Category Archives: Development Policies

Albemarle Rushes Rural Rights Reduction

imageBy. Neil Williamson, President

Do commercial uses fit in Albemarle County’s rural areas?

Looking at the photo to the right of Earlysville General Store, I would say not only do they fit, such uses (and the owners, employees and patrons) are the very fabric of the community for generations.

But such community supportive land uses are now in jeopardy.

Please let me explain.

On Wednesday night (6/13), the Albemarle Board of Supervisors will be considering a zoning text amendment (ZTA201800002) that would significantly reduce the number of uses allowed on property that is zoned commercial in the rural areas.

This proposal has sped through the County’s approval process faster than any in recent memory.  Their “need for speed” is not clear and an e-mail requesting more information has not been returned.

Throughout this speedy process, there has been significant discussion regarding the impact of this land use change on property values.  In testimony before the Planning Commission several residents suggested the value could drop by up to 90%.  One speaker indicated that a potential real estate contract is in peril because of the proposed ZTA.

The concept of “takings” was discussed at the Planning Commission.  In the meeting minutes Deputy County Attorney John Blair explained the issue:

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Anecdotally, we have seen property values diminish with reduction in rights but it was not until we read a 2006 paper by Oregon State University professor William K Jaeger that we found empirical evidence of such property value deimmunization.  Jaeger’s research is very careful to paint a broad brush regarding property values but provides an interesting window on the comparison between regulated and unregulated land costs.

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In explaining this issue, Jaeger mentions the significant externalities involved in any real estate valuation:

Given the possibility of a price effect for both regulated and unregulated land due to the land-use regulation, it would be presumptuous to attribute the entire price differential between the two markets to a reduction in property values for the regulated lands. To use an analogy, if you tie your boat to a coastal pier and then, after a period of hours, notice that the level of the boat is now below the level of the pier, you are unlikely to ask: Did the pier move up or did the boat move down? You will immediately understand that piers don’t move up, but that an outgoing tide could have easily caused the boat to fall.

Considering the significant number of variables in any real estate transaction, and the Supreme Court’s decision regarding loss of up to 90% dictating a taking, I believe this loss of property rights would not meet the legal definition of a taking.

Even if it is legal is it right?

Albemarle County’s Rural Chapter of its comprehensive plan recognizes the need for commerce in the rural areas.  Specifically calling for such communities to develop:

Crossroads communities that provide support services and opportunities to engage in community life;

Why then are these ~80 rural properties being effectively downzoned so quickly?

We do not know specifically but here is what we do know:

1.  Albemarle’s Board of Supervisors closed meeting earlier this summer one topic announced to be discussed was a Zoning Text Amendment and ongoing litigation.

2.  According to several sources, Albemarle has a court case on June 22nd regarding a rural area land use decision

3.  The Planning Commission was clearly pushed by the Supervisors to have this ready for the June 13th BOS meeting

4.  An e-mail asking the direct question of Albemarle County staff went unanswered last week.

If the Albemarle Board of Supervisors is pushing this agenda due to a specific court case, the Free Enterprise Forum believes the public has a right to know.

It’s a shame a bad law (400 gallons of water use per acre per day) is now being replaced by one that is even worse.

We continue to believe a thoughtful discussion of performance standards could produce a significantly improved ordinance that could more properly balance property rights and the community goals.

But that would take time, something seemingly the Supervisors don’t have.

Respectfully submitted,

Neil Williamson

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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: Earlysville General Store Facebook Page

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Greene County Planning Commission Lowers Proffers

By. Brent Wilson, Field Officer

The Greene County Planning Commission  heard a rezoning request at their May meeting to remove or reduce the cash proffer required for a Planned Unit Development (PUD) originally granted in 2008. For the last ten years, Kinvara Properties, LLC has tried to develop approximately 33 acres fronting Route 29 southbound just north of the Food Lion plaza.

A cash proffer is a “voluntary” financial contribution the applicant makes per unit designed to offset a project’s fiscal impacts to the locality.  The Free Enterprise Forum has written extensively about proffers including the 2013 white paper “Contradictory Consequences“.

