Category Archives: Charlottesville City

Changing Charlottesville Philosophy to YIMBY

Adapted from testimony to The City of Charlottesville Planning Commission, July 25, 2017

By. Neil Williamson, President

As you conduct the “legal” review of Charlottesville’s Zoning Ordinance, the Free Enterprise Forum is concerned that you may be actually, perhaps unintentionally, working against some of the comprehensive plan goals.  Decreasing heights, densities and intensity of development may seem to be reflecting the opinions of some vocal opponents to economic expansion but how does it impact the City’s goals for a vibrant community with affordable housing and economic opportunities for all.

This is not a development problem, it is a political problem, and it exists nationwide.

Image result for yimby I recently reviewed the YIMBY (Yes In My Backyard) San Francisco platform and I believe there are many parallels to Charlottesville.  If you insert Charlottesville instead of San Francisco to their preamble, I believe it could be endorsed across the political spectrum:

We believe that San Francisco has always been, and should continue to be, an innovative and forward-looking city of immigrants from around the U.S. and the world. San Francisco is not full, and the Bay Area is definitely not full. Ours is an inclusive vision of welcoming all new and potential residents. Anyone who wants to should be able to afford housing in the Bay Area.

Quartz Media’s Dan Kopf recently wrote an article about the YIMBY movement:

[Sonja] Trauss and fellow San Francisco YIMBY Party members, a group that now includes more than 500 people, believe that the only way to solve San Francisco’s housing problem is by building a hell of a lot more houses. To advocate for this, YIMBYs, many of whom are millennials tired of skyrocketing rents, have aligned themselves with private developers and against long-settled locals who see new housing as an intrusion on their lifestyle and, more importantly, a threat to the value of their homes. YIMBY groups have also emerged in New York, Seattle, and Boston, among other places, challenging the much more prevalent NIMBYs (“not in my back yarders”) who favor keeping things as they are.

The YIMBY solution is different than many others advocating for affordable housing.  Rather than seeking government mandates for subsidized housing or funds to be placed into a “housing affordability trust fund”, YIMBY platform seeks to impact the supply/demand curve by increasing the supply:

We strongly support building new housing. We have a severe housing shortage. Increasing supply will lower prices for all and expand the number of people who can live in the Bay Area.

We should build more housing in every neighborhood — especially high-income neighborhoods.

High density housing goes with high-quality public transit and walkability. However, housing can be built before or in anticipation of the construction of future transit improvements.

The people most hurt by a housing shortage are those with the least means.

So many of the conversations at the Planning Commission and City Council are focused on the topic of density.  In 1982, when Charlottesville and Albemarle reached their revenue sharing agreement, the City’s borders were set, no growth via annexation.  Somewhere in the late 1990s and early 2000s, population densification become a negative rallying cry of those opposed to increased development of the city.  Perhaps as a tip of the hat to these concerns, the SF-YIMBY platform boldly declares “Density is good”:

We are unapologetic urbanists who believe in the virtues of cities. More people living in close proximity to each other can improve their lives and the lives of those far beyond city limits.

  1. Density is sustainability: it reduces urban sprawl, reduces water usage, uses energy more efficiently, and creates a smaller carbon footprint.
  2. Density is accessibility: it encourages walking and biking, makes transit more efficient, reduces social isolation, and increases residents’ access to diverse cultural products and to each other.
  3. Density is opportunity: it increases access to jobs, supports diverse businesses, promotes innovation, and enables people to be more productive.
  4. The Bay Area is a particularly efficient place to build housing because of its moderate climate.
  5. People should be free to choose to live in places that are urban, compact and walkable, low-density and car-centric, or rural. Not everyone wants to live in a dense city. However, current policies restrict the supply of urban housing, leaving suburban life as the only affordable option for many.

Kopf’s article included an interview with Sonja Trauss regarding her definition of a YIMBY:

What exactly does it mean to be a YIMBY?

It means you are an advocate for housing. It means you believe that not having enough housing to accommodate newcomers is terrible public policy that leads to displacement.

YIMBYs want there to be neighborhoods of all varying levels of affordability close to job centers, so people can participate in the city’s economy. What ever your your situation is, we think you should be able to live in the city center if you want to.

The thing about housing is that, in many places, decisions about it are made in a distributed way. In California, no city can just decide to build 10,000 houses, though sometimes mayors will say that. The reality is that the decision is made almost building by building.

If you are in a growing metro area, like San Francisco, there will be times when housing development is proposed in your neighborhood. Being a YIMBY means piping up and supporting that development at neighborhood meetings, or by emails to the government.

No platform is complete without policy recommendations and while we in Virginia can not speak to the need for California Environmental Quality Act reform ,we can endorse the majority of the SF-YIMBY policy prescriptions.  It is interesting how many of these topics have been raised in Charlottesville over the last few years.

