Category Archives: Community Involvement

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

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.

An Albemarle Planning Christmas

First presented to the Albemarle County Planning Commission on December 13, 2016

By. Neil Williamson, President, Free Enterprise Forum

Twas two weeks before Christmas and all through Albemarle County

Folks were shopping and buying their family holiday bounty

The neighborhood meetings were held, public hearings advertised with care

In hopes that applicant’s final approvals might soon be theirs.

 

With Tubbs in his head seat and me off and tweeting

The regulars were in position for a long Planning Commission meeting

When up in the foyer there arose such a clatter

Sharon phoned maintenance to get to the bottom of the matter.

 

Away to the back doors, I flew up the row

With Sean, Jeff, and Morgan behind me, albeit quite slow

As I reached the ACOB back doors, of course located in front

I mumbled about relegated parking and pushed them open with a grunt

 

Florescent lights spilling out to the front staircase mountain

Gave brightness to the beautiful but empty decorative fountain

When what to my skeptical eyes should appear

but a BMW Mini and eight tiny reindeer

 

With a tall bearded driver, so sly and so tame

I knew in a moment it must be old Wayne

More rapid than zoning violations his courses they came

And he whistled and shouted, and called them by name

“Now Graham, now Gast-Bray, now Fritz and Newberry!

On Echols! On Weaver! On Benish and Sherry!

To the top of the properly stepped retaining wall!

Now dash away dash away dash away all!’

 

As the mud on a critical but managed slope after a summer rain flows,

when they meet with an obstacle from the ground that grows

So up to the green roof of the ACOB the coursers they flew,

With a sleigh, full of applications and Wayne Cilimberg too.

 

And then in a twinkling, I heard tapping noise somewhat fleeting

I thought Kilroy was updating citizens with her tweeting

As I gathered myself and turned to speak with the guys

The former Planning Director jumped off the elevator with surprise

 

He was dressed in a Hawaiian shirt and well pressed slacks

And his clothes smelled of suntan oil and perhaps the dog track

A bundle of approvals, he had slung on his back

He looked like a lost Shenandoah hiker just opening his pack

 

His eyes — how they twinkled, not application weary

His mind now so rested, his face rather cheeryskinny santa

He had a slight build but fit from the gym;

Tanned rested and ready, retired but slim.

Retirement clearly suited this jolly tall elf,

And I laughed when I saw him in spite of myself;

 

A wink of his eye and his now graying mane

Soon gave me to know I need not fear from Wayne.

He spoke not a word but had an aggressive comprehensive plan

Stamping applications “approved”, saying “yes, yes you can”

And pressing the button with his red sharpie stained hand

The elevator swept him away to the upper floors of ACOB land.

 

He sprang to top of the building on McIntyre

And away he flew like his pants were on fire

He shouted above the din of his fine steed

“Approve applications, economic development we need.”

I heard him exclaim as ere he drove out of sight

“Merry Christmas to all — Retirement is All right!”

———————————————————————

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 www.freeenterpriseforum.org

Photo Credits: Gifs.cc

Ballot Box Capital Spending Exceeds $1.3 Billion

By. Neil Williamson, President

In case you did not notice, earlier this week there was an election.

In addition to the Presidential race, several localities had so called “Bond Issues” on their ballots.  Albemarle County was one of 17 bond issues presented by 6 localities this year – This represents over $1.3 Billion in capital spending – not surprisingly all passed by fairly significant margins.    bond-chart-2016

The Free Enterprise Forum does not question the need for any of these projects but we do wonder if the ballot box is the proper place for determining their priority in the community.

Voters are provided a binary choice of support or not support a distinct number of capital projects in a particular government function but they are not told (on the ballot) the impact on their local budget or the other capital improvement items that might have to be postponed in order to pay for the proposed bond referendum.

Interestingly, this year when voters in four localities were provided the option to institute a meal tax – it failed in three of the four localities (Passed Matthews County 54%).  The lesson, regardless of the actual impact, if you do not call something a tax the citizens will be likely endorse it.

The Free Enterprise Forum is very concerned that referendums [and fees (i.e. storm water)] are providing local government a new way to generate revenue and duck responsibility for making the hard choices that result in tax increases.

In addition, it seems that the manner the ballot question is phrased also has an impact on the success of the effort.

Tuesday, Augusta County residents were asked not about a bond issue but a straight spending question.

Shall the Courthouse of Augusta County be removed to the Augusta County Government Center Complex in Verona, Virginia, and shall the Board of Supervisors be permitted to spend $45,000,000.00 therefore?