In 2016, Virginia’s General Assembly passed significant proffer reform.  The legislation required that any proffer provided must be answering a specific demand created by the project.  Most localities (including Greene) have not rewritten their zoning code to reflect these changes.

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Lily Ridge Apartments

A recent Greene County project, Lily Ridge Apartments, did pay the $9,000 per unit cash proffer for those units developed above the by right number of units (prior to the rezoning).

However, Kinvara Properties, represented by Attorney Butch Davies from Madison County, argued that their PUD will be more dense and have only 2 bedroom units therefore creating less demand on the school system – one of the major drivers of the cash proffer policy.

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Butch Davies

Davies explained that Kinvara has had several clients interested in the property but they have said that the size of the proffer makes the project economically unfeasible. In addition, the developer has already made expenditures for water and sewer hookups and road improvements. Chairman Jay Willer pointed out that these items, while having value to the county, are not part of the proffer calculation.

Davies offered $1,200 per unit in cash proffers with the logic being that the change in the law starting in July, 2018 will require proffers to be specific in the items related to the project. Davies referred to several other projects where proffers in the $1,200 range had been accepted by Greene County.

The hearing shifted to comments from the public, which there were none. Planner Stephanie Golon pointed out that the rezoning would allow 50 residential units to be built and she estimated that the number of students would range between Lily Ridge, 27 students or .58 students per unit and Terrace Greene, 30 students or .11 students per unit.

If the Lily Ridge ratio is used then the development would have approximately 29 students but Weldon Cooper Center for Public Policy data would only project 16 students. Commissioner Ron Williams pointed out that given the current proffer and that schools are the main contributor to the costs involved then the amount should be approximately $4,500 vs. the $1,200 offered by the developer. Williams asked how the $1,200 was calculated and Davies answered that it is based on the smaller number of students.

Willer brought up the fact that Kinvara Properties accepted the original proffer agreement  and he had a difficult time lowering the proffer.  Davies again stated that potential sales to developers have fallen through with the current proffer and he believes a reduction will allow the sale to be completed and the development to go forward.

Williams stated that he thinks the development is a good fit for the area and he isn’t sure when the $9,000 proffer would become affordable. Inversely, the $1,200 proposed proffer lacks supporting detail as how it was calculated. But the county needs commercial development and he believes more residents in Greene County will attract more businesses.

While Willer agreed that more people attract businesses, he has a difficult time in revising an agreement that the two parties made and the lowering of the proffer would cost Greene County $390,000 in proffers when the development is completed.

Williams made a motion to recommend approval of a revised cash proffer of  $1,200 per unit and it was approved 3-1, with Willer voting against it and one commissioner absent. The rezoning application now goes to the Board of Supervisors for their decision with the recommendation of approval from the Planning Commission.

The reduction of the proffer in this specific case continues to set a precedent for a lower proffer. The original proffer amount was set over 10 years and should be updated with current cost and the impact of the 2016 proffer law. Another option would be to have separate proffers for individual homes, townhomes, condos, etc. and possibly down to the number of bedrooms in each unit. These are the issues that have been discussed in past meetings.

Definitely future requests from developers will point to the $1,200 amount, if approved by the Board of Supervisors, as a basis to set (or lower) their cash proffer.

An argument could be made that since lower proffers attract more developers wouldn’t doing away with proffers altogether attract the most developers?

Is 0% of the current proffer more valuable than 100% of $1,200?

Or is more residential development worth the upside of more driving potential commercial development and increased tax revenue?

It will be interesting to see how the Greene County Board of Supervisors deal with this application and if they ever get around to adjusting their cash proffer policy to be congruent with state code.

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 http://www.freeenterpriseforum.org

 

 

Albemarle Rural Special Use Permits For Not So Special Uses

By. Neil Williamson, President

rural outpostTonight (May 8th), the Albemarle County Planning Commission is discussing what is and is not a by-right use on commercially zoned property not served by public water or a central system.  The problem is there are 80 parcels in the rural area zoned as commercial and the powers that be want to significantly limit commercial activity in the rural areas (95% of Albemarle County).