We believe in long-term planning. Once a citywide or neighborhood plan is made, the process for building should be streamlined, well-defined and predictable. It should not impose significant delays on or add significant costs to a project, nor should individual property owners or neighborhood associations have the power to hijack it.

  1. As-of-Right building: development plans approved at the departmental level if the project is within existing zoning.
  2. Mandate or incentivize cities to follow regional master plans and statewide housing policies or mandates.
  3. California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) reform.
  4. Raise height limits.
  5. Form-based zoning.
  6. Mixed-use zoning.
  7. Complete streets.

The Free Enterprise Forum strongly requests that you look at all the consequences (perhaps unintended) in your so called legal review.  Consider how these changes balance against the YIMBY platform.  We believe the impacts of many of the changes currently proposed are far beyond a simple legal review, and worse, are counter to the community goals for housing supply, economic vitality, and quality of life.

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: Yimby Toronto

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

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.

Charlottesville Mistaken & Mistimed Mandate

Adapted from comments to the Charlottesville Planning Commission May 9, 2017

By.  Neil Williamson, President

unintended-consequencesThe Free Enterprise Forum often speaks of unintended consequences of proposed legislation. We believe staff’s current recommendation regarding regulations around forgiving developer fees heads Charlottesville in the wrong direction.

Please let me explain.

In 2003, fourteen years ago, the US Department of Housing and Urban Development said:

Most housing professionals agree that concentrating assisted-housing for low- and very low-income Americans in dense, urban areas is not an effective use of scarce affordable housing resources. Over the past decade, professionals in the affordable housing industry have turned increasingly to mixed-income housing as an alternative to traditional assisted-housing initiatives. Mixed-income housing is an attractive option because, in addition to creating housing units for occupancy by low-income households, it also contributes to the diversity and stability of American communities.

There have been numerous successful mixed-income developments nationwide. State and local governments have developed incentive programs and initiatives to promote mixed-income housing. In the past decade, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has provided support for public housing authorities to de-concentrate traditional public housing in favor of the development of mixed-income housing. In addition, HUD funding from the HOME Investment Partnerships Program can also be a valuable resource for states and local jurisdictions to finance mixed-income housing initiatives, or to develop, design and implement new mixed-income housing programs that address local housing needs. HOME funds are specifically designed to be flexible in order to meet local housing needs.

In practice, I have seen Charlottesville intentionally moving toward more mixed income neighborhoods as a tapestry of price points for the communities being developed.

Why then would staff recommend the following:

To ensure the affordable units are actually provided in new developments, staff recommends no Certificates of Occupancy be issued until the City confirms the affordable units have been developed and the developer has entered into an agreement with the City that these units will remain affordable for a specified period of time.

While this may look good on paper, the reality is that by DEMANDING the developer build the affordable units prior to receiving certificates of occupancy for the market rate units virtually guarantees the affordable units will not be mixed with market rate rather will be concentrated in one portion of the project. Further, by positioning the affordable units first in the pipeline this well intentioned requirement would create significant financing challenges for the development project as a whole.

If the Planning Commission is committed to mixed income communities that are truly mixed, the Free Enterprise Forum requests that you strike this language and move forward with the concept of development fee forgiveness as a small step to address the larger housing affordability crisis in our region.

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: http://theadvocates.org/tag/liberator-online-2

 

Charlottesville’s Paid Parking ‘Canary in the Coal Mine’ ?

By. Neil Williamson, President

According to the Fairfax County Times, about five hundred people marched in protest on March 4th of the paid parking system implemented by Reston Town Center (RTC) owner and manaReston march 4 Parking Protest Phot Credit Angela Woolsey Fairfax County Timesger Boston Properties in January.

Yesterday (3/13) The Washington Post ran an article titled End of Free Parking is the Last Straw for Some Reston Residents which highlighted business owners concerns:

But businesses in the Northern Virginia suburb, about 23 miles west of Washington, say there has been a noticeable drop in customer traffic since the fees took effect and parking enforcement officers began writing tickets.

Why should Charlottesville care about what is happening in Reston? 

Because we see this push back on this private sector parking operation as a ‘Canary in the Coal Mine’ for Charlottesville

In the early 20th Century, coal miners used to take canaries into coal mines with them. Canaries are more sensitive to dangerous gases than humans are. As long as the bird was singing, the miners knew they were safe but if the canary stopped singing/died, the miners knew to evacuate.

RTC, much like Charlottesville’s Downtown Mall, was a long time in coming mixed use economic success.  Founded in 1990 (the same year Charlottesville removed parking meters), RTC is a new urbanist walkable development is surrounded by parking decks for customer/resident parking.  The retail mix within both properties is similar in type (banks, clothing, hotel and restaurants) if not specific brands.  An important distinction between the Downtown Mall and RTC is that RTC is privately held by a single entity and does not require governmental approval or significant public process to change parking regulations on their private property.

