Thursday, April 23, 2015

Ground zero

Each jurisdiction in the Commonwealth of Virginia is required by law to craft a comprehensive land use plan to be used as a “guide” when making land use decisions. Some of the more frothy descriptive language for comp plans claims that they are “a community vision of future development,” or some such. In reality, at least in the past, Goochland’s have tended to be guided by the input of a very few squeaky wheels, that include land owners, developers, and citizens with a specific agenda.

This time around, the supervisors told staff that the comp plan needed to be streamlined and easier for everyone to understand. The draft version of the Goochland 2035—they look ahead 20 years—comp plan currently making the rounds of district forums, includes lots of easy to understand maps and text organized by subject and presented with bullet points. This is a big improvement over previous versions that were handy bedside reading for insomniacs.

In essence, the 2035 comp plan is yet another effort at figuring out what “Goochland wants to be when it grows up.”
The District 4 meeting held on April 16 was a well-attended and lively affair.

Goochland is a land of contrasts. From the new apartments in West Creek to remote farmsteads in the upper end, residents can choose from a wide range of lifestyles. Newcomers to the county bring fresh perspectives on and differing expectations about growth and development from those held by old timers.

Like Virginia’s four season climate—sometimes we get them all in the same week—District 4 is ground zero for the tensions between country folk and those who are attitudinally suburbanites.
It’s no secret that the current Board of Supervisors puts a high priority on economic development, especially in the Tuckahoe Creek Service District, both to bolster county revenues and meet debt service obligations. While the 3,500 or so acres of the West Creek Business park was supposed to be a “moat” to contain all development pressures and keep runaway growth east of Manakin Road, the growth is spilling into entire TCSD.

Things didn’t quite work out as planned. Even before the nation’s economy fell apart, West Creek and the TCSD looked more like a nature preserve that an economic engine.

The area known as the “Centerville Village” is the focus of efforts to lure business to Goochland. So far, the results have been mixed. Two fast food emporiums and a Goodwill store were not what anyone hoped would materialize there, but a hopeful sign.
Residential enclaves that have sprouted in the past few years in the village have increased its rooftop count, making the area more attractive to private sector investment. The first evidence of that was McDonald’s.
The kind of business in Centerville was on the minds of many of the citizens at the District 4 meeting. Objections to McDonald’s and Taco Bell with drive throughs have been noted. An Audi dealer is reportedly on the drawing board for a parcel fronting Broad Street Road just east of Rt. 288. It’s still too early to see what kind of spillover growth will result from the high density projects along Broad Street just east of Rt. 288 in Henrico.

The supervisors, mindful of the revenue needs of the county and property rights of landowners, are purposefully vague about what should be built in Centerville to avoid repelling any investors. However, most of the larger parcels must be rezoned before anything can happen.
Centerville Village residents, most recent arrivals, raised concerns about large swaths of property designated “flex space,” a deliberately nebulous term.

Residents of Bellview Gardens, just west of Rt. 288 on the north side of Broad Street Road, were especially nervous about what sort of “commercial use” could wind up behind their homes. Indeed, before Bellview Garden was rezoned for high density homes in the early part of the century, it too, was earmarked for “flex space” in previous comp plans. Regardless of what the zoning or comp plan maps say, the county must protect Bellview Gardens from undue incursion by inappropriate development on its immediate borders. Bellview Gardens is an excellent example of the unintended consequences of spot zoning.

When asked what they would like to see in Centerville, current residents replied, “more houses” to supply customers for the commercial space. Folks who live outside of the Centerville Village, who moved here to enjoy peace and privacy understanding that the trade-off is fewer services and a longer drive to the grocery store, were appalled at the notion of more anything in Centerville. Indeed, the question that was never asked of the nice woman who explained how well things were done where she used to live in Wellesley is why did she move to Goochland?

Centerville resident Paul Costello pointed out that the zoning map, which he contended has not been changed in many years, assumes that most of the raw land in the Centerville Village is destined for commercial use, which developers interpret as a “done deal.” He cited the enormous amount of new retail space, a significant portion of which is still vacant, a few miles east in Short Pump as evidence that the assumption of a need for additional commercial space here is flawed.

