Category Archives: Community Involvement

Good Signs Are Good For Business

By. Neil Williamson, President

Adapted from comments made to the Albemarle County Architectural Review Board April 17, 2017

Your agenda today includes a work session on sign regulations.  In the years I have been following issues in Albemarle, two specific localities always come up in signage conversations: Hilton Head, South Carolina and Route 3 in Fredericksburg.  Neither is appropriate to the discussion of Albemarle.

5th street station credit NBC29It is also important to note as you discuss the size, number and proportion of signs that you also consider their purpose – to help customers find businesses.

The Free Enterprise Forum is aware of at least one planning commissioner who believes we will have no signs in the future as our autonomous cars and GPS tracking will make them obsolete; we do not share that view.

In fact we want to share some relatively recent sign statistics from two surveys in 2015.  The first was commissioned by FedEx Office, measured the importance of signage to business operations and consumer decision making.  The second by the Economic Center, University of Cincinnati, measured the impact on business owners in different industries.

The surveys found that:

  • Nearly 76% of consumers (8 in 10) said they had entered a store or business they had never visited before based simply on its signs. (FedEx)
  • Nearly 75% indicated that they had told others about a business simply based on its signage. (FedEx)
  • About 68% of consumers believe that a business’ signage reflects the quality of its products or services. (FedEx)
  • About 67% of the consumers surveyed said they had purchased a product or service because a sign caught their eye. (FedEx)
  • Nearly 60% of consumers said that the absence of signs deters them from entering a store or business. (FedEx)
  • Roughly 60% of businesses reported that changing the design or enhancing the visibility of their signage had a positive impact on sales, number of transactions and profits, with an average increase of about 10%. (UC)
  • Over 50% of survey respondents indicated that poor signage (e.g., poor quality, misspelled words) deters them from entering a place of business. (FedEx)
  • 38% of large companies with multiple locations identified branding/image as the most important purpose of effective signage, while small firms and single establishments perceived signs to be most important for making their business stand out and for helping customers find their location. (UC)
  • Legibility was chosen by both consumers and businesses as the most important characteristic of signs. (UC)

open for businessWhile we know that the ARB is seeking to make our community great (to coin a phrase).  It is important to remember that the tax paying businesses in Albemarle’s 20+ Entrance Corridors NEED signage to attract and retain customers.

Albemarle is currently outsourcing their economic development strategic plan to a Richmond based consultant.  When we talk about being business friendly, changing the corporate brand colors (ARB trivia – who changed the red in Red Lobster) might not be the best first impression.

Thank you for the opportunity to speak.

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.  For more information visit the website www.freeenterpriseforum.org

Photo credit:  NBC29

Fluvanna Budget Increases Without Public Comment

By. Bryan Rothamel, Field Officer

With the Fluvanna Board of Supervisors considering a budget of $75 million, no one spoke during the public hearings on April 5 for the budget or tax rates.

The supervisors advertised a budget with a real estate tax rate of $0.907 per $100 assessed. The equalized rate for last year was $0.882 per $100.

The supervisors advertised no change to the personal property rate of $4.35 per $100. The business related personal property is proposed to lower from $4.35 to $2.90 and a machinery and tools from $2 to $1.90.

The budget is much of the same from the previous year. The schools were bumped up $320,000. The county is starting to pay the lease for the emergency radio project this year.

Before opening the public hearing the supervisors were updated by staff regarding changes since their last meeting. The slight changes could let the supervisors lower the real estate tax rate or fund items that were previously not funded.

Previously the board tried to find other cuts including an attempt to go line item by line item led by Patricia Eager (Palmyra District). After going through two line items, it proved to be more time consuming than ability to find cuts.

“About three years ago when we were on hard times, we went through the budgets,” chairman Mike Sheridan (Columbia District) said during that work session.

The Fluvanna budget is is hard to maneuver much. The advertised budget includes 13.8 percent of the expenditures going towards debt service. The rest of the budget is heavily affected by salaries.

Don Weaver (Cunningham District) estimated at the last work session that 80 percent of the budget is staffing.

“It is very difficult to cut 20 percent,” said Weaver at the time.

The public hearing on April 5 was only attended by three members of the public, three media members and various county staff and constitutional officers.

The Board of Supervisors will meet to debate and possibly adopt the budget on April 12 at 7 p.m. in the Circuit Courtroom. The board can postpone a vote until April 19 without effecting the operations of the Treasurer’s office to get tax bills mailed.


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

Bryan Rothamel covers Fluvanna County for the Free Enterprise Forum

Photo Credit: Fluvanna County

Sayonara Shucet

By. Neil Williamson, President

Shucet - Photo Credit CvillepediaLate yesterday afternoon (3/30), the embattled Elizabeth River Crossings (ERC) named former Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) Commissioner Philip Shucet as their new Chief Executive Officer.