Parking, which in most of Northern Virginia’s shopping districts is ‘free’ has become an issue in both Charlottesville and Reston.   

According to the Washington Post story:

Boston Properties, which took over full ownership of the town center in 2015, had planned for years to implement fees for garage and curb spaces. In 2011, when it was moving to acquire town center parcels, the company estimated that the parking fees would generate as much as $8 million per year. Officials now say the amount will probably be lower…Reston Parking Enforcement Phot Credit Pete Marovich Washington Post

… Im Sun “Sunny” Park, owner of Obi Sushi restaurant, said sales have dropped by about a third since January. As she spoke, she watched a Boston Properties parking enforcement officer outside the restaurant leave a citation on the windshield of a car parked on the street.

“I see them giving tickets all day,” Park said. “They are killing business.”

Charlottesville Tomorrow’s Sean Tubbs reports Charlottesville is moving forward with their test of metered parking:

A six-month test of parking meters around Charlottesville’s Downtown Mall could begin as early as August. Officials believe that if the project is successful, it will improve the chances of finding a parking spot near the mall.  “What we hope that it does is open up some of those spaces,” said Rick Siebert, hired last year as the city’s first parking manager. “What we’d like to do is have people drive down a block and actually see an open space.”…

The council also has authorized the establishment of an enterprise fund to support creation of the city parking department, which is overseen by Siebert. The department will be supported by revenue from parking garages, parking meters, fines and payments for permits required for special zones in the city.

It is interesting the different visions of free parking among those involved in the process.  One of the commenters to the Washington Post story (hockeymom1) wrote:

I live nearby and will not go to any of the retail or restaurants at Reston. Tysons, Mosaic and Dulles are free. Bethesda, which has less parking available and expensive land, charges quarter an hour! $2.00 an hour is insane! This article was good. I had not realized that once the developer had full control they wasted no time implementing fees! 

On the other hand, perhaps not surprisingly since his new department will be funded by such fees, Charlottesville Tomorrow quoted Charlottesville’s Parking Manager:

“When you make something free, people don’t value it,” Siebert said. “People look for those spaces and they tend to camp out in them. Everyone’s heard of the two-hour shuffle, where people drive around the block after two hours looking for another space, adding to traffic congestion.”

Perhaps Charlottesville can learn from Covington’s MainStrasse parking fiasco.  A popular neighborhood outside of Cincinnati, their innovative paid parking plan included solar powered parking kiosks. When launched in March 2016, the Covington City Website sounded very similar to Charlottesville’s current parking diagnosis:

“The goal with this plan is to alleviate existing issues and modernize parking on streets and in City-owned lots,” said City Engineer Mike Yeager. “The parking plan was created after working with the community to understand concerns about things like residents having a difficult time finding available on-street parking and businesses being affected by to the unrestricted parking times in front of their buildings.”

According to a January 17, 2017 article on Cincinnati.com the MainStrasse program fell swiftly on its face:

Under the parking program, the city charged for parking in MainStrasse for the first time in the history of the neighborhood. It also restricted many blocks to residential parking only.

But residents and businesses complained it made parking much more difficult. Parking kiosks didn’t work. Businesses lost customers. … The pay parking pushed cars into the residential areas not restricted by permits.

The city commission suspended the parking program indefinitely until the city can come up with a new parking plan.

The pay parking kiosks will be shuttered and the residential parking restrictions in MainStrasse lifted, Mayor Joe Meyer said.

canary in coal mine photo credit share.america.govWhile it is heartening to see Charlottesville position parking meters as a “pilot” and only a part of the parking solutions considered. 

Available parking is the life’s blood of most small businesses. 

The Free Enterprise Forum hopes the City Council will pay attention when the canary stops singing – local businesses (as well as the jobs and taxes they generate) will be at risk.

Only time will tell.

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.

Photo Credits: Angela Woosley, Fairfax County Times, Pete Marovich, Washington Post, Share.America.gov

VDOT Panel’s Pocahontas Problem

By. Neil Williamson, President

This Sunday’s (3/12) Daily Progress Editorial discusses “Beginning Anew on Hydraulic” painting a rather optimistic picture of the regulatory and political process planned to design, secure funding and build improvements to the Hydraulic and US29 intersection.

But the Editorial forgot Pocahontas.

Please let me explain.

Regular readers are aware of the Free Enterprise Forum’s position opposing the Rio/US29 grade separated interchange.  Despite that opposition, we have been impressed with the manner the project was completed.  Now the Daily Progress editorial board is comparing the Rio intersection process with Hydraulic:

And the process through which the Rio project was completed did, in fact, contribute to its success. That process can be replicated, regardless of what kind of engineering design it eventually produces.

