Monthly Archives: June, 2017

Greene Seeks To Address Define Blight

Near the end of the June 27th Greene County Board of Supervisors meeting Alan Yost, Director of Economic Development and Tourism, made a presentation regarding a potential “Blight” ordinance.

Alan Yost

County Administrator, John Barkley, started the discussion with the goal to try to compel businesses to improve and to dress up the Route 29 corridor. There are some properties on Route 29 that are significant problems and give a poor image to people passing through Greene County.

Alan Yost addressed the Board and told them that the top two questions he gets from residents are – is there an Olive Garden coming to Greene and what can be done to address buildings in poor condition? Yost said he has researched many counties in Virginia to see how they identify blighted businesses and what ordinances they use to address them.

What he has found is that blighted property is incapable of being utilized without outside intervention. And some property cannot be improved for various reasons, such as the owner is absentee and has no interest in making the property better. Another third reason is that the property has no market value – this rationale would likely fit the northeast corner in Ruckersville since the parcel is too small to have a business placed on it.

Yost went on to explain that not only is the specific property a problem, but neighboring property is devalued. As traffic goes up and down Route 29 what is seen becomes their perception of Greene County and seeing blighted property gives a poor image of the county. Yost explained that the owners of the northwest corner of Routes 29 and 33 had the “hotel rooms” demolished right after they learned of the possibility of action related to blighted property. clip_image002

Yost further explained that he researched many counties and found Middlesex County’s treatment of blighted property as a good starting point.  He suggested that the Board set ground rules for the community patterned after Middlesex County’s.

Interestingly, Albemarle County recently dealt with this issue and chose simply to utilize existing state law that allows permits a locality to hold a public hearing and declare the property as blighted.

From the Albemarle staff report:

Virginia Code § 36-49.1:1 enables localities to identify and remedy “spot blight.” Virginia Code § 36-3 defines “blighted property” as:
“[A]ny individual commercial, industrial, or residential structure or improvement that endangers the public’s health , safety, or welfare because the structure or improvement upon the property is dilapidated, deteriorated, or violates minimum health or safety standards, or any structure or improvement previously designated as blighted pursuant to § 36-49.1:1, under the process for determination of ‘spot blight.’”

This enabling authority authorizes a locality’s chief executive (or designee) to determine that a property is blighted, and require the owner to develop an abatement plan within 30 days. If the owner fails to respond within 30 days with an acceptable abatement plan, the chief executive may request that the Board adopt a specific uncodified ordinance declaring the property as blighted.

Once the owner has been provided written notice of the ordinance and the locality’s abatement plan, the locality may carry out the approved plan to repair or acquire and dispose of the property. If the ordinance is adopted by the Board, the locality shall have a lien on the property to recover its costs of repairing or acquiring property under an approved spot blight abatement plan.

Interestingly, this provision of state code was not a part of the discussion in Greene.

Barkley suggested that either a public hearing or a work session be scheduled as the next step. Yost asked that Barkley review the ordinance from Middlesex County and modify it for consideration by Greene County.

Supervisor Bill Martin (Stanardsville) asked that care be given to this issue since it deals with property rights. Supervisor David Cox (Monroe) asked Zoning Administrator Bart Svoboda how Stanardsville handles blighted property and Svoboda indicated that they have their own standards. It was suggested that Svoboda review how Stanardville handles blighted property and come back to the Board for further discussion.

Considering the balance between property rights and community health, safety and welfare, the Board may be challenged to create an ordinance that accomplishes their goals of property improvement without significantly limiting the landowners rights. Considering their limited goals, Greene may be wise to examine the provision in the existing state code for Spot blight.

The real question is how will blighted property be determined and addressed by whatever ordinance is developed and what penalties will be put in place to ensure action is taken.

Brent Wilson is the Greene County Field Officer for the Free Enterprise Forum a privately funded public policy organization.  The Free Enterprise Forum Field Officer program is funded by a generous grant from the Charlottesville Area Association of REALTORS® (CAAR) and by readers like you.  To support this important work please donate online at www.freeenterpriseforum.org

Fluvanna Adding Debt and Reducing Regulations to Boost ZXR Development Potential

By. Bryan Rothamel, Field Officer

The Fluvanna County Board of Supervisors are adding another $8.5 million to the county’s debt total.

The supervisors voted 4-0 to finance $8.5 million for the Zion Crossroads water and sewer project.Chairman Mike Sheridan (Columbia District) had a pre-planned absence.

Current estimates has the project at over $10 million. The remaining amount will be paid in cash from the county’s reserves.

Tony O’Brien (Rivanna District) wanted to include in the financing the first year’s payment but it failed to reach a second. Patricia Eager (Palmyra District) moved to pay the first year’s payment in cash. This payment was not budgeted for in FY18.

The supervisors originally applied and were approved for $8.5 million through the Virginia Resource Authority but debated on financing less than the full amount. The county’s reserves are sitting at $4.8 million above policy of keeping 12 percent of the budget in reserves. This additional amount above policy is called the ‘fund balance.’

With financing of $8.5 million for the project, the county will still pay $1.7 million in cash from the fund balance.

“Flexibility [in the cash balance] is important. $2 million is not a lot of flexibility,” said O’Brien.

The county’s debt total will be over $100 million. Starting in FY19 the county will be retiring $6 to $7 million a year of debt.

Also at the June 21 meeting, the supervisors approved a number of changes in the the zoning ordinances.

The only one not to get an unanimous vote was the one regarding planning unit developments. Fluvanna still does not have an approved PUD and only one has come to a vote, Walker’s Ridge.

The changes would restrict PUDs to the Zion Crossroads community planning area and would require use of public water and sewer. O’Brien raised concern if a developer needed more capacity than the county could offer at the time, it would stop development.

County staff said if a developer wanted a PUD, the developer would help finance an expansion of the system to make it work.

Wayne Stephens, director of public works, said he thought it would be a huge mistake to allow people to build a private system in a community planning area.

O’Brien envisioned a scenario where the developer would have a private system that later would connect when the capacity would allow.

“Trust me, if you have an out…someone will take it,” said Stephens.

The ordinance change passed 3-1 with O’Brien against it.

The other zoning text amendments passed without dissension. The sign ordinance became less restrictive including allowing larger signs in the Zion Crossroads urban development area. The ZXR sign overlay district will have similar dimensions as Louisa County but slightly smaller.

The other change was increasing the maximum height of Industrial 2 zoned properties. It also will now require less setback unless bordering a residential zoned property.

All of the changes are geared to helping development in the Zion Crossroads’ area with the anticipating of the aforementioned planned water system.

In other news, the supervisors approved the county applying for a grant to build a fire training tower building at the Fork Union Fire Station. The goal of the application is for the county’s match to be provided by staff work or already budget resources instead of additional cash contribution.

The supervisors approved a new private secondary school at the old ABC Preschool by Slice Road. The facility is a six week program geared to helping students return to the public school classroom by working on social skills and classwork. The private school has agreements with Fluvanna, Albemarle, Charlottesville, Greene, Nelson and Madison already.

The board transferred money to pay for county attorney services. The FY17 projected cost is $273,000. The county’s attorney costs have increased each of the last four years. The supervisors briefly discussed during the budget season hiring a full time county attorney, however that discussion didn’t go far.

Also at the June 21 meeting the supervisors extended the contract for the county attorney services at the same rates as the current fiscal year.

The supervisors will next meet on July 5 at 4 p.m. and 7 p.m. The supervisors have no second meeting in July. A public hearing on issuance of the ZXR bonds will be on the 7 p.m. docket.


https://freeenterpriseforum.files.wordpress.com/2015/10/bryan-rothamel.jpg?w=151&h=151The Free Enterprise Forum’s coverage of Fluvanna County is provided by a grant from the Charlottesville Area Association of REALTORS®and by the support of readers like you.

Bryan Rothamel covers Fluvanna County for the Free Enterprise Forum

Photo Credit: Fluvanna County

Charlottesville’s Engagement Problem

FORUM WATCH EDITORIAL

By. Neil Williamson, President

Man-proposing-ring-woman-e1434128981263One person can’t get engaged – it takes two.

