Sunday, December 13, 2015

Public trust

Long time Goochlanders—often with good reason—are suspicious of county government.

A rezoning application for parcels of land between Manakin and Rockville Roads, unanimously recommended for denial by the Planning Commission at its November meeting, dredged up those old feelings.

The Planning Commission vote followed a lengthy public hearing during which many residents of the Manakin/Rockville Road community spoke in opposition to the proposal.

These people are justifiably alarmed about the impact of dropping nearly 200 homes on 97 acres of farmland. The narrow, winding, hilly roads would be dangerously overwhelmed by the additional traffic, they argued. Although VDOT—the state agency whose motto is “Oops!”--will perform a safety study on the area during the next six months or so, one does not have to be a traffic engineer to see the problem. Given the paucity road dollars I throughout the Commonwealth, it is clear that there will be no money to improve either Manakin or Rockville Road for a very long time.
More importantly, the rural nature of the area would be irreparably altered by this high density housing; county schools would be overwhelmed by the newcomers.

A meeting organized by these citizens was held on December 10, at the Rockville library. Approximately 15 residents met with Supervisors Ken Peterson, District 5; Bob Minnick, District 4, where the land is located; and members of the county’s community development staff.

This was the third “community meeting” on this matter. The first, which took place last summer, was poorly attended because only a handful of people knew about it. The second, held in October at the Goochland Baptist Church, was attended by a standing room only crowd and featured heated discussion. (The county now posts notice of all community meetings on its website to get the word out to a wider audience.)

Contentions made by the applicant, Wilton Acquisitions, during previous community meetings and the public hearing at the planning commission, morphed into “facts” indicating that the county badly needs the Tuckahoe Creek Service District connection fees to meet its debt service obligations.

The citizens wanted to know how the supervisors will vote on the rezoning application when it comes before them, which is not expected to occur before February, 2016, and could be deferred until as late as November, 2016.

Because the supervisors are prohibited from discussing zoning applications before public hearings, the December 10 meeting agenda focused on the rezoning process and information about the TCSD.

Peterson presented a thumbnail sketch of the origins of the TCSD, which was created to encourage economic development in northeastern Goochland.
Peterson said that a goal of the current board of supervisors, is to increase the tax base ratio to 70/30 percent residential/business from its current approximately 82/18 percent ratio.

The initial financing of the TCSD in 2002 assumed an 11 percent annual growth rate for about 30 years, which never materialized, said Peterson. Debt service under this arrangement was back loaded with the amount of interest due rising each year to give the TCSD time to grow into its obligations. That didn’t happen either. Long story short, when the current board took office in 2012, its first priority was to “refinance” the debt to more manageable levels.

Currently, said Peterson, economic development in the TCSD, coupled with rising property valuations, are sufficient for the county to meet its obligation. Peterson said that TCSD connection fees have no bearing on the debt service, nor do usage fees for water and sewer.

Minnick and Dan Schardein, Deputy County Administrator for Community Development explained that anyone can apply for rezoning to change the approved use of a parcel of land. It is up to a developer to determine what they will ask for. County staff then reviews these applications and makes recommendations about what is appropriate within county zoning law and regulations.

However, the developer can ignore staff comments and request that the application go to the planning commission and supervisors for a vote. This process includes at least one community meeting and public hearings before both the planning commission and supervisors; “three bites of the apple” for citizens to comment on the proposal. Just because a rezoning application is filed, does not mean it will be approved.

Minnick said that the focus of economic development is West Creek, which is about one third developed and Centerville. He compared rezoning applications to a sales pitch where all sorts of things are said to close the deal. The supervisors, with the help of staff analysis, consider the validity of all contentions and make their decisions accordingly.
Peterson sand Minnick said that each rezoning application is judged on its own merits. Benefits of land use changes are weighed against costs for the county. The supervisors are dedicated to balanced growth that does not overwhelm county services including law enforcement; fire-rescue; and education.
“We have to play the hand we were dealt,” Peterson said in reply to angry comments that the decision to develop Centerville was made without the consent of the people of the county. The TCSD pipes are in the ground. They support the economic development that pays for them, he contended. A great deal of effort, including implementation of design standards, has been expended to ensure high quality development in Centerville.

Some people asked how the supervisors could throw out the 2035 comprehensive land use plan--approved last summer--to allow high density development in what is now a rural area.

Peterson emphasized that the Comp Plan is a guide that looks 20 years ahead. He reiterated that because a developer files a rezoning application, it does not mean that it will be approved.

Principal Planner Jo Ann Hunter pointed out that even if all of the development suggested by the 2035 plan materializes, 85 percent of the county will remain rural.

Minnick said that a drastic reduction in the density of the proposal might make it more palatable. However, the developer argued that it needs the 200 lots in order to make the proposed subdivision work financially.

This meeting is a good example of citizens seeking answers to troubling questions. While Minnick and Peterson did not offer any guidance as to how they might vote on this rezoning application, they did take the time to explain TCSD finances and provide insight on the rezoning process. This board believes that citizen engagement is vital to good government. The December 10 meeting was a good give and take.

No comments: