a change in the speed limit.
There will be a rabies clinic at the corner of Sandy Hook and Fairground Road on Saturday, October 11 from 9 to 12. The fee is $8.00 per dog or cat.

The supervisors formally adopted the county’s legislative agenda, essentially Goochland’s stance on a laundry list of items, for the 2015 session of the Virginia General Assembly. Subjects include: sludge, its application and possible ill effects; the bridge to connect Ridgefield Parkway in Henrico with Tuckahoe Creek Parkway in West Creek; expansion of the Department of Corrections water tank; expedited SOL retakes; and elimination of the requirement for the school year to begin after Labor Day. See the board packet for the complete list. Perhaps the most important are objections to unfunded mandates and granting counties the same ability to tax as cities.

The initial report from the Rural Economic Development Committee (REDC) was presented. The goal of this group is to make it easier to operate small, agriculture related enterprises. Initial recommendations include: definition of certain agricultural practices to being them into agreement with state code; creation of a rural plan of development; simplify and reduce fees in the permitting process; allow chickens, no roosters, to be kept in rural residential and rural preservation zoning district.

Discussion on this initiative will continue in coming months.

A couple of years ago, state law was changed to ease the procedure to add or delete parcels from a service district, like our very own beloved Tuckahoe Creek Service District. Indeed, parcels on the north side of Tuckahoe Creek Parkway have already been added to the TCSD in exchange for infrastructure improvements. The supervisors discussed proposed amendments to the existing ordinance. A public hearing on the matter will be held at the board’s November 5 meeting.

The western TCSD boundary will be Hermitage Road. Parcels may be added at any time but can exit only every two years, beginning in September 2016. The changes will bring the ordinances into alignment with existing practices and clarify connections fees and clearly delineates which lines are to be built by the TCSD and which are the responsibility of landowners. The intent is to balance loss of revenue from parcels leaving with those of equal or greater value being added to ensure that debt service requirements are met.

A request to lease space on the Centerville water tower for cell phone use by Verizon Wireless was discussed. The supervisors, who read and seemed to understand the contract, expressed concern about some of the provisions.

Ken Peterson, District 5 was troubled by a first refusal clause that could be used by Verizon to block co location by another carrier. The matter will be researched by staff and brought back to the board in October.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Well you asked

Well, you asked

A community meeting to gather community input about a proposal to extend Ashland Road south of Route 250 to connect with Hockett Road near the Hickory Haven subdivision filled the Centerville Company 3 meeting room on August 27.

Elected officials and staff got an earful. County Administrator Rebecca Dickson repeatedly said that no decisions on the matter have been made. Given the response from those in attendance, it seems likely that the county and Dewberry engineers retained for the project, are headed back to the drawing board.

Comments that followed a brief presentation by the county’s Principal Planner Tom Coleman were negative in the extreme. 

According to Coleman and Dickson, the realignment of Hockett/Ashland has been on county land use projections for decades, but had no funding. 

The Metropolitan Planning Organization, which prioritizes road improvements on a regional basis, recently authorized funding for engineering studies in 2014, and about $1.5 million for construction. The funding is time sensitive. If construction is not begun in the next few years, the money goes back into the MPO “pot” for use elsewhere in the region.

Coleman illustrated his remarks with sketches of possible solutions  that involved bisecting the parcel of land currently in agricultural use on the south side of Rt. 250 behind the road stub. See the presentation on the county website www.co.goochland.va.us.

One version made a cul-de-sac out of the northern part of Hockett Road, effectively cutting off all through traffic. Business owners there, especially the proprietor of the emergency vet, expressed extreme displeasure with that concept. All the proposals would do, they said, is move the traffic bottlenecks  south of  250, and perhaps make things worse.

Another proposed iteration--this is all hypothetical,no decisions have been made--kept Hockett Road open to through traffic but put an intersection, possibly a round about, near Hickory Haven to funnel northbound traffic through the area. Wetlands in the area complicate the situation, and some of the versions could result in “removal” of commercial buildings and homes.

The consensus seemed to be that the permanent traffic signal at Hockett and Broad, which will be in place by the end of 2014, will handle traffic problems for the foreseeable future and no other improvements are needed. 
As traffic volumes increase, and they will as new housing developments are built out, turn, and perhaps additional traffic lanes will be needed. This could have a negative impact on existing businesses, especially those on the corners. The proposed road changes were supposed to avoid taking any more road frontage property in rights of way.