Engagement, like all communication, requires all parties to fully participate; listening and responding.  This was not the case in last night’s (6/27) Charlottesville planning commission meeting – where the banner of public engagement is waved proudly; but despite the efforts of two special interest groups, their zoning code concerns were not addressed in the discussion.

Please let me explain.

In last night’s Planning Commission code audit work session, Deputy City Attorney Lisa Robertson related to the Commission that she had several conversations with the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC) and received a copy of the letter written by the Charlottesville Area Development Roundtable (CADRe).

Rather than taking the bull by the horns and including these organizations’ concerns in the presentation, Robertson said that CADRe’s letter was written to the Planning Commission and City Council and was not staff’s position to reply.  Robertson said she thought the comments of both groups might inform discussion of the panel but not once in the two hour work session did she raise a specific concern from either of the organizations.  Considering the level of technical detail in the CADRe letter, one would have anticipated planning staff providing some context to the legal discussion – there was none.

The Free Enterprise Forum has reviewed CADRe’s 16 page letter, sent to the Planning Commission in advance of their first work session (5/29).  The respectful tone and constructive criticism was well drafted and encouraged public discussion of the various points.  Those questions went unanswered.

In his reporting for Charlottesville Tomorrow, Sean Tubbs included the CADRe concerns as a part of his coverage of the meeting in this morning’s Daily Progress. If it was important enough to be in the article, shouldn’t it be part of the Planning Commission discussion?

The goal of the Planning Commission work sessions was to vet the proposed zoning changes and the impacts they might have on property owners.  CADRe which works with several prominent property owners raised many significant concerns regarding building heights.  Staff failed to mention (let alone address) these concerns in their presentation; therefore the discussion was significantly less robust than it could have been.

Late in the meeting Planning Commission Chair Kurt Keeseker suggested the commission should be made aware understand the types of comments that are coming in and the citizens should receive a response.  He related the manner in which the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) is answering inquiries and the reporting back to the Hydraulic Advisory Panel.  This less than perfect engagement concept was brought forward in good faith, but it was dismissed.

This process is being done under the auspices of a ‘legal review’ and thus the Deputy City Attorney is the lead staff.  As mentioned above, one would anticipate that the planning staff who work with the zoning code day in and day out would have a great deal to offer regarding the code revisions.  Silently sitting a row behind the Deputy City Attorney, Alex Ikefuna Charlottesville’s Director of Planning spoke not one word during the 2 hour+ meeting.  His silence spoke volumes.

When the four Planning Commissioners present pushed back on staff asking for more engagement with  SELC,  CADRe, and other interested citizens, staff indicated that could not be accomplished under the stated work plan that City Council adopted.

In summary, at least two special interest groups provided substantial information to the staff and staff choose not to include the concerns in the presentation because the letter was addressed to the Planning Commission and the City Council. When the Commission pushed for more community engagement, they folded under staff’s threat of jeopardizing City Council’s calendar.

The Free Enterprise Forum believes the zoning code rewrite process is being railroaded.

We believe in true engagement.  Failing to directly address the concerns of the SELC and CADRe at the Planning Commission work session level will lead to increase delay in zoning code implementation and a lack of respect for the entire “engagement” process.  These issues will not “go away” they will return at the public hearings.

Simply putting documents on a website “for all to see” is not engagement – engagement is involved, engagement can be messy, engagement requires significant work and engagement takes time.  It seems the City is placing their calendar over their citizens.

Charlottesville deserves better.

Respectfully Submitted,

Neil Williamson, President

Neil Williamson is the President of The Free Enterprise Forum, a privately funded public policy organization covering the City of Charlottesville as well as Albemarle, Greene, Fluvanna, Louisa and  Nelson County.

Photo Credit: Hiphealthy.com

The Route 29 Solutions Finish Line(s)

By. Neil Williamson, President, Free Enterprise Forum

In a display of confidence and political expediency, then new Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe set an aggressive deadline for the Route29Solutions projects of October 30, 2017 (a week before the 2017 General Election).  In addition, the Commonwealth Transportation Board provided significant incentives to the contractors for completing projects ahead of the mandated schedule — it worked.