Voters (66%) said no.

But Henrico Schools Bond referendum asked a 6 times larger spending question in a completely different way:

Shall Henrico County, Virginia, be authorized to contract a debt and issue its general obligation bonds in the maximum aggregate principal amount of $272,600,000 pursuant to the Public Finance Act of 1991 to finance school projects and the Henrico County School Board’s Capital Improvement Program, including capital improvements to schools, furnishing and equipping of schools, acquisition of future school sites, and such other school construction, renovations, and improvements as may be required by the actual education needs in Henrico County?

It seems to this observer that voters strongly favor financing options for municipal spending even absent tax ramification information but push back on the concept of making specific spending decisions.  The language of the ballot question matters.

More importantly perhaps is not how voters are asked but should they be?

The self governance part of our philosophy appreciates the apparent citizen involvement in the process but the cynical portion questions if by limiting the choice to a binary yes/no decision they are truly engaged.

Shouldn’t those we elect make the tough choices between adding classroom space or adding a firehouse?  Aren’t they in the best position to evaluate competing priorities?

The reality is each and every one of the bond referendums that passed will be repaid using local tax revenue but not one of them said in the ballot question how the amount borrowed equates to the property tax rate increases during the term of the bond.  .

Considering the significant disclosures required when we as private citizens take on debt (car, auto, etc.) is it too much to ask for a truth in lending statement for over $1.3 BILLION in capital spending?

The Free Enterprise Forum believes such fiscal clarity should be an integral part of such ballot questions.  Unfortunately, we doubt such change will be made any time soon as that might negatively impact the passage rate and require elected officials to make the tough capital budget decisions.

Respectfully Submitted,

Neil Williamson, President


Neil Williamson is president of the Free Enterprise Forum, a privately funded non-profit public policy organization focused on local governments in Central Virginia. For more information visit www.freeenterpriseforum.org.

 

There You Grow Again–Albemarle’s Latest Government Expansion

By. Neil Williamson, President

“They think that the cure to big government is to have bigger government… the only effective cure is to reduce the scope of government – get government out of the business.” – Economist Milton Freidman

Freidman’s prescription for big government came to mind as Albemarle County is now hearing from their various departments regarding their increased staffing needs in a series of reports and presentations in preparation for the FY18 Budget cycle.

Tonight (11/2) Community Development is charged with supporting their request for two additional planners and a new administrative position.  It is unfortunate that this departmental analysis does not calculate the unprecedented increased demands of Planning Commissioners and Supervisors that are far beyond the mandated legislative review.  We will say it again the best economic development strategy is to make it easier to develop in the development areas.

Clearly some of the perceived need for additional Community Development staffing is driven by the increased demand for staff at project community meetings, and citizen advisory councils.  Rarely, if ever, are such increased staff costs calculated as a new “engagement initiative” is developed.  The Free Enterprise Forum has long complained about the increased complexity and cost of such regulatory hurdles on private developers, this report exposes the increased cost of regulation on taxpayers in the form of expanded government staffing.

Albemarle’s Community Development FY16 staffing is 66.5 Full Time Employees (FTEs) and a payroll of around $3.75 Million dollars (an average salary+benefit cost of ~$56,000)

CDD funded positionsBut the question before the Supervisors should not be just how many planners, inspectors and managers they have in the department but how efficient and effective are those employees.

 

The report highlights the variable nature of the development review process:

CDD workload is largely a function of the number of applications submitted. Most applications (e.g. site plans, subdivisions, rezonings) have State defined timeframes for acting on the application and some applications (e.g. VSMP) are automatically approved if CDD does not meet that timeframe. Recognizing the County doesn’t control the number of applications and has legal timeframes for acting, the remaining strategies for managing workload are to 1) adjust the staff resources to match the workload and 2) adjust the expectations to match the workload.

While the report is accurate regarding state mandated timelines for review, Albemarle also has a significant pre-application process and does not start the state clock running until they accept the application as complete.  This increases the timeframe, and cost, for a project to gain approval.

In addition, not all development reviews are created equal the site plan for the bank on the corner should be significantly easier to manage than the Stonefield development.  The charts provided regarding rezonings and site plans fail to capture the differentiation between complexity of reviews.

The staff report also contradicts itself regarding the philosophical underpinnings of the department.  In an early section of the report, staff suggests reviewers are in a high pressure position:

Additionally, given the adversarial nature of development review, that additional 10 hours/week adds considerable stress to those workers and decreases the discretionary time to “decompress”. This can accelerate burnout and increase turnover.