Coleman and Dickson explained that traffic counts on Goochland roads are expected to  rise dramatically in the near future due to construction of at least 300 new homes in the Hockett Road corridor and growth in western Henrico.

Indeed, demographers expect the population of the Richmond region to increase by 450,000 in the next 20 years. That’s roughly one and one half Henricos. While Goochland will not bear the brunt of this population increase, the newcomers will be driving through the county.
But how many of those vehicles will be traveling along both Hockett and Ashland Roads?

There were several suggestions about connecting Hockett to Ashland Road on the north side of Rt. 250 cutting through the open land behind the water tower. This is undeveloped land, so no buildings would be in peril, and is flat and seems to be free of water hazards.

For that matter, why not just widen Plaza Drive, which many westbound residents already use regularly to avoid congestion on Rt. 250? The route is there, additional rights of way would need to be obtained, but more traffic might make the parcels in that corridor more marketable. Add a signal at Ashland Road, and the problem, if there is one, has been addressed.

During the hearings for the latest residential enclave on Hockett Road District 5 Planning Commissioner Tom Rockecharlie contended that a north south connector road is needed to relieve traffic pressure. Perhaps that option should be explored instead. Over the years, a road parallel to Hockett inside the boundaries of West Creek has been mentioned and a few speculative lines drawn on maps. Such a road could be built with enough lanes to handle traffic counts expected at build out. It would open up more land on West Creek for development--remember that is an office/business park, not a nature preserve--and spare existing buildings.

When this realignment was added to the county's comprehensive land use plan, Hockett Road was the sole transportation corridor between Rts. 250 and 6. For the past decade, there's been another option, Rt.288, which was built to move large volumes of traffic. Southbound through traffic on Ashland Road is better served by using  288.

So, who are those drivers going north on Hockett? Most likely, they are residents, or Capital One folk heading to Centerville. It does seem like the traffic signal will eliminate the opportunity to play "chicken" while attempting a left turn across fromMcDonald's. 

Most of the citizens at the meeting seemed to be from The Parke at Centerville. They expressed displeasure at the thought of any more commercial development in the Broad Street corridor. Ironically, when that subdivision was brought up for approval, there was a good bit of dissent. People contended that permitting a high density residential community on Hockett Road would destroy the rural character of the Centerville Village. Tiny lots, opponents contended, were better suited for the suburbs. Since then, at least two additional high density residential enclaves have been approved for Hockett Road, in addition to a very high end subdivision off of Tuckahoe Creek Parkway roughly opposite Kinloch.
During the hearings for the latest residential enclave on Hockett Road District 5 Planning Commissioner Tom Rockecharlie contended that a north south connector road is needed to relieve traffic pressure. Perhaps that option should be explored instead. Over the years, a road parallel to Hockett inside the boundaries of West Creek has been mentioned and a few theorhetical lines drawn on maps. Such a road could be built with enough lanes to handle traffic counts expected at build out. It would open up more land on West Creek for development--remember that is an office/business park, not a nature preserve--and spare existing buildings.

Dickson explained that property owners have the right to ask to have their land rezoned for its highest and best use. The county’s comprehensive land use plan, explained Dickson, has indicated that the Broad Street Road corridor in Centerville is designated for commercial development. Served by public utilities and with good road access, development here is seen as desirable, in order to keep the rest of the county more rural.

Do not expect cows to graze behind the Shell station in perpetuity. That is prime commercial land and will be developed at some point. Roads parallel to Rt. 250 have also been under consideration to build a grid system as the village grows. The crowd did not like that either.

Several people asked about the master plan for Centerville. Short answer, there is none. Design standards, considered too strict by some, too lax by others, are about as good as it gets.

Speakers also contended that the speed limits through Centerville (45 mph) and on Hockett Road (55 mph) need to be reduced. Dickson explained that the county has asked VDOT—the state agency whose motto is “Oops!”—to do that on several occasions and was turned down.
Dickson said repeatedly that no decisions about the proposals have been made. Too bad the community meeting was not held before the engineers turned on their meter.