This is how the regulators are seeking to deal with “stale” zoning, create a process that is nearly impossible to gain approval and thus remove the ability for so called ‘noxious’ uses without conducting a controversial and legally challenging downzoning.

We think there is an alternative.  The Free Enterprise Forum believes that objective metrics could be established to have some of the ‘Special Uses’ be by right uses with independently verified performance standards.

Please let me explain.

In zoning parlance, there are three types of uses on a property:

  • By Right (that which you can do without additional government approval)
  • Special use (that which the government may allow you to do on your property) and
  • Prohibited use (that which the government indicates you can’t do on your property)

The fact that the land in question here is currently zoned commercial means that at one time a planner somewhere thought it would be a good idea to have commercial activity in this vicinity.  This more flexible planning philosophy has given way to a much more restrictive vision limiting commercial activity in the rural areas.

Under the new proposal, if  any of the ‘special uses’ [including sporting goods (bait shops?), drug store, food/grocery stores, and many more] proposed on commercial zoned property without water service would be measured against the following Comprehensive Plan criteria:

Criteria for Review of New Uses

As new uses are proposed in the Rural Area,it is essential that they be able to meet the following standards.  New uses should:

relate directly to the Rural Area and need a Rural Area location in order to be successful, (e.g., a farm winery has to be located in the Rural Area and would be unlikely to succeed in the Development Areas);

be compatible with, and have a negligible impact, on natural, cultural, and historic resources;

not conflict with nearby agricultural and forestal uses;

reflect a size and scale that complements the character of the area in which they will be located;

be reversible so that the land can easily return to farming, forestry, conservation, or other preferred rural uses;

be suitable for existing rural roads and result in little discernible difference in traffic patterns;

generate little demand for fire and rescue and police service;

be able to operate without the need for public water and sewer;

be sustainable with available groundwater; and

be consistent with other Rural Area policies.

Can you think of any proposal that could make it through this subjective labyrinth of approval?

Even if a staff recommendation could be acquired, do we anticipate any planning Commission making findings of any activity meeting all of these “standards”?

There has to be a better way.  The Free Enterprise Forum has been impressed with the performance standard models we have reviewed where objective metrics were developed to verify the data points rather than subjectivity reflected above.

The Comprehensive Plan even speaks of creating such performance standards on the same page as this review criteria:

Performance standards will be needed for any new uses to ensure that the size, scale, and location of the new commercial uses recommended for the Rural Area are appropriate.

It is of prime importance that the appearance and function of new uses blend and not detract from the key features of the Rural Area.

New uses should not overwhelm an area in terms of their function or visibility.

We fear this proposal may indirectly and unintentionally create food and gas deserts in the rural areas that will put rural residents even further away from the services they require.

Considering this proposal impacts only 80 properties, we believe this would be an excellent candidate for developing objective performance metrics.  Such an innovative program would protect the rural area AND Rural Property Rights – now would that be a good idea?

Respectfully submitted,

 

Neil Williamson, President

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

Photo Credit: Commonplacemagazine.org

 

Lack of Infrastructure Investment Dooms Albemarle’s Neighborhood Model

By, Neil Williamson, President

FORUM WATCH EDITORIAL

Almost thirty years ago,  Albemarle County decided to attempt to focus population growth into 5% of its geographic area.  On a philosophical level this policy makes perfect sense, put the population where it is most efficient to deliver government services. The promise was for a 5% bustling urban core surrounded by 95% natural beauty of (privately held) rural areas.

Places29 Bistro Corner

Albemarle Development Vision from Places29

Conceptually, the 5% development area was to develop with concurrent amenities and investments along with the development.  The idea is for the smaller more compact home have access to amenities, employment and green space to make the development area home more attractive than a home on a couple of acres in the country.

As Charlottesville Tomorrow’s Sean Tubbs chronicled in a front page story in The Daily Progress this morning (5/1/18), Albemarle County has failed to build the infrastructure required to make the development area work.  Further, they have done a poor job explaining to residents the need for development in the development area.

Sean Tubbs reports on two developments planned for the Pantops area that went before the Pantops Community Advisory Council:

Rita Krenz, a Pantops committee member who said she was speaking as a resident of the Overlook Condominiums, said there are big issues with the plan.