Rio/US29 GSI – OPEN 7/18/2016
US29 Widening – Scheduled Open June 30, 2017
Berkmar Extended – Schedule Open June 30, 2017
Traffic Signal Synchronization – Scheduled June 30, 2017
Hillsdale Drive Extended – Scheduled October 30, 2017

The Route 29 Solutions Project Delivery Advisory Panel (PDAP) has been working with the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) and the contractors throughout this fast paced design/build program.  The PDAP meetings, which are live streamed on the web, always receive project updates as well as information about business assistance programming.  The PDAP has initiated several refinements to the project.

In many ways, this set of projects has positively impacted the manner VDOT now delivers projects.  The Free Enterprise Forum has been a vocal critic of the Rio Grade Separated Interchange plan and of many aspects of the Project Delivery Advisory Panel.  We have also been critical of the methodology of former panel facilitator Philip Shucet.  We have been and are supportive and appreciative of the many men and women who have worked so hard to put these important transportation projects ahead of schedule.

We hope our thoughtful, respectful opposition provided the opportunity to “sharpen the saw” and through our tough questions we have helped refine the process.  While we still see significant transportation infrastructure needs, we believe our community, and our Commonwealth are better off for this significant transportation investment.

Respectfully Submitted,

Neil Williamson, President

Bad ‘Housekeeping’

By. Neil Williamson, President

Image result for alice brady bunchGrowing up in the 1970s, the only ‘housekeeper’ I knew was Alice from the Brady Bunch.  She was an important part of the family who helped out getting everything accomplished for a busy family with six children.  She was well respected by the children, the community and her employers.

Now, in separate, equally disturbing, actions both Albemarle County and Charlottesville are giving Alice a bad name.

Please let me explain.

Under the auspices of literally “Housekeeping” AlbemarlePC Legal notice plans, by my count, nearly 30 code revisions.  The legal ad for the June 20th Planning Commission Public Hearing (right) was dense, even by Albemarle standards.

While the Free Enterprise Forum applauds some of the changes proposed, we remain concerned that other items are clearly being pushed through for political expediency and are being “hidden in plain sight”.

Yesterday, I literally took out my magnifying glass to read the small print.  Policy wonks may read the legal ads this closely but by putting thirty largely unrelated code revisions into Zoning Text Amendment, the opportunity for obfuscation is great.

In a municipal game of “Where’s Waldo” see if you can find the second amend statement in the ad above.  If you were able to find it, you would find this innocuous legalese:

Amend Section 18-32.6 to clarify that specifications for recreational facilities comply with Sections 18-4.16-4.16.3;

Reading the text above, Alice (and pretty much everyone else) might think this is just “cleaning up” some legal stuff to make it comply with some other legal stuff.  But in reality, these twelve words eliminate special use permits for golf and swim clubs in the rural areas, effectively banning new golf courses in Albemarle County.  [correction June 13 10:46 am  this language is to clean up the ordinance, a separate SUP (and public engagement plan) will be submitted to eliminate golf courses in the rural area – per e-mail from Albemarle’s Bill Fritz- the Free Enterprise Forum regrets this error – nw] This is just one of the “housekeeping” items buried in the proposed Zoning Text Amendment

Albemarle is not alone in burying changes in “housekeeping” activities.  Charlottesville Deputy City Attorney Lisa Robertson took City Council’s charge of a “Legal Review” to mean anything her office wanted to change should be a part of the review.

Luckily, the Charlottesville Area Development Roundtable (CADRe) took a long look at the “Legal Review”. As CADRe stated in their May 23rd letter to the Planning Commission:

In the case where a revision represents a substantive change that we feel is inappropriate for the Legal Review and better served by potential Amendments following the update to the Comprehensive Plan, we have noted as Substantive Change. [emphasis added-nw]

Much more than just “Housekeeping” CADRe’s letter outlined 16 pages of Substantive Changes; including the elimination of non residential uses in residential districts:

Also, what about all the other non-residential uses that are currently permitted in residential districts per the residential matrix? Is there a proposed replacement matrix that maintains these uses?

