Monthly Archives: January, 2010

How Have You Helped Free Enterprise?

Even if all of this is true — You are not a member of the Free Enterprise Forum.

No one is.  We are not a membership based organization.

As a public policy group focused on local government, we believe the more people that hear our message of less government intervention and smarter regulation the better.

When we speak out about the boondoggle that is Places29, we want the world to hear, not just our members.

But now, we need your help. All of this work costs money.

Will the Free Enterprise Forum be prepared to answer this challenge?

Will you help us? Please give today to keep the voice of the Free Enterprise Forum clear in the County office buildings and in City Hall.

Your gift of $100, $250, $500 or even $1,000 will go a long way to helping us achieve our mission to add balance to the debate.

Please send a check today or click here to donate online.

Localities across the region are preparing to swear in new officials. Never in my seven years at the Free Enterprise Forum has so much been expected from newly minted officials.

While some might consider this a time the Free Enterprise Forum can coast, the need for solid fact based research supporting free market solutions may be even greater now.

While some many Boards seem to slanting toward being more business friendly than previous iterations, the reality is the policy battles will be as fierce as ever.

Thanks to generous supporters, we now have field officers reporting from in Greene and Fluvanna County as well as our significant efforts in the City of Charlottesville, Albemarle and Nelson County. The Free Enterprise Forum is adding balance to the debate throughout the region.

Your support makes this possible, please click here to donate online today!

Thank you!

Sincerely,

Neil Williamson, President

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20070731williamson Neil Williamson is the President of The Free Enterprise Forum, a public policy organization covering the City of Charlottesville as well as Albemarle, Greene, Fluvanna and Nelson County.  For more information visit the website www.freeenterpriseforum.org

The Brave Bureaucrat Who Tells The PC “No”

FORUM WATCH EDITORIAL

By. Neil Williamson, President

There has been much talk lately about changing the culture inside local government.  While the lofty rhetoric has been about “cutting red tape” and making government more friendly to business, more specifics are needed.

One Example:  On December 8th, 2009, the Albemarle County Planning Commission had an application before it to add a communications equipment shed [24’ X 30’] within an existing fenced site.  Staff highlighted two factors favorable and no factors unfavorable for the application.

The 13 page staff report was exhaustive.  Staff visited the site a number of times and included photography from those visits.  In addition, staff pulled the original special use permit notification letter (1990) signed by then (and now) Planning Director V. Wayne Cilimberg. 

Members of the Planning Commission complemented the in depth analysis completed by staff in the report.  The Free Enterprise Forum was struck by the level of detail and believes this application is helpful in understanding the incessant expansion of applicant “requirements”.  To be clear, this is not a critique of the planner on this project [nor an opinion in favor or opposed to this project] but of the “requirements” being handed down from Planning Commissioners.

In time difficult economic times, organizations wishing to survive, must review their priorities and procedures.  As our our local governments prepare for their budgets, choices and decisions must be made.  One area for procedural improvements is the brave bureaucrat who will tell the Planning Commission [or Board of Supervisors] “No”.

Today, planning commissioners often meet independently with applicants and indicate they would “really like it” if the applicant would provide some data point that is not required by any statute. 

In addition, in many of the localities we cover, Planning Commissioners (and Board Members) will often ask staff lengthy tangential questions that require significant research.  How many staff hours are lost in this exercise?

When will someone stand up and say “stop the madness”?

Local ordinances go to great lengths to specify the information required for an application to be considered.  The current practices go far beyond that which is codified.

Albemarle County has a series of checklists some are delineated by ordinance but many have simply become common practice based on activist planning commissions [and Boards].  When the Free Enterprise Forum raised this issue we were told “Once the wasn’t a checklist”.

In any decision there is always more information available, but what specific information do you need it to evaluate the application?

The Free Enterprise Forum calls on all localities to review their procedures to limit the scope of review to only that information delineated by ordinance to be required to render a decision. 

If the code does not require enough data, change the code.

The brave bureaucrat who says “no” to the ever endless requests for tangential application information (from applicants and staff) will be taking the first steps toward creating a more predictable and positive local government culture. 

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20070731williamson Neil Williamson is the President of The Free Enterprise Forum, a public policy organization covering the City of Charlottesville as well as Albemarle, Greene, Fluvanna and Nelson County.  For more information visit the website www.freeenterpriseforum.org

Fluvanna Water Line Headed For Shelf?

By William J. Des Rochers, Fluvanna Field Officer

Fluvanna County’s Board of Supervisors held a January 23rd work session to discuss a possible public-private venture to build a portion of the James River water line without Louisa County. The proposal would draw water from the Rivanna River in the first phase.