In fact, it is being replicated. The meeting last week of state and community leaders follows the pattern used in the Rio project: A panel of local elected officials, business owners and citizens is meeting regularly to discuss the Hydraulic venture, provide input and help guide decision-making. Their involvement is aimed at ensuring that local interests are represented in the state’s drive to speed traffic through a congested bottleneck.

disney pocaThis is where Pocahontas lesson comes in:

What I love most about rivers is you can’t step in the same river twice – The water’s always changing, always flowing

Just prior to the seating of the so called “29 Solutions” panel, there was significant state and federal dollars allocated and a contract awarded to a project (the western bypass) that had enjoyed (4-2) support from Albemarle’s Board of Supervisors and then Republican Governor Robert McDonnell. In November 2013 elections, the balance of power on the Albemarle County Board of Supervisors shifted left and Democratic Governor Terrance McAuliffe was elected.  Then in February 2014, the project was effectively prohibited by a letter from the Obama Administration’s Environmental Protection Agency.

Cvillepedia described the situation in the manner:

Aubrey Layne, Virginia’s Secretary of Transportation, convened a panel in the spring of 2014 to suggest alternatives for money that had been allocated by the Commonwealth Transportation Board.

With the project [Western Bypass] presumed dead, former VDOT commissioner Philip Shucet has recommended alternate uses for at least $200 million that had been allocated to the bypass. The alternatives include $54 million to extend Berkmar Drive across the South Fork Rivanna River, an additional $10 million to further extend Hillsdale Drive Extended to Holiday Lane in Charlottesville, and $81 million to build a grade-separated intersection at Rio Road and U.S. 29. The Commonwealth Transportation Board adopted a new six-year improvement program that included the projects at its meeting on June 18, 2014. [17] That meant the Western Bypass project was defunded. [5]

In addition, in a deft politically savvy move, McAuliffe required ALL the Route 29 “solutions” be completed by October 31, 2017 (coincidentally just prior to Election Day 2017).

The Pocahontas lesson that was not lost on Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) contract facilitator Philip Shucet.  In the first meeting of The Hydraulic Planning Advisory Panel last week, he highlighted that unlike the previous panel which was considering how to spend a pot of money already allocated to the district the project or projects would have to compete for limited transportation dollars via VDOT’s Smart Scale evaluation program in 2018.

Secretary Layne’s charge to the Hydraulic panel includes this concern as well as hinting at the potential political in fighting at an intersection that is 3/4 in the City of Charlottesville and 1/4 in Albemarle County:

Secretary of Transportation Aubrey Layne’s charge to the Panel:

To provide general advice and input to the City of Charlottesville, Albemarle County, VDOT and the Commonwealth Transportation Board regarding future land use and mobility improvements in the general area near the Hydraulic Road and Rt. 29 intersection.

The Secretary understands that land use decisions are in the hands of the localities, but also emphasizes that decisions to submit a future Smart Scale application for state-funded transportation improvements are also in the hands of the localities.

The multi jurisdictional work (land use, design and funding) of Hydraulic Road will be significantly more involved than the challenges at Rio Road.  While we agree that the process will be informed by the work of Rio, we are also reminded that Pocahontas quote is actually derivative of the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus:

No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.

Not only is Hydraulic a very different intersection than Rio,the land use work ahead is different and the funding is nowhere near secure.

Yes the facilitator is the same, as are some of the panel members, but this multi-jurisdictional land use and transportation effort will be a VERY different process and the outcomes (and their timing) are far from certain.

Stay tuned.

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: Disney

Fixing Charlottesville NDS Engine Light

By Neil Williamson, President

car-check-engine-lightIf you have ever driven with a “Check Engine” light illuminated, you have an idea of where Charlottesville’s Neighborhood Development Services (NDS) Department has been for some time.

Everyone (land owners, neighborhood associations, developers, etc.) agrees that something is seriously wrong but no one knows specifically what it is or, perhaps more importantly, how to fix it – until now.

In 2016, the City of Charlottesville contracted the Novak Consulting Group to conduct an organizational efficiency study.  Their 152 page report reflects significant engagement by this consultant with not only City staff but also the various departmental “customers”.  For NDS that interaction included members of the development community as represented by the Charlottesville Area Development Roundtable (CADRe).  This type of 360 degree review is to be commended.

The report identifies structural issues with NDS and attempts to quantify the workload of the 37.5 Full Time Employees.  The report highlights five recommendations (number 26-30 of the report) to improve the NDS department.  Three of these recommendations are rather perfunctory, new software, workload tracking and fee schedule review but two of the recommendations stand out as bold and, perhaps, game-changing.  Unfortunately, in reviewing the staff responses to the recommendations (see below), the Free Enterprise Forum is not convinced the culture of NDS will change without significant outside influence.

 

RECOMMENDATION 27: Designate an Assistant City Manager as the owner of the City’s development review process and Chair of the Pre Development Meeting.