Examples: Houses of worship, temporary outdoor churches, cemetery, Health clinic, private clubs, wireless facilities (antennas, attached facilities, etc.), day care facility, schools (elementary, high school, college) funeral home, library, municipal govt. offices, property management, parking garage/lot, indoor health/sports clubs, parks, utility facilities, utility lines, consumer service business.
If these uses are eliminated from the residential districts this too is a SIGNIFICANT SUBSTANTIVE CHANGE

Regardless of your position on the issues buried in these Zoning Text Amendments, it is difficult for us to understand how one would find these changes as “Housekeeping”.  Instead, we see it as an attempt, albeit a legal attempt, to circumvent the normal process and implement significant changes without proper public engagement.

Alice would indeed be disappointed in this shaming of the word “Housekeeping”.

Respectfully Submitted,

Neil Williamson, President

Neil Williamson is the President of The Free Enterprise Forum, a privately funded public policy organization covering the City of Charlottesville as well as Albemarle, Greene, Fluvanna, Louisa and  Nelson County.

Photo Credit: WJBQ.com

Fluvanna Finances $8 Million for ZXR Water Project; Discusses Refinancing School Debt

By. Bryan Rothamel, Field Officer

The Fluvanna County Board of Supervisors have a tentatively agreed to finance the Zion Crossroads (ZXR) water project with $8 million of debt.  The county was approved to finance up to $8.5 million through the Virginia Resource Authority.

The ZXR project is projected to cost $10.2 million. The county has $4 million in cash savings, most commonly called the fund balance.  Supervisors debated how much they would feel comfortable financing between $6 million and $8 million and for how long.

“I would encourage you to go $8 [million],” said county administrator Steve Nichols.

OBrien2014 photo credit Fluvanna County

Tony O’Brien

Tony O’Brien (Rivanna District) said, “The more flexibility we have in regards to the fund balance, the better.”

The county was advised by staff to go no more than 25 years on the bonds to avoid financing a project longer than the project’s replacement cycle.  The estimated lifespan of the project is 50 years for the water tower, 15 to 20 years for mechanical parts and 70 to 80 years for the pipes.

“You should view this debt as an investment,” said O’Brien.

Don Weaver (Cunningham District) said, “It is definitely an investment.”

Also at the June 7 meeting, supervisors decided it will sit back and watch the market in regards to how to reinvest $58 million worth of bonds.  In third quarter 2018, the school bonds will have about a 100-day span where money can be reinvested. The proceeds of the investments would be profit for the county.

“I don’t think you will make less [later] than you are going to make today,” said Patricia Eager (Palmyra District).

The county explored a float agreement where the county would now offer companies an opportunity to invest money when the chance arises in 2018. The companies would pay the county now for the opportunity later.

Another option is to buy state and local government series (SLGS) securities. However, the government regulates when those can be purchased. Currently SLGS securities are not allowed to be purchased but it is expected to open again.

As the opportunity to reinvest the bonds gets closer, the float agreement becomes less advantageous because companies would not be ‘betting’ on the market. Another issue with the float agreement is the county would pay fees which would take away maximum income.

If SLGS window is closed during the reinvestment period, the county could purchase treasury bonds for a similar rate.

“In other words, [by not doing anything now] we are taking a risk?” said Mozell Booker (Fork Union District).

Eager responded, “Not a very big risk.”

The county administration recent discovered a new ‘bed and breakfast’. Staff has discovered 20 to 25 homes are listed on popular sharing economy website airbnb, where owners can rent out spare rooms to strangers.

The state now allows localities to regulate this new type of lodging options. Many localities have had an adversarial relationship with airbnb because many owners are failing to pay lodging (and business) taxes. [Albemarle County is considering a new lodging tax and business tax ordinance this Wednesday]

However Fluvanna has no lodging taxes. County staff asked the supervisors for direction regarding the issue. Weaver found no issue if renting your own home was legal.