Later in the document, staff suggests the exact opposite for some applications:

Finally, these applications are much harder to track in terms of review efforts, as they often call for a collaborative approach, rather than formal submissions, to address comments raised by staff, the public, Planning Commission or Board. While this informality in process improves the overall review quality and provides for better customer service, it makes it makes formally defining a “review” difficult.

So which is it, adversarial or collaborative approach results in a more time consuming review?

Then there is an issue of turnover in the department.  Ignoring significant retirements, over 18% of Community Development’s workforce left the employ of Albemarle County in FY16.

CDD TurnoverThis “brain drain” is distressing and expensive as it is anticipated that it takes a minimum of 6 months to bring a new employee to the level where they may work independently.  This Albemarle exodus might present the best argument for increasing the staffing levels or it might be a canary in the coal mine suggesting the policies and procedures are not supportive of good, efficient planning practices.

As we watch the Albemarle Planning Commission meet on a quarterly basis to discuss “big topics” where they have little to no jurisdiction, the Free Enterprise Forum has to ask “Who is calculating the cost of such a meeting to the taxpayer?

As applicants are routinely requested to defer their state mandated right for a “speedy” hearing to provide the commission or board their requested more detailed information in an additional meeting, it is important to recognize it is not just the applicant that is incurring cost – it is the taxpayer.

While we appreciate the limited metrics provided by Community Development staff, we believe better metrics could be developed for this important review.  In addition, we would welcome a review of the Development Review Task Force recommendations that were finalized and presented to the Supervisors almost a decade ago (2007) but never fully enacted.

Despite our misgivings, we predict Community Development will get the two new planners and one more administrative person to bring their headcount to nearly 70 employees.

Increasing employees, increasing payrolls and ever increasing complexity of regulatory regimens – this, unlike Freidman’s prescription, – will continue to grow government, increase cost and reduce our regions economic development opportunities.

Respectfully Submitted,

Neil Williamson, President


Neil Williamson is president of the Free Enterprise Forum, a privately funded non-profit public policy organization focused on local governments in Central Virginia. For more information visit www.freeenterpriseforum.org.

Photo Credits: Albemarle 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

Greene Residents Ask for VDOT Road Relief

By. Brent Wilson, Field Officer

In a shift from previous years, the Greene County Board of Supervisors now starts, rather than ends, their meetings with ‘Matters from the public not on the agenda for public hearing’.  The Free Enterprise Forum endorsed the change as it empowers citizens to bring issues directly to the Board at a predictable, and reasonable, time; prior to board discussion and decision on agenda items.

Tuesday night (9/27/16) nine residents of Golden Hills Subdivision took the ‘Matters from the Public’ speaking opportunity to brief the Board about the inability to have the maintenance of Wood Drive and Haney Road in their residential development taken over by the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT). While on the agenda as a discussion item, the reordered ‘matters from the public’ period provided important citizen input opportunity.

The issues that the speakers addressed date back to when the development started and the developer sold the lots with the understanding that there would not be a Home Owners Association (HOA) in the development.  In 1990, as a part of the land development,  the developer posted bonds worth $220,000 and those were twice reduced to $50,000 in November, 1991 and further reduced to $20,000 in November, 1993.

golden-hills

The remaining $20,000 bond was called by Greene County in February, 2003.  In an attempt to bring the road up to VDOT standards, between 2004 and 2010 Greene County spent $27,972 for drainage, grading and other work thereby consuming more than the $20,000.

Unfortunately, all the landowners along the road didn’t sign the plat which is one of the requirements to have VDOT take over the road and the developer passed away.

The residents argued that the County shouldn’t have reduced the bond until the work had been completed.  Many of the speakers gave examples of the problems with the roads  including the many potholes.  Speakers suggested that former Board of Supervisors betrayed them, when it snows the potholes can’t be seen and it is very damaging to their vehicles and kids are now required to walk to the end of the road to get on the school bus, since they bus won’t drive down the road for fear of the potholes doing damage to the buses. [School buses are actually legally prohibited from traveling on roads that are not part of the state system – NW]

Other residents feel that their homes have declined in value due to the poor condition of the roads.  One gave a specific example of receiving an offer with a deduction of $10,000 due to the condition of the roads.  Another resident had a severe medical condition and was fearful that had it been in the winter the ambulance would not have been able to reach his home.