Aqua Virginia presented a proposal that would: aqua america logo

  •  Build a waterline from Lake Monticello to Careysbrook to serve the Fork Union area at an estimated cost of $8.1 million;
  •  Construct a water line from Lake Monticello to Zion Crossroads over a period of 18 months at an estimated cost of $8.5 million; and,
  •  After the project debt was paid, ownership of the water lines would transfer to Aqua Virginia.

This would constitute the first phase of the project and would meet the immediate objectives of the Board: water to Zion Crossroads and reliable water service for Fork Union.

There would be three additional phases to the project, but would be deferred until justified by a larger customer base. One of those phases would include drawing water from the James River, but perhaps not until 2030. Total cost of these addition phases is estimated to be $21.2 million (current dollars).

According to data provided by Aqua Virginia, the estimated revenues from the new waterlines would reach $1 million by 2018, and water usage would approach the current Lake Monticello by 2022. And that is the problem. This appears to some as a speculative venture, with no guarantee that the customers will show up in sufficient numbers to justify the cost.

It appears that the supervisors currently are split 3 in favor (Booker, Chesser, and Gooch) and 3 opposed (Kenney, Ott, and Weaver) over the merits of the proposal. The pipeline ownership issue and affordability troubled some members. Moreover, Aqua Virginia is looking to invest $1.5 million and expects Fluvanna to contribute the remaining 90 percent ($15.1 million).

Given that virtually no one expects Fluvanna to sign the Joint Water Authority Agreement with Louisa at this point, this project just may end up on the shelf until growing demand rescues it.

Fluvanna Gets the Bad Budget Brief

By William J. Des Rochers, Fluvanna Field Officer

Fluvanna’s Board of Supervisors got some bad budget news at its January 20th meeting. Not only is the county expected to be over $560,000 in the hole this fiscal year, it will get a lot worse in FY 2011.

Staff reported that taxes would have to be increased by $.11 just to cover increased debt payments in the next fiscal year. That translates to a 22 percent tax hike. The staff presentation assumed no change in the level of county services.

Several Board members seem of a mind to cut those services, and substantially. Half of the local budget is directed towards education – excluding the school debt service – and half of the county’s governmental operating budget goes to salaries. The state already has signaled that it intends to cut its contribution to Fluvanna’s school system by nearly $2 million, and additional cuts in other areas are expected.

Compounding the difficulty is the lower tax collection rates. Collections are running at 95.6% for real estate taxes and just 88.4% for personal property taxes.

With the imminent departure of Mr. G. Cabell Lawton IV, Ms. Shelly Wright, the deputy county administrator, was named the acting county administrator, and will steer the county through the budget process.

In another major development, the supervisors gave notice of its intention to terminate its contract with its financial advisor: Davenport & Co. Board members had expressed dissatisfaction with the interest rate and structure of the bond issue for the new high school. Several contend that the county overpaid both for the bonds and the advisor’s services.

Supervisors also approved an amendment to the Comprehensive Plan. The amendment will expand the Rivanna Community Planning Area by approximately 62 acres. The property is located on the northeast side of the intersections of Routes 53 and 618, and currently is zoned A-1 (Agricultural).

Does Albemarle Want Light Industrial Jobs?

By. Neil Williamson, President

Earlier this week (1/19) the Albemarle County Planning Commission received an inventory report and demand analysis on light industrial land in Albemarle County.  As I listened to Susan Stimart’s presentation, I found myself translating the rather clinical land use term “Light Industrial Land” into “Light Industrial Jobs”.   Considering the challenging economic condition of Albemarle County I was suprised by the lukewarm reception some members of the Planning Commission gave  to the report and its recommendations. 

In preparing the report, Albemarle County staff conducted interviews with area property users and local real estate specialists dealing with commercial office and commercial-industrial property.

The results (of the interviews) in aggregate demonstrated that a foremost requirement, among the several factors considered by industrial-land users, is lower priced real estate with the appropriate zoning for their expected uses.