“Have you had any issues?” Weaver asked and received a no. “Then leave it alone.”

County attorney Fred Payne said, “I think [the market] is so new, it is still shaking down.”

Staff offered an opportunity to require airbnb hosts to register with the county. “I think it is a very fluid market,” said O’Brien.

Staff research and return to the board with opportunities or regulations.

The next Fluvanna Board of Supervisors meeting is June 21 at 7 p.m.


https://freeenterpriseforum.files.wordpress.com/2015/10/bryan-rothamel.jpg?w=151&h=151The Free Enterprise Forum’s coverage of Fluvanna County is provided by a grant from the Charlottesville Area Association of REALTORS®and by the support of readers like you.

Bryan Rothamel covers Fluvanna County for the Free Enterprise Forum 

Photo Credit: Fluvanna County

Sprawl Wars–One Rouge

By. Neil Williamson, President

Reminding me of the old Don Imus bit “Which Doesn’t Belong and Why”, this Thursday evening I will be joining Charlottesville City Councilor Kathy Galvin and Piedmont Environmental Council’s Charlottesville-Albemarle Land Use Officer Jeff Werner on a panel discussing “How Zoning and Land Use Shape The World Around Us”.  This FREE event is a non-partisan project of The Democratic Road Forward PAC.

At the outset, I must complement the other panelists both of whom are well respected in their professional and political fields.  I have known Werner and Galvin for many years; we disagree strongly about some things, but we have always had interesting, positive conversations/debates.  I anticipate Thursday will be equally interesting.

While the Free Enterprise Form is pleased to be invited to the panel, some of the promotion for the event already has me scratching my head. Rather than focusing on the more cerebral zoning and land use, the organizers are touting “URBAN SPRAWL” Here is the blurb from the website:

2017UGsession6_4

“Decades of unplanned and carelessly applied zoning gave rise to urban sprawl”, I have to disagree.

Sure the zoning regulations and their enforcement had an impact on neighborhood expansion, but market demand, improved mobility, automobile affordability, as well as the advancement of women in the workplace were significant contributors to sprawling neighborhoods.

Blaming the previous planning is evidence of the arrogant planner’s paradox — if only the community planned better we would be a better community – planning is good but product must have a market or it does not get built.  The Free Enterprise Forum does not believe most planners have a wide enough world view when it comes to planning alternatives.

In his paper, Urban Sprawl, Smart Growth, and Deliberative Democracy, David B. Resnik, JD, PhD wrote:

Urban sprawl in the United States has its origins in the flight to the suburbs that began in the 1950s. People wanted to live outside of city centers to avoid traffic, noise, crime, and other problems, and to have homes with more square footage and yard space. As suburban areas developed, cities expanded in geographic size faster than they grew in population. This trend has produced large metropolitan areas with low population densities, interconnected by roads. Residents of sprawling cities tend to live in single-family homes and commute to work, school, or other activities by automobile.

The concept of living in a suburban neighborhood has been a dream for many American families.  The advent of affordable automobiles and gasoline provided America the greatest independent mobility in the world.  People could choose to live out in the country and still make it into the urban areas to work.  Today, environmental groups and academics have successfully attached a negative connotation to the “American Dream” of owning a house with a yard by using the term ‘sprawl’.

“Sprawl features rapid geographic expansion of metropolitan areas in a “leapfrog,” low density pattern, segregation of distinct land uses, heavy dependence on automobile travel with extensive road construction, architectural and social homogeneity, shift of capital investment and economic opportunity from the city center the the periphery, and relatively weak regional planning.”
Rollins School of Public Heath, Emory University

“Sprawl is irresponsible, often poorly-planned development that destroys green space, increases traffic and air pollution, crowds schools, and drives up taxes.” –The Sierra Club

Local and State Governments have joined in the anti-sprawl movement mainly for economic reasons – it is significantly more efficient to deliver government services (Schools, Police, Fire, Etc.) to a densely populated area rather than geographically dispersed.