“If you live in Centerville, this map makes you feel like you’re being thrown under the bus,” Costello said. “There are 24 different neighborhoods inside the boundaries of the Centerville Village that need a better understanding of the meaning “flex space.”
Bob Minnick, who represents District 4 on the Goochland Board of Supervisors and lives in Kinloch, said that the comp plan is used as a guide and that nothing in it is carved in stone.

Minnick also pointed out that the Broad Street corridor in Centerville has always been designated for commercial use.

Perhaps the real point of confusion is a clear definition of the term “commercial”. In its broadest sense, commercial would seem to indicate a use that generates revenue but is neither residential nor industrial. That could include a very wide range of business from the dreaded fast food to office space for low traffic enterprises like actuaries or even high tech start-ups.

Principal Planner Jo Ann Hunter, who is overseeing the 2035 comp plan, said that all citizen comments whether made in person at meetings, by email, phone, or snail mail, will be entered into a spreadsheet, which will then be used to tweak the proposed changes. She contended that the county is not “telling anyone how to develop their property with the caveat that final land use decisions have not been made.”
Hunter reiterated that the comp plan is a guide, not a policy document, but rather a guide for future development.

Joe Andrews, who represents District 4 on the Planning Commission, said that the zoning and land use maps should somehow indicate that they are “a guide rather than gospel.” He pointed out that the economic downturn of the past nine years made few changes on the zoning and land use maps for Centerville.

Minnick observed that the TCSD was created to help the county preserve its rural feeling—whatever that means. He said that no one knows what will happen in the future, but the task at hand is to set mutually agreeable parameters and see where development proposals fit in that matrix. He said that all comments are helpful.

The Supervisors recently adopted a strategic plan giving balanced development that does not overwhelm county resources.
Goochland comp plans have envisioned growth around the edges of the county—at the I64 interchanges, the TCSD, and maybe Courthouse Village.
The flood of growth long anticipated for Centerville has never been more than a trickle. As the spigot of private sector investment opens, thoughtful planning will be vital to ensure that Centerville does not become “the wrong side of the tracks” for Short Pump.

Land use decisions made in District 4 over the next few years will determine if Goochland will “grow gracefully” or lose its identity.
Citizen input for the 2035 comp plan is vital to help the supervisors understand the hopes--and more importantly fears—about future development.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

No news is good news

What passes for media in the region has been peppered with the fiscal angst of jurisdictions wrangling with their budgets. Some were caught between the rock of raising tax rates or the hard place of making further cuts to already tight spending plans.

Goochland was never mentioned, because our elected and appointed officials—both at the county and school division-- worked closely together to craft a budget that stayed within its means, while funding core services.

At a special meeting on April 20, 2015, Goochland Supervisors voted unanimously to approve a $46,442,404 budget for FY2016, which begins on July 1. The budget, which is based on a continuation of the 53 cent per $100 of assessed valuation, was amended to include $72,000 to create a second new deputy position in addition to the one in the proposed budget and additional $160,000 for schools. (See the Board packet for the 7 p.m. April 20 meeting available on the county website: for details.
The 53 cent rate actually represents a tiny—a fraction of a penny-- tax increase because the expected revenue based on the most recent property assessments increase by more than one percent over last year.

Increases in water and sewer rates were also approved. The ad valorem tax for the Tuckahoe Creek Service District remains at 32 cents per $100 of assessed valuation.

Board Chair Susan Lascolette, District 1 said that the budget represents a “considerable amount of time” spent by all involved. The budget was presented for discussion at all of the town hall meetings held in March and for additional citizen comment at a public hearing on April 13. She thanked the citizens for their input and county and school staff for all of their hard work.

The only comment made during the public hearing on was a brief statement by Debbie White, Director of finance for the schools. “We are thankful for anything you can give us,” she said. This is what happens when the supervisors and school board collaborate instead of clash and work toward a common goal.

As presented, the budget represents the tip of a very large iceberg of detailed effort by all involved. County Administrator Rebecca T. Dickson also thanked everyone and said “it really does take a village to make a budget.”