Beyond the new businesses considering locating in Albemarle the report highlights the disincentive to grow an light industrial business in Albemarle:

Companies expanding within the County typically incur an average of an additional $60,000 or more in carrying costs for development approvals, as cited by the Small Business Development Center in 2009.  One factor (lack of zoned land) is creating incentive to leave and the other (zoning code restrictions) a disincentive to stay.  Given the time and costs associated with local development approvals, the lack of industrially zoned land exacerbates the challenges to expanding a local business. (Emphasis added – NW)

After discounting the ability of some industrial enterprises to use the University of Virginia Research Park [enterprises locating in the park must have a research relationship with the university], the report states:

For non-UVA Park tenants, staff concludes there is a shortage of high-quality, vacant industrial land, compared with existing users’ stated demands, workforce projections and comparable supply in other jurisdictions within the region. ….The actual vacant, available County LI inventory is closer to 100 acres (emphasis added – NW)

Further challenging the economic development of these parcels is there relatively small size.  With an average size of just 3.5 acres, many of these sites are unusable with the current zoning regulations mandating a larger parcel size.  A number of these parcels are near residential developments raising the concern of conflicting land uses.  In addition, the meandering streams and rolling topography of our region coupled with significant zoning restrictions may render many of the LI zoned parcels useless.

Based on the initial reaction to the report by the Planning Commission, I am not certain that a majority of the advisory body in charge of land planning in Albemarle is in synch with the Board of Supervisors which passed a resolution stating:

Yancy Mills and 250 East Corridor from I-64 to Shadwell Store – The report on available light industrial zoning should be expedited and a report on the possibility of expansion of this type of zoning in these areas should be brought back to the board in the first quarter for discussion and possible action. 

On Monday night (1/18), Virginia’s new Governor Robert McDonnell mentioned his philosophy regarding the integration of planning and economic development in his speech to the General Assembly.

When a major business is considering a move to Virginia we must be able to meet the executives at the airport, drive them to a site ready for their project and show them that the only thing missing is them. Virginia is ready for their business – right now.

The Albemarle County Comprehensive Plan clearly enumerates the need for Albemarle to “Maintain a strong and sustainable economy.”

To meet this Comprehensive Plan goal the report indicates:

To meet the goal of providing a sustainable economy, diversified economic opportunities and the intent of the growth management goal to encourage non-rural related activities to locate in the designated growth areas, it is important to have a sufficient inventory of zoned lands in the growth areas to support anticipated and desired growth in these sectors of the economy

While there were members of the Planning Commission that seemed supportive of the concept of expanding the development area to accommodate large contiguous light industrial land uses, the chair was not.  It is unclear where the entire Planning Commission was on the issue as not all members spoke to the issue before the discussion was closed by the chair.   

Does Albemarle want light industrial jobs?  The answer is not clear.  If an enterprise beleives that the answer is unclear, they will locate or move to a place where they (and their positive economic activity) are expressly desired. 

The report now goes to the Albemarle County Board of Supervisors for their review in their February 3rd meeting.  It will be interesting to see if the Supervisors see this report as an economic development alarm or merely another staff report destined to gather dust on a shelf.

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20070731williamson Neil Williamson is the President of The Free Enterprise Forum, a public policy organization covering the City of Charlottesville as well as Albemarle, Greene, Fluvanna and Nelson County.  For more information visit the website www.freeenterpriseforum.org

 

Planning Transit Friendly Development or Restricting Mobility?

By. Neil Williamson, President

After attending the Places29 work session in Albemarle County yesterday (1/13), I was encouraged by the discussion of potential additions to the development areas in Albemarle County.  Regular readers know in 1980, 5% of Albemarle County was designated as for development.  Recently that number dropped by 3.5% due to the new Biscuit Run State Park

The discussion prompted a bigger question in my mind, how has the first 30 years of the development areas concept worked out for Albemarle County?

The vision of Albemarle’s comprehensive plan is to build densely populated walkable, mixed use communities. Wayne Cilimberg, Albemarle County Planning Director is quoted in today’s Daily Progress in a story by Brandon Shulleeta:

The town-center style development, including housing units over storefronts and developing taller buildings, is being encouraged.

“That’s pretty much the American-style development up until World War II. It wasn’t auto dependent,” Cilimberg said. “There was more of a relationship between where people lived and where they worked and shopped. The current trend is in the direction we want. Ideally, we’d like to get the rural areas down to zero-growth for new homes, but that’s not likely to happen, and we realize that.”

Writing in The Big Sky Business Journal The Reason Foundation’s Randal O’Toole has a different take on defining “American Development Patterns”.

A lot of people like to imagine some kind of golden age where we all rode around on trains or bicycles or street cars, but the reality is only the wealthy could do that, and the wealthy didn’t do all that much of it.  The average American only traveled, in 1900, about 200 miles a year by inter-city train, and another two or three hundred miles by street car. And, today we are traveling 18,000 miles per person per year almost all of it by automobile or airplane.

The idea that we can go back to some kind of age when we can just have inter-city high speed trains or street cars is foolish, it’s not going to work. Mobility has given us a tremendous amount of benefit.