Currently all development related applications are processed and managed by staff within NDS.  Front desk staff perform intake, and then an application is assigned to appropriate Planning staff. The Planner assigned to the case reviews the application and sends hard copies of the plans to the appropriate department – such as Public Works, Parks – for comment. All comments are then sent back to the Planner who compiles them and provides them to the
applicant. Then it is the responsibility of the applicant to address all comments.
Unfortunately, this process does not provide an opportunity to resolve issues among comments.

When there is disagreement or conflict between comments, the applicant is often put in the position of mediating the resolution between departments or disciplines. The development review process in Charlottesville needs a designated owner. The owner needs to be in a position of authority in order to provide clear and consistent direction to all
development review staff, regardless of their department. This position should also be the face of the process to the development community. It is recommended that an Assistant City Manager serve in this role. [emphasis added – nw]

Staff response:

Staff agrees that a comprehensive review of the development process is necessary. Staff agrees that a consistent process that ensures responses to applicants that have been reached through a cooperative inter-departmental process is absolutely critical. Staff would like to further explore the efficacy of the model suggested and the connection to the City Manager’s office.

On the face of this recommendation it is clear that NDS lacks appropriate leadership.  This recommendation is not about personalities but about the need for a titular head that has the authority to get things done.  Reading between the lines of the somewhat tepid staff response suggests they acknowledge the lack of leadership issue but are not yet sure how such a reorganization might impact the functions (and individuals) in NDS.

 

RECOMMENDATION 26: Engage the development community in a process to identify development review reforms.

As noted, NDS under its current Director has made concerted efforts to engage more directly with neighborhoods as well as the development community (process improvements, community outreach efforts, communication efforts). Through some of these efforts a group known as the Charlottesville Area Development Roundtable (CADRE) was formed. CADRE is comprised of
over 120 development community stakeholders (such as land owners, architects, engineers, builders, developers) with interest in the Charlottesville community. The group was formed in large part due to a common sense of frustration about the City’s development approval process.

To learn more about these issues, The Novak Consulting Group met with CADRE’s steering committee. The group discussed a series of key issues that they are working to address with the City generally, and NDS specifically:
• Disconnect between Council, Planning Commission, and Staff regarding vision and administration
• Need for strategic planning and urban design
• Poor interdepartmental communication and coordination
• Lack of decision-making authority among staff

It is evident by the stakeholder feedback as well as staff interviews, that the current relationship with the development community is strained. In order to improve the relationship and most importantly identify needed reforms in the development process, it is recommended that the City and the development community engage in an improvement exercise.

The staff response:

NDS initiated this recommendation in February 2016. As a matter of fact, the development community has folded the Developers Roundtable Forum started by NDS into a formal countywide interest organization. NDS Director meets with the organization from time to time. The idea is to discuss mutual ways of addressing improvement to the review process. The development review process will always be a work in process. The developer’s roundtable can be utilized to provide feedback and suggestions.

Amazingly, the staff response honestly believes the creation of CADRe was a part of their outreach to the community.  I attended the February 2016 NDS developer meeting – there were specific questions about the feedback loop.  At the end of the meeting, staff suggested it was a great meeting and the  group should get together again in another year.  A meeting once a year is not engagement – it is a checklist item.

Yes CADRe is a result of NDS — it was the absolute failure of NDS to effectively communicate with the development community resulted in CADRe’s creation.  Engagement is important.  The Free Enterprise Forum strongly encourages the NDS Director to be present at all CADRe meetings not just “from time to time”.

Charlottesville should be saluted for closely examining their organizational efficiency.   In many ways now, the city has a diagnosis of what is wrong.

The question now is if anyone (City Council? City Manager? Citizens? CADRe?) will actually advocate for the fix of the NDS problem or simply ignore the engine light until it is too late.

Stay tuned.

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.

Photo Credits: Carpower.com

The Banana Boat and Charlottesville’s Proposed BPOL Reform

By. Neil Williamson, President

My first car was a yellow 1976 Ford Pinto Station Wagon 1977_Ford_Pinto_rear photo credit motoburg(fondly referred to as the ‘Banana Boat’).  Over time, I upgraded the stereo and dressed up the interior but it never really changed the fundamental fact that my teenage “ride” was a yellow Pinto Station Wagon.

This car came to mind as I watch Charlottesville consider important and proper changes to their Business Professional Occupancy License (BPOL) tax.

Please let me explain.

On March 6th, Charlottesville City Council will be considering changes to their BPOL Ordinance designed to promote fairness to mid-sized businesses.  Currently, any business operating in Charlottesville is required to pay BPOL based on its gross receipts. In fiscal year 2016, the BPOL tax generated $6.9 Million dollars in revenue for the City, 4.4% of all City revenue.  All 38 cities in Virginia charge BPOL.  The Free Enterprise Forum believes this is an unfair tax as it is based on gross receipts and has called for it repeal.