In a fascinating piece of creative lexicon, the term ‘Smart Growth’ worked its way into the planning sphere in the 1990s.  Like ‘Clean Water’ these positive terms, work subliminally to support their own cause i.e.: if you are opposed to ‘smart growth’ you must favor ‘dumb growth’.  Recently many of  ‘smart growth’ proponents have shifted lexicon to be supportive of “Form Based Zoning”, “Sustainable Cities” and of course Charlottesville’s  “Streets that Work”.

One of the premier new urbanist evangelists is Andrés Duany, whose firm DPZ was hired by Charlottesville last year to develop their Form Based Code.  Duany has co-authored five books: Suburban Nation: The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream, The New Civic Art, “The Smart Growth Manual”, “Garden Cities” and “Landscape Urbanism and Its Discontents”.

The Free Enterprise Forum believes there is a market for Form Based Codes and New Urbanism; but there is also a market for old urbanism and suburbanism.  Just as we were supportive of Albemarle’s neighborhood model as ONE model not THE model, we believe zoning should not be crafted to prevent the last bad thing from happening again it should be built to allow the next great place to be built.  Neither sprawl or the automobile should be seen as planners’ enemy.

In his seminal book The Vanishing Automobile and Other Myths, Randal O’Toole wrote:

Sprawl is one of those invented problems. Low-density suburbanization–which is what people usually mean when they say “sprawl”–not only is not responsible for most of the problems that its critics charge, it is the solution to many of the problems that sprawl opponents claim they want to solve.

The war on sprawl is really a war on American lifestyles. It combines a war on the suburbs that house half of all Americans with a war on the automobiles that carry Americans four out of every five miles they travel. Yet the suburbs provide an ideal medium between rural open spaces and crowded cities while occupying just 2 percent of the nation’s land. Meanwhile, for most urban-length trips, the automobile is the fastest, most convenient, and most economical form of personal transportation ever devised.

Americans live in a wide range of possible lifestyles. A fourth of all U.S. residents live in rural areas away from any cities or towns. Another 10 percent live in small towns that are far from major urban areas. While 65 percent of Americans live in urbanized areas of 50,000 people or more, just a third of those live in the central cities such as New York, Seattle, or Dallas. Urbanized lifestyles range from low-density suburbs through medium-density edge cities to high-density city centers. All of these are valid lifestyle choices and they work for the people who live there.

To be clear, any land use regulation worth of the name is a restriction of property rights.  Interestingly, those same regulations provide a level of protection for the property rights (and property values) of others.  The question is how intensely you regulate.

  • Should local government determine where you should put your dumpster?
  • Should local government determine what color red should be in the Red Lobster sign?
  • Should local government mandate expansive sidewalks, bike lanes and street trees?
  • Should local government encourage economic development by reducing regulation?
  • How much power should neighbors have directing development nearby?
  • How does zoning impact neighborhood ethnic and income diversity?  Should it?

These are the type of questions I hope we get to discuss on Thursday night.  The answers will shape how our community chooses to prosper and grow, or not.

Respectfully Submitted,

Neil Williamson

Neil Williamson is the President of The Free Enterprise Forum, a privately funded public policy organization covering the City of Charlottesville as well as Albemarle, Greene, Fluvanna, Louisa and  Nelson County.

VDOT’s Green Route 29 Expressway

FORUM WATCH EDITORIAL

By. Neil Williamson, President

“You have to show people the ramps, you have to show people the expressway you’re building,” Henry Weinschenk said.- Charlottesville Tomorrow May 2010

Henry was right — the Expressway is coming. It was likely a dozen years ago, and countless ‘stakeholder’ meetings ago when I first heard the term “US29 Expressway”; today as I review the documents and plans, I see the expressway being an accepted reality.

Today, even as the Congress for New Urbanism (CNU) is calling out highways that separate communities, Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) consultant planners are prepared to take US29 over (or under) Hydraulic Road and perhaps top it with a green feature, a cap park.