For one thing, it gives employers access to far more workers. If you can draw workers from a thirty-mile radius, instead of a one-mile radius (because you can only get to the ones who can reach you on foot) — because it gives employers access to more workers, workers are more productive and employers can pay workers more. So, mobility has been associated with a seven-fold increase in real, inflation-adjusted incomes, since Henry Ford developed the mass production of the Model T Ford. So, this huge increase in income is largely due to that mobility.

Mobility gives us access to lower-cost consumer goods. It gives access to a wide range of social and recreation opportunities.

So, when the Obama Administration says they want to coerce people out of their cars — when places like the City of Portland adopt plans that aim to reduce per capita driving by two-thirds in the next forty years — we’re talking about, not just reducing peoples mobility, but reducing their incomes, reducing their access to consumer goods, reducing their social and recreation opportunities. These kinds of impacts will fall hardest on low income people because they are going to be the ones that won’t have access to alternatives.

“[The planners] are romanticizing the plan as it worked for the rich. There is a planning advocate named James Howard Kuntsler, who gave a speech a few years ago, in which he said, imagine living in Chicago in 1881 and you could take a train from your downtown office to a wonderful suburban neighborhood. It was a glorious way to live. Yes, it was for the 10 percent who could afford to live that way, or maybe 20 percent, but the vast majority of Americans were confined to travel on foot. They couldn’t afford trains. They couldn’t afford street cars. Even as late as 1910 most travel in America was on foot. So the idea that we can go back to that age and not lose the incomes we have gained  since then — not lose the spread of mobility throughout our population since then — is just a fantasy.

The reality is that we are going to severely cripple the economy. We are going to harm lots and lots of low-income and middle-income people, if we try to implement these plans aimed at reducing people’s mobility.

The Free Enterprise Forum tends to lean toward the O’Toole mobility based vision with one caveat, since there clearly exists a market segment (not a majority) interested in densely populated, walkable communities; Such market driven communities should not be prevented by ordinance (as they once were in Albemarle via set backs) but should also not be mandated. 

Using their wallets, Americans should be provided the freedom to chose their level of density and the limits on their mobility.

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20070731williamson Neil Williamson is the President of The Free Enterprise Forum, a public policy organization covering the City of Charlottesville as well as Albemarle, Greene, Fluvanna and Nelson County.  For more information visit the website www.freeenterpriseforum.org

New Home Starts Down Again in Fluvanna

By William J. Des Rochers, Fluvanna Field Officer

According to statistics just released by Fluvanna County, building permits for new home construction declined again in 2009, for the fifth straight year. Dwelling permits declined from 118 to 114 in 2008 – a 3.4 percent drop.

Only an increase in mobile home permits prevented a greater decline; mobile home permits increased by six to a total of nine. Single-family detached homes permits dropped by over 15 percent from 2008.

New Home building permits in Fluvanna have declined every year since 2001 and now stand at only one-quarter of what they were in that year. In the early part of the past decade, Fluvanna was one of the fastest growing localities in Virginia, albeit from a small base. The current population is estimated at about 26,500.

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The continued decline has reduced pressure on the Board of Supervisors to deal with the rural preservation issue. The issue has divided county residents over the past several years but was not a significant factor in the past county election. According to several officials, the county’s first order of business will be to address the looming budget crisis.

Fluvanna Administrator Lawton Quits

 By William J. Des Rochers, Fluvanna Field Representative

Lawton

Fluvanna County Administrator G. Cabell Lawton IV has resigned. He informed the Board of Supervisors of his decision at a closed session of the Board on January 6th. He was the county administrator for the  better part of the last decade and before that was the county’s planning director.  Sources indicate Mr. Lawton may be taking the County Administrator position in New Kent County.

His departure is scheduled for early February. Under the terms of his contract, Mr. Lawton is required to provide reasonable notice.

Lawton departs just as the county faces serious fiscal problems, brought on by lagging revenues and growing debt obligations incurred by the previous Board. Additionally, state transfer payments likely will be reduced substantially as the Commonwealth faces its own fiscal problems.

According to several sources, Lawton’s continued tenure was in doubt. Fairly or not, he was perceived as too closely allied with the previous Board of Supervisors and as the implementer of the controversial financial decisions.

Notwithstanding Mr. Lawton’s departure, supervisors will have to address the fiscal year 2011 budget almost immediately. Ms. Shelley Wright, the deputy county administrator traditionally has overseen day-to-day budget staff work, so there will be some methodological continuity.