“I think I speak for my neighbors when I say traffic is a problem that is not going to go away,” she said. “It’s unwise to put more residential units on this side of [Free Bridge].”

Krenz said the property was zoned in 1980 and much has changed since that time. She said if Pantops develops simply according to the plan as it exists now, it will hurt efforts to use the Rivanna River as a pastoral setting.

At one time there was some momentum for appropriate concurrent infrastructure spending along side private sector investment.

From December 8, 2004 staff report:

At the Board of Supervisors strategic planning retreat in October 2003, the Board identified the County’s growth and urbanization as a critical issue and established a new strategic planning goal related to urbanization. At this year’s retreat, the Board continued its focus on growth and urbanization by providing direction to staff regarding the desire to pursue an “Urbanizing County” level of service for the County’s transportation and streetscape needs. For transportation needs, this level of service focuses on providing “essential link” transportation projects, minimizing the use of private streets, and continuing to rely on VDOT for street maintenance. For streetscape needs, it includes the County becoming more involved in the construction and maintenance of streetscape in development areas, as determined by master plans.  For streetscape outside master planned areas, construction would be considered through the CIP process, based on the availability of funds.  In both transportation and streetscape, the County would continue to expect development to provide a significant portion of the initial infrastructure.  Emphasis added – nw

A funny thing happened on the way to Albemarle urbanization.  Elements of the Neighborhood Model of development [which had been sold as “A” model not “The” model] became part of the Albemarle County code forcing developers to put in curb, gutter, street trees and other Neighborhood Model “amenities”.  Developers built sidewalks interior to their development and Albemarle County has failed to connect the developments and thus failed to create the “walkability” they promised.

In November 2014, then Albemarle County Executive Tom Foley acknowledged the lack of planned transportation infrastructure investment:

Mr. Foley stated that the Board has set up specific funding in the Capital improvement Program (CIP) for master planned areas but that was for new developments. He stated that there was some money designated for interconnecting streets, but there has not been a focus on infrastructure funding for sidewalks and things in existing neighborhoods. Mr. Foley noted that the County never even got to the new areas due to limited capital funding

The vision of the Neighborhood Model was to have a variety of housing types and sizes as well as owned and rented properties intermingled to promote diversity.  Interestingly, the residents don’t seem to be interested in this diversity of housing types.

Again from Sean Tubbs article:

“It’s [the proposed development] a mixture of one- and two-bedroom apartments,” said Trey Steigman, a vice president at MSC. “These are not condominiums but for-lease apartments.”

Steigman said he did not know what the rates would be, but they would at least be market rate. The one-bedroom units would have an average of 700 square feet and the two-bedroom units would average about 1,000 square feet. . .

…“Those units are tiny,” said one resident of the Overlook Condominiums. “Who can live in 700 square feet?”

The unasked question that is inferred by this inquiry is perhaps more insidious ‘Who would want to live near someone who wants to live in such a tiny space’.  In addition, there is a palpable tension between owners and renters reflected in this discussion.

This is just the latest example of how Albemarle’s growth management (growth restrictive) policy is undermined by existing neighborhoods (often recently built) who oppose new development via the rezoning process. Most often the rationale for the opposition is the failure of Albemarle to meet existing resident expectations for services.  The lack of political will to stand up for the concepts and aspiring density rhetoric in the Comprehensive Plan is disappointing.

Tipping Point? An interesting byproduct of the Growth Management Plan and Magisterial design – about the same time the development area was designated, the magisterial districts were redrawn so that every supervisor had a portion of the growth area in their district.  With the level of development most districts are now population dominated by development area residents – mathematically speaking if you win Mill Creek and Glenmore neighborhoods, you win the Scottsville District.  Will this new electoral reality result in super representation of the development area concerns stated above?  Should it?

The Free Enterprise Forum does not believe the current development area reality comes close to the aspirational vision that was endorsed by the Development Initiative Steering Committee (DISC) or DISC II (AKA son of DISC).

Despite significant private sector investment in infrastructure (roads, water, sewer, parks, sidewalks, etc.), Albemarle County has failed to create the connective linkages between developments (and in existing neighborhoods) to make the community vision a reality.