Staff provided several examples of the challenges under the existing ordinance:

Charlottesville businesses grossing $50,000 or less per year pay a flat fee of $35 and businesses grossing more than $50,000 pay based on a rate (established in State Code and as determined by the particular type of business) multiplied by annual gross receipts.

As an example, a veterinarian grossing $49,000 per year pays $35 for an annual business license. A veterinarian grossing $51,000 per year pays according to the standard rate for veterinarians and other similar professions ($0.58/$100), and would pay a rate-based fee of $295.80.

A graphic designer grossing $49,000 per year pays $35 for an annual business license. A graphic designer grossing $51,000 per year pays according to the standard rate for graphic designers and other similar professions ($0.36/$100), and would pay a rate-based fee of $183.60. The effect is that similar small businesses with very similar gross receipts end up paying very different fee amounts.

Meanwhile in neighboring Albemarle County, businesses earning up to $100,000 pay a flat fee of $50.  Therefore the business starting out (>$50,000 gross revenue) pays less in Charlottesville until they cross the $50K threshold and then they pay much more.

The Commissioner of the Revenue has reported of hearing significant concerns from taxpayers about what can be a dramatic jump in their BPOL costs as they cross the $50K gross annual threshold.  It is important to recognize that $50K in gross revenue is the point where many businesses may be at the tipping point between viability and failure.

As the staff report outlines:

In an effort to attract, retain, and encourage small businesses in the City of Charlottesville, the Commissioner of the Revenue and City Treasurer are proposing a modest change to the fee structure used to assess BPOL:

  • Businesses grossing $50,000 and below continue to pay $35 license fee
  • Businesses grossing $50,001 to $100,000 pay a $50 license fee
  • Businesses grossing over $100,000 pay the license fee based on applicable BPOL rate

This proposed change would benefit small businesses within the City of Charlottesville by reducing the license fee paid by businesses earning between $50,000 and $100,000. Staff estimates that approximately 450 businesses would benefit from this structural change. There would also be a comparable change in the technology business incentive as well. We are recommending that these changes take place for the upcoming assessment year of 2018.

The Commissioner and Treasurer would note that this is a relatively modest proposal that seeks to provide meaningful relief to small businesses in our community within limited statutory, system, and budget constraints.

These changes do not come without cost.  Staff estimates adoption of this proposal would potentially reduce BPOL revenue by $93,000.

While the Free Enterprise Forum has consistently called for the REPEAL of BPOL, we are supportive of the reforms contained in the proposal.  In addition, we commend the Commissioner of the Revenue and the Treasurer for thinking beyond the bean counter box and seeking reform.  When properly implemented, we see these changes as leveling the playing field with adjoining localities, increasing fairness for small to mid sized businesses and promoting economic development.  1979 pinto cruising wagon

We would be remiss if we did not remind the City that regardless of changing the paint job, adding new tires and a kicking new stereo, you are still driving a Pinto Station Wagon.

Yes, repeal would be better but we support these commonsensical BPOL reforms.

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.

Photo Credits: Motorbug.com, Autospost.com

2016 – A Year of Exits (Executive and Grade Separated)

By. Neil Williamson, President

https://freeenterpriseforum.files.wordpress.com/2015/12/top-ten-list.jpg?w=179&h=161At this time each year, I take time to look in the rearview and see what issues we have covered that have garnered the most attention.  As usual, I am amazed, and thankful, for the large number of people who read and financially support our work.

Here are the Free Enterprise Forum Top Ten 2016 Shaking My Head (SMH) Moments

#10 Is Charlottesville the $17.86 Million Court Jester?

Imagine you are a mayor or a City Manager, if a major employer and economic driver in your city was poised to leave, how would you respond?Image result for Court Jester

Perhaps its just me, but I would likely fight like heck to keep them in the city.  It is much easier to retain a major employer than to attract one.

But what if the employer is actually an arm of a neighboring government, should that matter? …

If Albemarle decides to bring $17.86 million of ‘County’ economic activity back to Albemarle, Charlottesville may end up looking as wise as the Court Jester this Halloween.

 

#9 Bananas and Albemarle’s Outdated Economic Opportunity Map

Imagine being in the banana business — and you have no way to obtain fruit.Image result for Albemarle county development area

That is Albemarle County’s current economic development sales position: “Yes, we have no bananas.”

“If a manufacturer calls interested in locating near a highway, we tell them, ‘We have nothing for you,’. Prospect businesses are looking to move within three to six months if they are not looking to build. We tell them, ‘We have no product ready to go today.’” – Faith McClintic, Albemarle County’s economic development director

#8 Greene Supervisors Approve Overspending FY17 Budget

By. Brent Wilson, Field Officer

In just the second month of the new budget cycle, the Greene County Board of Supervisors discussed clip_image002two issues last night (8/23) that would allow the county to spend nearly $33,000 over the approved FY17 budget.