Vice-Chairman Michelle Flynn (Ruckersville District) understands that the road building bond process VDOT-logo_thumb.jpghas changed and that now all of the deposit would not be released until the road was taken over by VDOT.  Unfortunately the $20,000 wouldn’t cover the cost (even if it was still available) that it would take to get the road up to current VDOT standards  and that it would probably cost in excess of $100,000 to bring the road up to VDOT standards.

Chairman Bill Martin (Stanardville District) asked Zoning Administrator Bart Svoboda who is responsible to get all of the landowners to sign to get the road taken over by VDOT?  Mr. Svoboda explained that it is the developer’s responsibility but that didn’t occur before he passed away.

Martin stated that this situation is unfortunate and that the residents are suffering because the process didn’t work as intended when the development was originally constructed.

Regarding concerns of transparency, he further explained that the Supervisors discussed this issue in closed session when there was a possibility of being sued over the issue.  Martin believes that Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests were complied with and information was offered even though not accepted.

The Supervisors expressed their understanding of the residents’ frustration but explained that they could not set a precedent of spending public funds on a private road without the risk of other communities making similar requests.

Martin asked for any final comments from County Administrator John Barkley.  Barkley suggested creating an HOA or working with VDOT to see what programs they can offer the homeowners.  Finally, Martin suggested that there might be grant funds available that could help the homeowners.  There was no formal action by the Board of Supervisors since this was strictly a discussion item with the comments coming during the matters from the public portion of the meeting.

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

Photo Credits: Independent American Communities

Greene Planning Reviews Capital Improvement Plan Process

By. Brent Wilson, Field Officer

Jay Willer, Chairman of the Greene County Planning Commission, has been leading a team to develop a more effective Capital Improvement Plan for the county. This week (9/20) the Planning Commission met to review the updated format and the answers to the questions that the Board of Supervisors asked several months ago.

Virginia localities are required by state code to develop a long range Capital Improvement Plan (CIP). The CIP is one of the most significant planning processes as it identifies the capital needs of the community over a specified period of time. This plan not only identifies the immediate needs but also seeks to capture long-term capital needs.

The CIP typically includes major investments in parks, libraries, transportation, community centers, facilities, technology, water, sewer and stormwater infrastructure – along with other areas that support the community.

In Wednesday’s meeting, Willer asked the commission if there were any questions for Planning Director Bart Svoboda. Commissioner Frank Morris questioned why the Economic Development Authority (EDA) would have a project of widening of road lanes for $2 million.

Svoboda explained that the EDA believes many county wide projects will help the economic development of the county – such as widening of roads, fiber optic cable, etc. The Board of Supervisors will prioritize the projects relative to how much funding is available – especially with the reservoir funding requirements.

With no comments from the public,  Willer explained that the current presentation is that of a Capital Improvement Inventory, not a Capital Improvement Plan . He explained that many of the items should be included in department expense budgets and larger items that benefit the county such as schools should be included in the CIP. In addition, definitely new items should be in the CIP and possibly items that provide new function should also be in the CIP.

One of Willer’s suggestions was to include the impact on the tax rate to pay for each expenditure to help give a sense of impact to the citizens of Greene County since over $150 million is to be provided from county funds over the five year period of the Captial Improvement Inventory. Vice Chairman Vic Schaff thought this was a good inventory of needs of the county but that the CIP should include projects that the county would need to raise additional funds to pay for, such as the water impoundment project  and possible school expansion.

It was brought up that the timing of the process is key so that the Capital Improvement Inventory could be separated into expense vs. CIP projects so that the expense items could be included in the departments budgets. The next issue discussed was how much detail should be gathered at the CIP level. Svoboda stated that the intent of the CIP is to raise issues that need action by the Board of Supervisors.

Willer asked the commissioners if they should stay with the format but that the Planning Commission is not tasked with providing priorities. He suggested that the Planning Commission provide a cover letter to the CIP report to encourage certain projects to the BOS. Also, Commissioner Saunders suggested that the items in the CIP be linked to areas in the Comprehensive Plan knowing that one item in the CIP may link to more than one area of the Comprehensive Plan.

Svoboda said that the Planning Commission should plan to finalize the CIP by November and in order to meet that date each department should submit their projects by October. If a department does not make a submission, then the prior year information should be used by just moving out each project one year.

Finally, Svoboda said that the Planning Commission needed to defer the CIP to a date in the future since it was approved as is. This was unanimously approved by the Planning Commission.