The simple fact that the Goochland budget adequately funds core services, provides for modest raises for employees, and funds some capital improvements is a huge achievement.

Goochland’s budget story is a good one destined to be ignored in the best way possible.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Water torture

A tale appropriate for tax day.

Goochland’s supervisors voted 3-2 to take over management of federal and state mandated storm water runoff regulations at their April 13 meeting. Board Chair Susan Lascolette, District 1, and Ken Peterson, District 5, were in dissent.

Last year, the supervisors voted to opt out of involvement in the matter because the program was new and rather vague. This year, the Virginia General Assembly passed measures clarifying the regulations, allegedly implemented to protect surface water and help clean up the Chesapeake Bay.
The goal is to ensure that rainwater soaks into the ground close to where it falls from the sky instead of running off into streams and rivers. Proponents contend that this will reduce the amount of pollutants that are washed into surface water following storms.

However, there seems to be no solid proof that the implementation of costly, and sometimes complicated, measures to control storm water runoff reduces water pollution, which is measured by the “nutrients” in water samples.

Those same “nutrients” are touted as beneficial soil amendments by proponents of spreading sludge, end products of wastewater treatment plants, on fields.

The matter is—pardon the expression—a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t situation.

The regulations will apply to all new construction, commercial and residential, that disturbs an acre or more of ground. They will tie in with erosion and sediment control measures already in place.

Run off may be controlled by creating retention basins, rain gardens, or other “best management practices”(BMP) to corral those pesky raindrops. Fees may be charged to offset the cost to local governments to oversee the regulations. The state gets a 28 percent cut of initial charges, but localities may retain all fees generated in subsequent years of construction.

But wait, there’s more! Once the BMPs are in place, they must be inspected on a regular basis, in perpetuity, to ensure that they are doing their job. Localities must perform this task. According to the county’s environmental engineer Debbie Byrd, they will be spot checked. In the event that say, a pond becomes so clogged with silt that water is unable to soak into the ground, additional work must be done to remedy the situation.
Fees may be levied only for land under construction. Once the BMPs are in place, the fees stop, but the regulatory oversight, performed by an employee of some level of government. The cost of that employee will be picked up by taxpayers.

The cost of fixing BMPs that no longer function will be borne by property owners, or in the case of residential subdivisions, a homeowners’ association.

Goochland County Attorney Norman Sales explained that the ordinance contains enforcement provisions to cover this circumstance. He said that the compulsory enforcement process could create situations that wind up in Circuit Court for resolution.

Byrd said that accepting responsibility for the program would improve the customer service to landowners and developers, who contend that working through the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) is a longer and more cumbersome, therefore more expensive, process.
Malachi Mills, an engineer who works with local developers, said, during the public hearing, that working through DEQ in the past year added sometimes two months to the time needed to secure approval of all storm water runoff mitigation plans.

Peterson acknowledged that “time is money” to developers, but cautioned that Goochland will not get a favorable return on its investment for getting involved in the process. He raised concerns about the out year costs of administering the program, which could increase cumulative costs.
Byrd estimated the county’s annual tab to administer the program at approximately $170,000, mostly personnel costs already funded in the budget. Overall, according to an example included in the presentation, the county will lose money. However, Byrd explained that many of the inspections for both storm water and erosion and sediment control will be performed by the same person on the same trip, which will dilute the expense.

Manuel Alvarez, Jr., District 2 said that even if Goochland opts out of the program, the county will be involved in the process and not receive any of the fees.

Lascolette said that the county looks for local control in land use matters and, in this case, hopes not to lose money. “But, there are so many unanswered questions.”

The Board voted to consider a fee schedule at a later meeting. The county will assume responsibility for the Virginia Stormwater Management Program on July 1, 2015.

This is yet another example of trickle down mandates dumped on local governments by legislators on the state and federal level. The true cost of this program may be as hard to ascertain as its purported benefits. But, the taxpayers get to foot the bill, once more.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

The Sound of Peace

At three p.m. on the afternoon of April 9, 2015, the Goochland Courthouse bell was rung to commemorate the 150th anniversary end of the Civil War. Hostilities ended when General Robert E. Lee surrendered to General U. S. Grant at Appomattox Court House. The event was organized by the Goochland Historical Society.