Shucet has most recently served as a consultant to VDOT as a facilitator and problem solver for challenging projects including the Route 29 Solutions panels.

Virginia Transportation Secretary Aubrey Layne said in the ERC News Release:

I know Philip personally and am confident he is the right man for the job.

It does not appear everyone in the Transportation Department was as prepared for Shucet’s sayonara as Secretary Layne.  According to VDOT’s Lou Hatter:

The Route 29 Solutions project team will work through VDOT Commissioner Kilpatrick’s office to develop a plan going forward.

While appreciative of the professionalism and speed of Route 29 solutions project management, the Free Enterprise Forum has been a vocal critic of the meeting tactics and lack of true public engagement offered by Shucet’s panel process.  In our 2014 post Shucet’s Charade – A Public Participation Illusion:

The Route 29 Advisory Panel is, perhaps unwittingly, playing a part in a masterfully orchestrated and expertly conducted illusion of public participation where the questions, concerns and opinions of panel members are being denied or actively dismissed. No votes are taken nor consensus measured. All the while the facilitator is complementing the panel for its incredible positive forward momentum.

In our three years of observation, we have grown to appreciate the charming manner in which Shucet manages (some might say manipulates) meetings and their outcomes.  His pioneering (for VDOT) of video streaming meetings promotes transparency but not participation.  By reviewing e-mails and phone calls received, Shucet can color the manner in which the complaint was made and how VDOT, or the contractor handled it.

As a facilitator extraordinaire, he has stayed true to the “Shucet Six” we first identified in 2014:

  1. Control who is in the group. The number of participants and their representative groups selected to provide appearance of balance of perspectives
  2. Control Content, Agenda and Release of Data Controlling when and where data is released allows the facilitator the opportunity to build “proper context”
  3. Reduce/Eliminate Outside Influences. By removing public comment from the meetings and accepting it only online, Shucet insulates the panel’s meetings from being distracted by a boisterous critic [AKA Citizen]
  4. Demurely Dominate Conversation. Shucet’s down home drawl, overzealous compliments and genteel demeanor seem to engage the entire panel in discussion while his voice is most often heard directing the conversation. In addition, strictly limiting the group meeting time to two hours also helps this technique succeed.
  5. Limit Decision Options. While the Route 29 Advisory Panel was supposedly provided nine options to consider in their first meeting, Shucet brought forward just four options to the second meeting as possibly moving forward based on the “Professional Judgment” [note the word opinion was not used] and screening of the Technical Team.
  6. No Voting and Don’t Ask for Consensus. After three years, how many votes have been taken? None. How many times has consensus been “tested”? Never. The closest is when Shucet indicated he saw a number of heads nodding.

None of this is news and it does not change the fact that Shucet has served in this role well.  Personally and professionally I consider Shucet to be an excellent public servant.  That being said, I also believe he and I see the role of the so called “advisory” panels differently.

This morning blogger Jim Bacon applauded Philip Shucet, Transportation’s First Responder:

Bacon’s bottom line: Most people working the interstices between the public and private sectors are usually looking to line their pockets by trading on their relationships. Philip Shucet is a different breed. Not to say that he hasn’t done well for himself as a businessman and consultant in recent years, but he could work anywhere in the country he chooses and probably make a lot more money. Fortunately for the commonwealth, Shucet, who lives in Virginia Beach, has chosen to dedicate much of his career to public service and tackling some of the biggest, stickiest transportation problems. We’re lucky to have him.

Recently, in a conversation with VDOT officials someone asked me if I believe the blue tourism oriented destination signs, that were offered to impacted US29 businesses made a difference during the Rio/US29 interchange construction.

I indicated that while the signs likely did not change anything significant, they were an important step to let the local businesses know VDOT was aware (and listening) to their very real concerns – perhaps such tepid tranquility is the overall goal of these panels as well.

How and who will replace Shucet in the facilitator role is the challenge for the future, for now we say Sayonara Shucet, we wish you fair winds and following seas.

Respectfully Submitted,

 

Neil Williamson, President

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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 Credit: Cvillepedia

The Wizard of Oz and the Rio/29 Small Area Plan

By. Neil Williamson, President

Adapted from comments made to the Albemarle County Board of Supervisors March 1, 2017

Scarecrow, tin man, lionOver the years, some have considered the Cowardly Lion, the Tin Woodsman and the Scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz to be less than perfect heroes – I beg to differ I find them to be the best kind of heroes – those that must work together to achieve a goal.

Today, (3/1) as the Board of Supervisors considers the innovative Form Based Code land use planning for Rio/29 small area plan I believe this unlikely trio could provide important guidance

Please let me explain.