The first issue that County Administrator John Barkley explained was that several positions are needed to be brought up to market value. He further explained that supplemental funds are being requested to fund the $27,250 for the reclassification of positions. Surplus funds from the FY16 budget will allow the county to be able to fund this request.

#7 C’ville’s Hydraulic Houdini

What would you call it when Charlottesville works to make a primary pillar of an integrated

Trafficit knot  @ Proff Rd             Trafficlymead Town Center             @ Hol                       knotTrafficLakes ...

transportation program disappear?

The Hydraulic Houdini.

Please let me explain.

Those with even decent short term memory can remember the argument over the now defunct Western Bypass and the Route 29 “Solutions”.  Rather than building a limited access bypass around Charlottesville’s congestion (The Free Enterprise Forum supported), Bypass opponents proposed a series of integrated “solutions” would increase the existing roadway capacity.

My friend Jeff Werner of the Piedmont Environmental Council (PEC) even had a nifty PowerPoint Presentation regarding the  congestion

#6 Albemarle’s Executive Exodus x 2

Albemarle Executive Foley Finds Greener Pastures

Thomas FoleyWith rumors flying around Albemarle County (and Social Media) all day, a 4 pm Stafford County announcement made it official; County Executive Tom Foley is leaving Albemarle County to take up the same post in Stafford County.  In the announcement Stafford highlighted Foley’s service and temperament as key qualities they were looking for in their new administrator:

Albemarle is Losing Faith

leavingyourjobAs anticipated as the sun rising in the east, it is with absolutely no surprise that Albemarle County’s first Economic Development Director, Faith McClintic, will be leaving her position later this year.  In her short  18 month tenure, McClintic often found herself at odds with Planning Commissioners, some members of the public, this writer, and some elected officials.  In addition, she found herself without product as she said in August of this year:

“If a manufacturer calls interested in locating near a highway, we tell them, ‘We have nothing for you,’. Prospect businesses are looking to move within three to six months if they are not looking to build. We tell them, ‘We have no product ready to go today.’” – Faith McClintic, Albemarle County’s economic development director

#5 Albemarle and VDOT Create US29+Rio Lemonade

While the Free Enterprise Forum lost the battle against the US29/Rio Grade Separated Interchange (GSI), we have found Albemarle County (and Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT)) to be working exceedingly well together and significantly positively impacting the challenging business environment due to the roadway construction.

rio gsiIn the most recent Route 29 Solutions Project Delivery Advisory Panel meeting, former VDOT Commissioner and PDAP facilitator Philip Shucet indicated the next phase of the Rio GSI project, where the intersection will close for up to 103 days,  “Isn’t going to be a birthday party”.  This might be the understatement of the year.

#4 SOMEONE’s Shameful Sensationalism

Over the last dozen years, I have read literally hundreds of Albemarle County staff reports.  I tend to find the reports to be professional, concise, factually correct and devoid of generalizations or editorial commentary – until last week when I determined that SOMEONE  improperly and sensationally  used a tragedy to further an advocacy position in what was presented as an impartial staff analysis.

In an attempt to sensationalize the need for closing of Earlysville Road to truck traffic, SOMEONE has stooped so low as to cite a terrible teenage 2002 drunk driving accident as justification to overrule the technical analysis of professional traffic engineers.

#3 ‘Snob Zoning’ Crozet Master Plan in the Works?

Recently, C-ville magazine cover story posed the question, “Can Crozet maintain its small town charm snob-zones-640-for-web-194x300.jpgas its population increases?”

Perhaps the question should be “After millions of dollars of planning and infrastructure spending, should Crozet residents be allowed to stifle population and economic growth by hijacking the master planning process?”

We’ve recently learned such a plan is in the works.  And it is a bad idea….

The reality is the CCAC is opposed to density in the development area that is critical to achieve the philosophical goals of the Comprehensive Plan. The community vetted plan calls for densely populated development areas filled with amenities and services surrounded by less populated rural areas that are supportive of agriculture, forestry and open space.

In her seminal book “Snob Zoning”, Liza Prevost, exposed what happens when NIMBY zealots are able to change plans and regulations

#2 Fluvanna Land Use Fireworks

By. Bryan Rothamel, Field Officer

OBrien2014-photo-credit-Fluvanna-County_thumb.jpg

“I’m a little surprised board members are so happy to push this under the rug,” said Supervisor Tony O’Brien. . .

O’Brien said there were supervisors who should recuse themselves from the vote because they should know they aren’t compliant with the program.

Eager asked O’Brien to name who he thinks is not compliant as she has done everything to be compliant. He replied he never thought she wasn’t but questioned if Supervisor Don Weaver and chairperson Mike Sheridan (Columbia District) were compliant. He also thought Supervisor Mozell Booker might not be compliant but she was in a different arm of the program.

Sheridan said he asked a cooperative agent if he was in compliance and was told his practices were.

Fred Payne, county attorney, gave a legal opinion that supervisors do not have to recuse themselves just because they participate in the program.