Isabel Duke, Sofie Pryor, District 3 Supervisor Ned Creasey, and Dr. James Bowles, Sr., assisted by two young men from Gum Spring United Methodist Church, tolled the bell, one minute for each of the four years of war. 

The cost of the conflict, in lives, material, and unfulfilled promise cannot be calculated. It should, however, serve as a reminder of the consequences of national discord. People of a nation as free and diverse as America will never march in lockstep to the same drummer, but we must learn to dance around each other in respectful harmony. 

Monday, April 6, 2015

Spring planting

Goochland’s Planning Commissioners got back in the saddle after a one month hiatus for their regular monthly meeting on April 2.
During a brief workshop on the proposed mixed use ordinance, some interesting points were raised. It was good to see some citizens attend this workshop and ask questions.

The draft ordinance, which will be the subject of a public hearing before the Planning Commission in May, will permit and require different uses, i.e. residential, business, and commercial, on the same parcel of land. Right now, the only place where mixed use is contemplated is the core of the Centerville Village, both sides of Broad Street Road between Ashland and Manakin Roads.

All land for mixed use must be rezoned and will require a conditional use permit. This means that the supervisors will be able to exert maximum control of the process.

While the residential uses contemplated for mixed use could include apartments, the proposed ordinance does not mean that Goochland County will be blanketed with apartments because they will only be permitted in areas served by adequate roads and municipal water and sewer.

An impact statement to help gauge the increased demand that any new housing will place on county services, especially schools, fire-rescue, and law enforcement, will be a requirement in the new ordinance.

Principal Planner Jo Ann Hunter said that county agencies would then review the impact statements to see if they concur. Developers must propose measures to prevent these services from being overwhelmed by new users. She used the example of the Retreat apartments in West Creek, which were not required to pay cash proffers when rezoned for multifamily housing in 2012. Instead, the developer proffered a site for a future fire-rescue station when the county determines a need for the facility.

Commissioner Tom Rockecharlie, District 5, said that he had gotten calls from citizens worried that the school system would be deluged with new students if apartments were approved.

Developer Scott Gaeser said that, while there is a need for “affordable housing” in Goochland, high land prices in the eastern end, especially Centerville, ensure that all residential construction there will be of the upscale variety. He said that the median income in the Centerville Village is $120,000. “There will be no Section 8 (low income) housing in eastern Goochland,” said Gaeser. The price of entry, which he estimated at about $30 million, is just too high.
Hunter observed that efforts to require “affordable” housing do not translate well to rural areas without mass transit. She said that, at the end of the life cycle of the buildings, many years in the future, these homes could become low income housing.
Hunter also contended that the commercial component of the proposed mixed use zoning district requires developers with deep pockets who have no interest in slapping up buildings.
Unlike Henrico, whose extensive water and sewer lines have rendered most parts of that county suitable for high density development, Goochland has few areas served by these amenities. The utility master plan, recently accepted by Goochland’s supervisors, indicates that there is little likelihood of expansion in the next decade, if ever.

At the regular commission meeting, Matt Brewer, District 2, was elected commission chair for the ensuing year with Derek Murray, District 3, serving as vice chair.

The commissioners unanimously recommended approval of the renewal of a CUP for Glenn Nuckols on Ashland Road and a rezoning in the Windy Hill subdivision to divide a 14 acre lot into two smaller residential parcels.

A rezoning application filed by Earl Thompson to rezone 127.939 acres on the south side of Fairground Road (note, no “s” on the road name)in Maidens from A-2 to RP (rural preservation) zoning was also unanimously recommended for approval.

The proposed subdivision, Lane’s End, will consist of no more than 29 single family homes on approximately two acre lots. The balance of the parcel will be used for roads and passive recreation. Bridle trails are contemplated for some of the open space, but not behind lots 1 and 29, which adjoin residential parcels in another subdivision. Additional tress will be planted along part of the southern boundary to enhance vegetative buffers between existing homes in Parker’s Hill and Lane’s End. Left and right turn lanes off of Fairground Road are among the proffers, which also include the full cash proffer, currently $14,250 per residential lot.