Based on the comments from Pantops, it soon might be too late to ever catch up.

Respectfully Submitted,

Neil Williamson

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

Albemarle Mission Creeping Planning Commission

FORUM WATCH EDITORIALcreeping

By. Neil Williamson, President

After a January 2018 determination found that 1/3 of Albemarle’s Entrance Corridors are illegal, the Board of Supervisors has yet to act on a resolution of intent to fix this issue.

In this vacuum, Albemarle County’s Planning Commission decided they don’t need no stinking Architectural Review Board – they can mission creep far beyond their state mandated advisory role and institute architectural demands on projects regardless of their location.

Please let me explain.

First it is important to note, the Free Enterprise Forum does not take positions on specific projects.  The examples below are used to show a broken process, we do not have an opinion regarding the applications’ individual merit.

Example #1

During the Architectural Review Board review of a project (SP-2017-00016) in the Scottsville District on Avon Street Extended, it was determined that Avon Street Extended is not an arterial roadway (a requirement for an Entrance Corridor designation).  The applicant went through the initial review without this knowledge and after the determination was made, the planning commission was briefed.  Based on the applicant’s testimony at the Planning Commission, it was clear they were never told that they were not under the ARB regulations.  Only late in the public hearing did the Deputy County Attorney mention that the applicant would not need to go back to the ARB for a final review.

Instead, the mission creeping Planning Commission seeking to achieve ARB-type control created a new class of conditions to codify the architecture as a part of a special use permit for a body shop.

b. Additional fenestration or architectural features shall be added along the “02 Left Elevation (South)” façade to provide a pedestrian orientation to the satisfaction of the Director of Planning or his/her designee. Priority should be given to providing additional fenestration or a combination of wall plantings, architectural features and fenestration along this particular elevation. [emphasis in original – nw]

Conditions in a Special Use Permit generally mitigate negative impacts on adjoining property owners, taking this to mean architectural elements is a LARGE LEAP beyond normal review.

Example #2

The following week, the Planning Commission considered a Special Use Permit application  for a new church on Rio Road East (SP201700010).  Rio Road East has never been established as an entrance corridor; it is mentioned as a corridor for possible entrance corridor consideration in the Comprehensive Plan (Page 5.20).

Strategy 8f: Consider additional EC designations as appropriate, or as road classifications change, for roads such as the John Warner Parkway, Route 614 (Sugar Hollow Road), Route 692/712 (Plank Road), and Route 810 (Brown’s Gap Turnpike).

It is important to note there has been no resolution of intent or any other forward motion on making the John Warner Parkway an Entrance Corridor beyond the notation above in the 2015 guiding planning document.

That mere mention is enough for this activist Planning Commission to mission creep into mandating architectural features as a function of the Special Use Permit process.  In this case now they have precedent, based on the SUP they railroaded the week before (Example #1).  Honestly, the applicant never knew what hit him.

The Free Enterprise Forum is very concerned that the mission creeping Planning Commission is unchecked in its power grab beyond state code.  As an advisory body, nothing becomes final until accepted by the Board of Supervisors.

When the Board of Supervisors considers these applications later this year, will any Supervisor (or County Counsel) raise the red flag regarding these architectural demands absent a significant community benefit OR a strong legal nexus?

I know which way I am betting.

Stay Tuned,

 

Neil Williamson, President

Photo Credit: Bartblog.bartcop.com

Albemarle Rain Tax Answers (Part V)– The Christopher Columbus Map Award

By. Neil Williamson, President

PrintIn preparation for an April 11th work session, Albemarle County has released a set of answers to Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ’s) regarding their proposed Stormwater Utility Fee (AKA RAIN TAX).  Generally, we support good information getting out to the public on such an important issue.  Unfortunately there was some clear political spin to some of the answers – not untruths, but spin.  This is the fifth in a series of blog posts to unpack the answers.

Today’s question: What is a GIS and how does the County collect the GIS data used to calculate utility fees?

Albemarle’s answer:

GIS stands for Geographic Information System. It is computer software designed to capture, store, analyze, and present spatial or geographic data. The County has used a GIS for decades to improve operations such as capital planning, emergency response, and development tracking.