The Form-Based Codes Institute (FBCI) defines form based code this way:

A form-based code is a land development regulation that fosters predictable built results and a high-quality public realm by using physical form (rather than separation of uses) as the organizing principle for the code. A form-based code is a regulation, not a mere guideline, adopted into city, town, or county law. A form-based code offers a powerful alternative to conventional zoning regulation.

Utilizing a state grant, Albemarle has completed Phase I of Rio/29 Small Area Plan. Stage II is much more difficult and may move in many directions.  According to the staff report:

Phase II, expected to begin in March 2017, will further address the following issues identified in Phase I:  Transportation challenges posed by increasing development & economic activity in the area. Further analyzing market factors affecting development potential, such as demographic change influences (for example, “aging up” millennials and baby boomers, and increasing income and purchasing power)

Incorporating Economic Development Strategic Plan influences into the area plan With a focus on developing the following:

  • Detailed design of node(s)
  • Transportation strategy for this vision
  • Form-based Code/zoning, infrastructure, and other implementation strategies needed to accomplish the vision

When Dorothy first stumbles on the Scarecrow (covered in crows), her mission lacks specificscarecrow-wizard-of-oz direction. In seeking her way, the Scarecrow provides contrarian advice

Dorothy: That’s funny. Wasn’t he pointing the other way?
Scarecrow: [points both ways] Of course, some people do go both ways.”

As the story goes the scarecrow joins Dorothy to assist on her quest to find the wizard and so he might be granted his wish for a brain.  Interestingly the Tin Man’s tin-mandesire for a heart is in direct contrast with the Scarecrow’s request for a brain; just as these two colorful fictional characters provide dramatic tension, similar tensions will be evident as Albemarle moves from a Euclidian (traditional use based) zoning process to Form-Based Code.

At last week’s Legal Aid Justice Center/NAACP sponsored workshop in Charlottesville, concerns regarding Form Based Codes taking away citizen’s right to oppose projects and promoting gentrification of neighborhoods were voiced by speakers and attendees.  The handout provided, written by Legal Aid Attorney Kim Rolla highlighted four problems identified with FBC:

Less Affordable Housing

Higher Property Values

Less Flexibility

Faster Development

As the last traveler to join the quartet, the Lion was expected to be brave and fierce, a leader but he seemed to lack the trappings of power. As one reads the novel, the lion exhibits bravery throughout the story – he just lacked confidence.

Just as the Wizard of Oz gave our unlikely trio gifts recognizing their skills, the Free Enterprise Forum is asking the Board of Supervisors today to give planners the confidence and direction to move boldly forward with Form Based Code in their “Transformational” small area planning.

We are asking the Supervisors to provide direction in two specific areas: Removing Architectural Review Board Jurisdiction and Protecting Existing Property Rights.

In reviewing the staff report on Phase II, it is clear that the Architectural Review Board will have representation on the stakeholder group. It is not clear if the eventual buildings that follow the painstakingly developed design guidelines in the form based code will also be required to submit to ARB review.

The Free Enterprise Forum believes the ARB should weigh in on the code as it is developed and then step away. No project under the FBC should be subject to ARB review. To submit a form based code application to additional ARB review would be counter to the goals of the form based code.

We believe the land uses proposed within the new Rio/29 district must be of equal or higher density than is currently permitted. Height restrictions must be carefully considered especially when attempting to create mixed use buildings. In addition, we ask Albemarle consider utilizing the Form-Based Code as an optional overlay. As FBCI reported Arlington County found in their 2003 FBC overlay worked well:

Virginia is a strong property-rights state, and the county avoided some legal and political issues by keeping the “by-right” zoning in place and overlaying the FBC as an option. Developers can choose to use either the conventional zoning or the form-based code for proposed projects, although effectively, few projects “pencil out” if the conventional code is used. As a result, since the FBC was adopted for the centers in 2003, it has fostered the construction of 10 mixed-use development projects, including more than 1,500 homes, more than 280,000 square feet of retail and office space, a new community center and a new public plaza. The transformation envisioned by the community is well underway.

“The fact that the code has continued to work well for Columbia Pike over more than a decade, even as the economy has gone through a major recession, shows that the vision was realistic and the FBC provided a sound framework for private reinvestment.” said [Mary]Madden.

The Free Enterprise Forum asks Albemarle Board of Supervisors today to boldly embrace this direction, establish the community endorsed form based code AND have the courage to both eliminate ARB review and make the FBC an optional overlay.

As logical as this tact seems it will not be easy.32735-cowardly_lion

As Dorothy told the Lion:

“Don’t you know the Wizard’s going to give you some courage?”

Cowardly Lion said “I’d be too scared to ask him for it.”

Rio/29 Form-Based Code will take courage, heart and firm direction from the Board of Supervisors.

Will you give such bold direction today?

Respectfully Submitted,

Neil Williamson

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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: MGM, Classicphotos.com, imgardcade.com, michaelcerio.com

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