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

Greene Discusses Legislative Priorities

By. Brent Wilson, Field Officer

As a part of their mission, the Thomas Jefferson Planning District Commission (TJPDC) has a Legislative Liaison who represents the interests and positions of the region’s localities before the state legislature and other state policymakers. Much of this effort occurs at the General Assembly during January-March of each year as well as, during the off season, attending legislative study committee meetings and other meetings of interest to local governments.

david-blount-photo-credit-charlottesville-tommorow

David Blount

David Blount serves as the TJPDC Legislative Liaison (serving Albemarle, Fluvanna, Greene, Louisa, and the City of Charlottesville).  In this role, he annually prepares and presents the TJPDC legislative agenda proposal to local elected officials and requests their input and in time their endorsement.   Tuesday night it was Greene County Board of Supervisors opportunity for review.

Surveys have been collected from all the counties and Charlottesville to help develop the legislative priorities for 2017.  Blount plans on getting information in real time as opposed to reporting at the end of the process. He also wanted to review the 2016 legislative plan since there are two new Supervisors on the board since he last met with the Greene Board of Supervisors.

The Top Priorities of the 2016 TJPDC Legislative Plan were:

1) public education funding

2) equalized revenue authority

3) state mandate and funding obligations

Related to public education funding, Blount commented that the General Assembly had raised funding back to 2009 levels and he hoped the state would protect that investment. The main issue for the 3rd item was that the state should not impose unfunded mandates and shift costs to localities.

Blount will present each of the member localities an updated draft program in October and requested that they respond to him by November.

He addressed several issues that will impact next year such as the state revenue gap of $1.2 billion. His understanding is that the budgeted 2% pay raises will be delayed along with dipping into the “rainy day fund” to help close the shortfall. clip_image002

In addition, Blount addressed the Airbnb bill , wireless infrastructure (cell towers), standard of qualities in education and the Virginia Retirement System (VRS). The VRS rate of return the past year (of 7%) is actually above the past two years rates. Chairman Bill Martin agreed with the three priorities and committed to working with Blount’s schedule.

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

Bananas and Albemarle’s Outdated Economic Opportunity Map

This article first appeared in the August 21, 2016 Daily Progress

By Neil Williamson

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

The “product” Albemarle is lacking is available, properly zoned land. McClintic’s comments to a joint meeting of Albemarle Board of Supervisors, Planning Commission and Economic Development Authority paint a very dark picture for Albemarle County’s economic future.

During the Fiscal Year 2017 budget cycle, the county budget summary stated:

“Other communities for a larger commercial tax base have been able to keep their real property tax rates more stable over the past several years.”

Despite the great recession, other Virginia localities with more vibrant business sectors have not been forced to raise property taxes to balances their budgets.

Currently 80 percent of Albemarle’s local tax revenue is from property taxes; only 20 percent is from business taxes. Other communities are closer to a 70/30 ratio.

If there was one lesson the community learned from losing the Deschutes Brewery opportunity (regardless of whether we were ever really in the game), it was that this community is ill prepared for the very economic development that the Comprehensive Plan envisions.

But it doesn’t have to be that way.

Over the years, Albemarle has spent millions of dollars setting aside parkland and open space to make sure nothing happens on selected properties. Isn’t it time Albemarle invests in making something happen in economic development?

Solving Albemarle’s economic development problem is not about the Planning Commission and Board of Supervisors holding a plethora of focus groups and multiple public work sessions to determine the types of jobs (and salaries) they would like to see. The elected and appointed bodies should instead focus on what they do control: the regulatory environment (planning, zoning and procedures).

Albemarle does not have enough land properly located and zoned for new business development or business expansion. The fundamental problem is that Albemarle’s Comprehensive Plan map and zoning maps do not agree.

Absent new land for development, Albemarle’s annual projected property tax increases are only just beginning. As the tax rates grow, businesses will stop expanding here, choosing instead more businesgreece-diagrams-friendly (and lower-tax-burdensome) localities. Fleeing commercial tax revenue exacerbates the situation, further increasing reliance on the property taxes.

There is a simple answer: Make more.

The two ways to “make more” are to expand the development areas (currently around 5 percent of land mass) and/or proactively rezoning development area land.

Proactive rezoning

Proactive rezoning is when a locality (with owner consent) takes the initiative and rezones land to match its Comprehensive Plan designation. In practice, this makes it easier to develop to the uses and the specific densities expressed in the community-vetted Comprehensive Plan. Since the locality is the applicant, misnamed “voluntary” proffers are eliminated.

Community involvement and education are key in any proactive rezoning. The idea that the community can weigh in on the concept of the rezoning rather than seeking specific site-plan information for a potential applicant keeps the discussion on the macro rather than micro level.