O’Brien also suggested Mike Sheridan should recuse himself because Mel Sheridan is his brother.

Payne’s said Mike Sheridan had no need legally reason to recuse himself. He continued supervisors can always recuse themselves if they feel it is necessary but there was no legal reason to do so.

Weaver, who was quiet for the discussion, called for a vote which ended the discussion.

O’Brien said under his breath after the vote, “Embarrassing.”

#1 $52.5 Million Dollar Indecent Proposal – Albemarle Backs Off Threat to Wedding Industry

Last Tuesday evening, a rare joint meeting of the Albemarle County Planning Commission and Board of Supervisors heard a great deal from both wedding venues and the vendors that support them.  Albemarle staff had prepared a proposed ordinance that, among other things, would limit the ability of wineries, breweries and distilleries to 24 events a year.  In the end the supervisors backed away from the most restrictive portion of the ‘indecent proposal’.

The testimony Tuesday was insightful and passionate.    Wedding Photographer Jen Fariello asked pointedly “Why are weddings being attacked?”  Wedding planner Adam Donovan-Groves [name correction 9:01 6/20 nw] told of one recent wedding whose local fiscal impact exceeded $250,000 musicians, gift packs, invitations, transportation, jewelry, photographer, etc.

Yes, 2016 has been a year of executive exits, speedy construction and threats of overregulation.  Through it all the Free Enterprise Forum continues to blog, tweet (@neilswilliamson) and Facebook about local issues of significant importance.

The year ahead is filled with promise: the promise of a national search for a new Albemarle County Executive, the promise of so called “Solutions” 29 being completed earlier than scheduled (looks like June), the promise of new form based code development in Charlottesville, as well as the promise of elections across all localities.

seats available2016 will also bring us the opportunity and privilege of attending and participating in  many more government meetings where important policy decisions are made and #SeatsAvailable.

Thank you for your support!

 

Happy New Year

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.

Is The Jury Still Out on Albemarle Courts Relocation?

By. Neil Williamson, President

Tonight (10/24) the Albemarle County Board of Supervisors will take “public input” regarding the albemarle-courthousepossible relocation of their courts system.  Of the five options on the table, all but one keeps the courts in the City of Charlottesville. While the Free Enterprise Forum would like to have a favored option, we do not believe the case has been made for any option — considering how far along the process is, we are astonished at the basic questions that remain unanswered.

To review here are the five options:

OPTION 1: DOWNTOWN/LEVY EXPANSION
OPTION 2: RELOCATE COUNTY & CITY GENERAL DISTRICT COURTS TO COUNTY OFFICE BUILDING MCINTIRE

OPTION 3: RELOCATE COUNTY GENERAL DISTRICT COURTS TO COUNTY OFFICE BUILDING MCINTIRE

OPTION 4: RELOCATE COUNTY GENERAL DISTRICT COURTS & CIRCUIT COURTS TO COUNTY OFFICE BUILDING MCINTIRE

OPTION 5: RELOCATE COUNTY GENERAL DISTRICT & CIRCUIT COURTS TO COUNTY SITE

As we examine the decision matrix provided by the county, we have many more questions than answers.

Here are our top ten inquiries:

  1. Has the city offered any economic incentives to support any of the City based options? (see last week’s blog post)
  2. Why does option 1 (stay downtown) cost $12,500,000 more than building in option 5?
  3. Why does it cost $18,000,000 to put the General District Court at the County office building when it appears that most of the infrastructure is already there?
  4. If you build a new county admin facility, where will it be located and, how much does it cost?  Where is that cost shown?
  5. Do options 2-5 factor in the lost property tax revenue for whatever parcel is acquired?
  6. The matrix seems to indicate that options 2-5 strongly support the County’s strategic redevelopment/urban place making priorities.   Doesn’t that really depend on where the County offices are built and how?  It could eat up a bunch of property in the urban area and create little long term value.
  7. Will option 5 allow a mix of uses on their site?  What of creating affordable housing over top of the new county offices?
  8. It seems that you are assuming any new construction by the County in the County has high economic development value.  Why?  What assumptions have been made to draw that conclusion?
  9. Is taking urban county property off the tax rolls good for economic development? Will the development area be expanded to replace this lost land?
  10. Why is the construction risk higher for option 1 than any of the other options?

The public input offered can only be as good as the information provided to them to base that input.  We forwarded these questions to Albemarle County early last week and they indicated they hoped to have answers in their presentation tonight. If that is the case, the public will have limited time to process the information before the public input session closes.

Regardless, these questions need answers before anyone should make a decision on the future location of the court.

The jury is not “still out” — the full argument has yet to be presented.

Respectfully Submitted,

Neil Williamson, President

_____________

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, Louisa  and Nelson County.  For more information visit the website http://www.freeenterpriseforum.org

Photo Credits: Albemarle County