Various data has been developed since the late 1990s for a variety of purposes. New data is obtained as land is subdivided and improvements are constructed. For instance, County staff will map the corners of new buildings – during the permitting process – using a highly accurate (sub-meter) GPS device. Older data was originally mapped by County staff and consultants from Mylar tax maps and aerial photography. The County does not rely on automated or computerized processes to map impervious areas. Once buildings, parking lots, and other features are mapped, they are generally not re-mapped unless a permitting process proposing new development is initiated on the property. However, County staff will occasionally compare mapped features to new aerial photography to identify missed features.

The Free Enterprise Forum is the first to acknowledge the power of GIS.  We utilized GIS technologies to calculate our Hindsight Report as well as our Workplace 29 ReportThose reports used GIS to aggregate data rather than provide specific parcel information.  When you drill down on Albemarle County’s GIS to the parcel level you find all kinds of issues – especially if you try to use it to calculate impervious surface.

Incorrect boundary lines If you pull the GIS imagery for Tax Map 14-18 in Southern Albemarle, as an owner you would think that looks like the proper lot lines but when you overlay a physical survey completed for the property you find the GIS map is wrong in material ways.  See the combined image below:

RR Exhibit B

As a reminder, Albemarle’s proposed rain tax calculation will include all rooftops and any impervious surfaces (including gravel) within a 100’ radius of the building.

According to the GIS (blue line), Tax Map 14-18 has a large building on the east side of the parcel.  The physical survey (black line)recognizes not only iron buried but a fence along the property line that places the building (and the related impervious surface) on the neighbor’s property.

On the left side of the map the circle around the northwest out building is not fully captured due to the misplaced property line.The GIS lines are misaligned resulting in a miscalculation of the Rain Tax.

In a different example, also in Southern Albemarle (Exhibit A) Albemarle County’s GIS boundary lines for Tax Map 19-42A both over and undercount the impervious surface radii when compared with the maps available in the courthouse (DB 777 P.359)RR Exhibit A

The County GIS lines (blue) show a boundary that is shorter and wider than the legal data (Red lines) provide.

The resultant Rain Tax Calculation fails to capture the full radii in the southwest corner and over calculates the impervious surface on the north boundary of the property.

Based on this documentation – these two errors may almost cancel each other out – but they are incorrect.

rr gis According to the GIS for Tax map 132-14, three buildings exist on this parcel that are connected by gravel drives.  A drone review shows that there are four 4 buildings on the parcel.

The fourth building (identified as Shed #2) was constructed in 2008 but (as of December 2017) does not appear on the GIS.  As important that the building is not captured in the calculation neither is the 100’ radii.

RR Drone 2Shed #2 represents 1370 sq feet of impervious surface that would not be counted using GIS because according to GIS the shed does not exist.  In addition the gravel surrounding the shed would also not be counted utilizing current GIS data.

Some might suggest these are cherry picked examples and not representative of the County as a whole.  The Free Enterprise Forum has learned of 7 errors within a 5 square mile quadrant of Albemarle County.  We also believe that such errors while existing within the urban ring are likely not as prevalent with more recent developments that utilized global position survey techniques.

One local surveyor estimated that 25% of all parcels in the county would have some form of inaccuracy in their GIS data.  To be clear, not all of the errors are in favor of the landowner, some are to the benefit of the county – no matter – a 25% error rate for data driving the RAIN TAX is unacceptable.

This may be the most erroneous use of mapping software since since Christopher Columbus charted his first voyage to Asia.

We reiterate our call for Albemarle Supervisors to say “NO” to the RAIN TAX AKA Stormwater Utility Fee because it is based bad maps create bad results.

Respectfully Submitted,

Neil Williamson, President

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

 

 

 

Albemarle’s Rain Tax Answers (Part III)– Utility?

By. Neil Williamson, President

PrintIn preparation for an April 11th work session, Albemarle County has released a set of answers to Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ’s) regarding their proposed Stormwater Utility Fee (AKA RAIN TAX).  Generally, we support good information getting out to the public on such an important issue.  Unfortunately there was some clear political spin to some of the answers – not untruths, but spin.  This is the third in a series of blog posts to unpack the answers.