One of the biggest challenges to “planning” the future is current reality.  As VDOT consultants draw conceptual maps, each has a small disclaimer:

ILLUSTRATIVE AND FOR CONCEPTUAL PURPOSES ONLY INTENDED TO ILLUSTRATE BROAD CONCEPTS AND ALTERNATIVE APPROACHES TO REPRESENT POTENTIAL FUTURE DEVELOPMENT SCENARIOS [ALL CAPS IN ORIGINAL – nw]

While I understand that none of the three concepts presented so far are the likely outcome of the transportation planning piece of this study, the direction is of critical import.

Despite this important caveat, significant changes to the future of Hydraulic and the areas around it are being discussed and not all of the ideas are gaining traction with panel members or the community.

The concept of urban interstates was very big in the 1960s.  Today, many of these same roads are now charged with hindering community cohesion and promoting gentrification.  The very highways that were originally constructed to promote mobility and connect communities to each other are being targeted as fracturing communities.

CNU’s recent report Freeways Without Futures is the fifth in a series of reports suggesting the destruction of such intercity interstates.  The report states:

But some highways on this list are here to stay—and even expand. State highway engineers still love straight, wide roads, and this inertia cannot be underestimated. At the very least, some state DOTs are becoming more sensitive to impacted communities. Lately, “cap parks” have emerged as compromise solutions that restitch neighborhoods bifurcated by highways by literally covering up their air and noise impacts. Denver’s much-protracted fight over I-70 came to a decisive moment last week, when the Federal Highway Administration approved Colorado’s plans to lower the highway below grade, widen lanes from six to ten, and put a grassy “cap” over a small section of it. It will adjoin a local schoolyard. The I-70 saga offers one illustration of the challenges in such highway facelifts: Many residents love the prospect of a grassy cap park, while others fear that hiding the highway beneath it could draw in a tide of gentrification and displacement. (Emphasis added – NW)

But what does this have to do with Charlottesville?

Last week, the Route 29 Solutions Hydraulic Planning Advisory Panel (colloquially known as the HPAP) heard three different Framework Concepts for the US29 Hydraulic Intersection. Two of the three concepts embrace some measure of the cap park concept.

US29 Over Hydraulic Concept:

Rt 29 at Hyrdraulic lower level plaza

In the meeting, many panel members expressed concern with creating such significant ‘public space’ under the highway.  This option likely had the least amount of support.

Alternative B where US29 goes Under Hydraulic Road:

Rt 29 Hydraulic Upper Plaza

Some panel members were intrigued by this concept especially the pedestrian orientation of the upper plaza.  There were some concerns raised but this concept will likely move forward for more refinement.

In Alternative C the “Park” bridge most closely resembles CNU’s grassy cap concept.

Park Bridge at Seminole and Rt 29

The “Park” bridge/tunnel is designed to connect Seminole Square Shopping Center and The Shops at Stonefield and eliminating direct access from these important job creating properties.

Reminding readers of the consultant caveat above, one part of this concept map included the creation of a large public park where Sperry Marine currently sits.  While appreciative of the planners’ open mindedness, one must wonder what the 500+ Sperry employees think of their office becoming a park.  Albemarle County economic development folks would be wise to be proactive in these discussions. Once maps are part of the public record people get antsy.

It is also of interest that last week’s presentation did not include any images of an at grade intersection with more limited turning movements that had been discussed in the previous meetings.

The Free Enterprise Forum does not have a preferred vision for this intersection but we would echo the voice of one HPAP member who, in a previous meeting, asked “What if, in 30 years, the community decided to build a bypass, will this significant infrastructure investment still be worthwhile?”

Significant philosophical questions remain on the table:

  • If we are putting an expressway through our Main Street, should we camouflage it? How?
  • How will the neighborhoods react to a designed litany of roundabouts and through traffic?
  • How will this infrastructure investment impact property values and redevelopment possibilities?
  • What is in the best long term interest of our community?
  • If community needs and transportation needs are in conflict – which wins?

As usual, we have more questions than answers.

Respectfully Submitted,

Neil Williamson, President

Neil Williamson is the President of The Free Enterprise Forum, a privately funded public policy organization covering the City of Charlottesville as well as Albemarle, Greene, Fluvanna, Louisa and  Nelson County.

Photo Credits: VDOT Route 29 Solutions