Some residents of Parker’s Hill, which adjoins the proposed Lane’s End on the south, raised concerns about the square footage of the proposed homes, impact on nearby wells, and schools.

When Parker’s Hill was rezoned, residents of the Two Turtles community, which lies to its south, raised many of the same objections. They too were concerned that smaller, less expensive homes built on adjoining land would have a negative impact on their property values. The gracious homes that were subsequently built in Parker’s Hill have enhanced the area.

Steve Thompson, who worked with his family’s firm to develop Breeze Hill, which adjoins and will connect to Lane’s End, said that a water study prepared when Breeze Hill was rezoned about eight years ago, found that there was sufficient underground water to ensure that new homes would not have a negative impact on area wells, and would supply water at an average of 17 gallons per minute, more than the Virginia Department of Health’s minimum requirement of 3 to 5 gallons per minute.

The application estimates that at build out, Lane’s End could add approximately 15 students to Goochland schools
It was also pointed out that there are no plans to widen or otherwise improve Fairground Road contemplated. Requiring developers to build turn lanes is about the best the county can do improve this road.

The supervisors will vote on these matters at a future meeting after they hold public hearings on the applications.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Sunny Days

There’s a sign by the side of a road near the Richmond airport (yes, GOMM has been out of town) bearing a simple message-- Citizen Ignorance = Government Bliss.

There were no other words, no hints about its origin. Nevertheless, it was thought provoking.

In the past couple of weeks, semi-annual town hall meetings were held around Goochland County. Scheduling these informal sessions about local government in opposition to “March Madness” was unfortunate. Attendance was spotty. East Enders reportedly were attracted by a companion session that focused on the Tuckahoe Creek Service District ad valorem tax, and utility rates. The smelly water issue was reportedly discussed too.

The meetings included staff presentations about the proposed budget for FY 2016, schools news, and discussions about issues particular to each district.

It’s a little hard to interpret the tepid citizen interest in county government. In November, all local and state officials will stand for election. Turnout at the polls will probably be light. Does that mean that voters are satisfied with the performance of those they put into office, or just don’t care?

March 15-21 was “Sunshine Week,” a time for journalists to celebrate and advocate for government transparency. Openness at all levels of government, from the guest logs at the White House to Goochland County’s check register, should be a given, not a maybe.

Since taking office in January 2012, Goochland’s supervisors and school board have worked hard to share information about what they do, and perhaps more importantly, how they spend tax dollars, with the public at large.

Budgets, strategic plans, meeting notices, minutes, and some live streams are easily available online. Elected officials and staff stand ready to respond to queries about pretty much anything. Recent upgrades to the supervisors’ online board packet software make it possible to comment about individual agenda items online.

Current official holders take their commitment to good stewardship and earning public trust very seriously. It has not always been that way, and could revert to the bad old days.

But, does anyone care? The Founding Fathers believed that an informed citizenry would play an important role in the success of their new nation. That concept morphed into a governing class, where elected officials, especially at the state and federal level, can reasonably expect to spend decades tending to “the peoples’ business” from afar, answering citizen communications with form responses and doing as they please.

Goochland’s current elected officials have demonstrated their willingness to listen to, address, and defuse contentious issues. Unlike many of their predecessors, they return phone calls and respond to emails.

Residents of Deep Run Hunt Country came together to successfully oppose construction of a cell tower. In the process, they formed an organization to keep an eye on things, distribute pertinent information, and engage with local government.

Other citizen groups energized in opposition of particular issues seem to have lost interest in local government when their efforts were not successful. They chalked their defeats up to the bugaboos of the “good old boys’ network” or the ever popular “the fix was in” line of thinking.
Elected officials likely would prefer to make decisions that please everyone, but soon learn that, no matter how much care and thought goes into a vote, someone will be unhappy with the result.

Issues that come before our boards and commissions are often thorny and complicated. Citizen engagement, pro and con, is vital to responsive government. Ask questions, share your opinions, and bask in the sunshine of government transparency.