Political will and an understanding of development desires are required for proactive rezoning to be successful. Such rezoning can’t be significantly restricted by onerous form-based zoning codes.

Albemarle has proactively rezoned one region, the Downtown Crozet District (DCD). Due to the highly  restrictive form-based code that accompanied this proactive rezoning, thus far only one new private businesses has located in the DCD zone.

The Free Enterprise Forum believes strongly in property rights; therefore, the concept of owner consent to any proactive rezoning is critical. Such consent can easily be established with an opt-out provision prior to the final zoning change enactment.

If a countywide, comprehensive, proactive rezoning is not possible, perhaps Albemarle can look at those areas it has already determined to be the so-called “priority” development areas and start there. Pantops and the new Berkmar Extended both seem ripe for consideration.

Development area expansion

Due to the political work in Richmond of those who came before us, Albemarle has Interstate 64 cutting through the county. Later political activity produced the 1979 development area boundaries Image result for Albemarle county development area(approximately 5 percent for development, approximately 95 to remain rural). Because of the 1979 decision (and little adjustment to it), Albemarle County is woefully behind other communities in land designated for growth.

Based on new environmental restrictions (protecting stream buffers, preserving slopes) and the creation of Biscuit Run State Park (where development once had been approved), the 5 percent land mass of the development areas has been shrinking for more than a decade.

In addition, drinking the “new urbanist” growth control Kool-Aid, Albemarle choose not to maximize its highway frontage and disco-fashion-bradysto restrict development at highway interchanges.

Let’s face it: 1979 had a number of bad ideas (pet rocks, disco, Ford Pinto, etc.). It is far past time to reconsider this nonsensical notion about growth and, at a minimum, open economic development near interchanges to both commercial and industrial opportunities.

Expecting less than 5 percent of your land mass to generate enough positive business revenue to pay for increasing service demands from residents is not feasible. Albemarle will never catch up to its so-called “peer” communities if it does not dedicate, designate and zone more land to jobs.

Fractured board vision

A secondary but equally important problem is a lack of unity within a one-party-dominated Board of Supervisors regarding economic development goals. While Chairman Liz Palmer has stated that her desire for new business is to increase tax revenue, White Hall Supervisor Ann Mallek is concerned about the lack of job opportunities for the 440 families in her district living below self-sustainability (according to the Charlottesville Regional Chamber of Commerce’s Orange Dot Report).

Planning Commission Chairman Tim Keller raised the idea of seeking jobs that paid enough for residents to afford homes costing $600,000-plus.  Such price points generate “breakeven” property taxes [when the taxes generated equal the cost of services demanded]. He questioned the fiscal responsibility of seeking to grow lower-paying jobs.

Supervisor Rick Randolph took exception to the concept of looking toward advanced manufacturing as the job sector on which to focus. Charlottesville Tomorrow quoted Randolph as saying:

“I am feeling a disconnect [regarding] the need for manufacturing, when what we really need to focus on is the underemployment situation. I am looking at a target sector for employment that is missing our biggest need.”

Over the past five years working with the Central Virginia Partnership for Economic Development, Albemarle has identified and focused on four target industry sectors for growing and expanding business [ bioscience and medical devices, business and financial services, information technology/defense and security, and agribusiness].

Despite this concerted effort, the results have not followed. The most recent job statistics indicate a loss of 324 jobs in those segments that have been their focus. It does not take a rocket scientist to see that either we need to realign the targets or rework the opportunities we are presenting to the targets.

The Free Enterprise Forum appreciates all of these different perspectives on the types of jobs needed, but we continue to believe all the navel-gazing in the world will not promote a new paradigm in Albemarle where land is readily available and businesses are welcomed by the community rather than being seen as a threat to our way of life.

Who will champion the Albemarle Board of Supervisors coming together to lead the charge for improving the business climate?

Until significant changes are made in the county government’s staff culture and development structure (initiating proactive zoning, expanded development areas, and streamlined approval process, etc.), Albemarle will continue to lose new job opportunities, as well as losing existing businesses that chose to move to more welcoming localities.

When a new or existing business calls the county wanting to expand Albemarle’s employment opportunities and the business tax base, there should be a better answer than “Yes, we have no bananas.”

Neil Williamson is president of the Free Enterprise Forum, a privately funded non-profit public policy organization focused on local governments in Central Virginia. For more information visit freeenterpriseforum.org.

Photo Credits: http://www.livemaguk.com, Albemarle County, http://www.whyoffashion.com