* Photo Credit: Fluvanna County

Fluvanna Supervisors Off to Quick Start

By William J. Des Rochers, Fluvanna Field Officer

 Fluvanna new Board of Supervisors got off to a quick start on January 6th.  The Board, which has two new members, tasked staff with obtaining more financial information, set up a budget work session, suggested that resolution of the James River Water Authority controversy would be near, and made numerous Board appointments.

No sooner had the Board elected Gene Ott (Rivanna) Chairman – and rookie Shawn Kenney (Columbia) Vice-Chairman, than Mr. Ott outlined his plans. He noted his dissatisfaction with the paucity of background data needed to make financial decisions.  He was particularly concerned that revenue estimates and state transfer projections be made available for the budget process. 

Both Board newcomers, Kenney and Joe Chesser (Rivanna) echoed these sentiments, as did veteran Don Weaver (Cunningham).  Returning incumbents Mozell Booker (Fork Union) and John Gooch (Palmyra) were subdued through much of the meeting; their two former allies Marvin Moss (Columbia) and Charles Allbaugh (Rivanna) no longer serve on the Board.

Supervisors indicated that they want to move quickly to resolve issues surrounding the Fluvanna-Louisa joint James River Water Authority, a source of controversy in the county since it was established last year.  Reportedly, Louisa’s supervisors are impatient with Fluvanna’s foot dragging on the water line and have set a deadline for an agreement.

The Board set a work session for January 23rd to review the Authority and plans to invite Aqua Virginia to the table to explore a joint public-private sector partnership – something Louisa county strongly opposed in the past.

Board members also made the following supervisor appointments:

  • Affordable Housing Task Force:  Booker, Kenney
  • Agricultural/Forestal Advisory Committee:  Weaver
  • Audit Committee:  Ott
  • Central Virginia Regional Jail Board:  Weaver
  • Community Policy Management Team:  Ott
  • Court Green Committee:  Gooch
  • Economic Development Commission:  Chesser
  • Emergency Services Director:  Ott
  • Fluvanna Transportation Safety Commission:  Chesser, Ott
  • Fork Union Sanitary District Advisory Committee:  Booker
  • Landfill Advisory Committee:  Weaver
  • Palmyra Wastewater Committee:  Ott, Gooch
  • Parks and Recreation Board:  Booker
  • Piedmont Workforce Council:  Kenney
  • Planning Commission:  Chesser
  • Rivanna River Basin Commission:  Chesser, Gooch
  • Social Services Board:  Booker
  • T. J. Area Community Criminal Justice Board:  Kenney
  • T. J. Planning District Commission:  Chesser
  • Va. Association of Counties Legislative Contact:  Ott
  • Water Committee:  Gooch, Ott

Perhaps as a sign of the times, at the end of the meeting Sheriff Ryant Washington requested that the Board contact the county’s Washington delegation to oppose a measure under consideration that would require localities to negotiate labor contracts with law enforcement officers.

The New Majorities – Albemarle and Fluvanna BOS Hit the Ground Running

By. Neil Williamson, President

Both the Albemarle and Fluvanna County Boards of Supervisors held their first 2010 meeting yesterday (1/7).  Each Board has two new members that will likely represent a shift from 3-3 stalemate to a 4-2 majority on many issues.

When County Administrator Cabell Lawton gaveled the meeting to order in Fluvanna County, a large number of citizens applauded and gave the new Board a standing ovation.  Several Fluvanna Supervisors indicated it would no longer be “Business as Usual” in Fluvanna County.  [Fluvanna Field Officer Bill Des Rochers will have a full report on the Fluvanna meeting posted later today]

Meanwhile in Albemarle County, Supervisor Ken Boyd introduced a motion in “Other matters from the Board” that he described as a blueprint for the Board.

The motion highlights the new Board’s desire for

· Economic development

· Zero based budgeting

· Improved Development review process

· Possible expansion of Light Industrial inventory

· Expeditious efforts regarding Berkmar Drive Extended

· Sign ordinance revisions

The motion was designed to provide staff with direction regarding the board priorities.  The motion passed 4-2 (Mallek and Rooker opposed).  Charlottesville Tomorrow has the full story (and podcast).

The Free Enterprise Forum believes the political shifts in Fluvanna and Albemarle are nothing less than seismic.  If the new Boards are able to make significant progress regarding economic development and the reduction of onerous regulatory barriers, the community will be stronger for their efforts.  

With these new majorities it will be most interesting to see how the work of these Boards change from previous iterations.  Based on the first meetings, it promises to be a fascinating two years.

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20070731williamson Neil Williamson is the President of The Free Enterprise Forum, a public policy organization covering the City of Charlottesville as well as Albemarle, Greene, Fluvanna and Nelson County.  For more information visit the website www.freeenterpriseforum.org