Today’s question: What is a stormwater utility?

Albemarle’s FAQ’s response:

Utilities are funding mechanisms that charge a fee for services provided. A stormwater utility supports stormwater management and other programs related to water resource protection. While property taxes are based on the value of the property, a stormwater fee must be related to each property’s contribution to the problems being address by the programs, namely through discharges of stormwater runoff and pollution. Fees are typically based on property characteristics having a strong relation to runoff and pollutants, such as impervious area. A utility is not a tax and revenues generated from fees must only be used to support water resources programs. (emphasis added-nw)

While Albemarle’s definition of utility seems entirely reasonable, it also does not accurately describe the proposed rain tax.  Examining the image below, I can see the paved and gravel grace episcopalareas around the church that would create runoff, however from this perspective I anticipate the majority of the stormwater would be absorbed long before it reached a stormwater conveyance or even a stream – what utility is being provided?

Even if one of the few green infrastructure/open channel maintenance projects (8% of the FY19 program budget) is being completed in the area – the direct utility is extremely limited.  pepe-le-pew-warner-brothers

The Free Enterprise Forum believes this is a rain tax, collected from all property owners (including churches) to pay for a community good – stormwater infrastructure.

We agree the proposed rain tax does create revenues that are restricted to only support water resources programs.  We don’t think this an unchecked dedicated revenue source is a good idea but we agree this is what is planned.

Calling the proposed rain tax a stormwater utility fee does not make it any less offensive than calling a skunk a cat.

Call it what it is a rain tax and yes it stinks.

Respectfully Submitted,

Neil Williamson, President

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

Photo Credits: Google (accessed 3/20/18), Warner Brothers/Loony Tunes

Albemarle Answers Rain Tax Questions (Part II)

By. Neil Williamson, President

PrintIn preparation for an April 11th work session, Albemarle County has released a set of answers to Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ’s) regarding their proposed Stormwater Utility Fee (AKA RAIN TAX).  Generally, we support good information getting out to the public on such an important issue.  Unfortunately there was some clear political spin to some of the answers – not untruths, but spin.  This is the second in a series of blog posts to unpack the answers.

Today’s question ‘Why has a stormwater utility been recommended as the funding mechanism?’

Albemarle’s FAQ’s response:

A stormwater utility has the following advantages:

· Fairness – A utility fee based on a property’s impervious area more closely relates to the demand a property places on the stormwater system and on water resource protection efforts than its real estate property value. For that reason, a utility is considered a fairer way to allocate total program costs to individual properties.

· Stability – A utility will result in a dependable and steady revenue stream that grows with the community; this stability will allow for long-term program development and planning for capital investments.

· Regulatory preference – A dedicated funding source is preferred by federal and state regulators and would create advantages for the County when being audited or applying for grants.

· Wider funding base – Government- and tax-exempt- properties – charged under a utility but not charged taxes – contribute to the stormwater and pollution burden.

So we have four advantages to unpack: Fairness, Stability, Regulatory Preference and a wider funding base.

Fairness is a bit difficult to measure but let’s fist look at the current funding mchanism.  Today, all county taxpayers contribute $.007 of the property tax rate is dedicated to stormwater.

This cost allocation system is the same for schools, public safety, and most other government functions.  Suggesting a user fee is a very different concept.  Imagine if this was how we funded schools, the couple across the street do not have any children, why should they pay for schools?

Is the current funding mechanism ‘fair’?

Albemarle’s FAQs suggest that the proposed rain tax impervious surface calculation more closely relates to the demands placed on the system is a challenge as well.  Nothing in the calculation considers property context.

Consider the Google maps captures below:

White hall google map sugar hollow rdRolkin Road Google maps

The capture on the left is in the White Hall District in Sugar Hollow surrounded by forested lands, the photo on the right is Rolkin Road on Pantops, ignoring the variation in the amount of impervious surface in each photo, does using the same billing unit for these two instances the same make logical sense?   Which photo has more impact on Albemarle County’s stormwater infrastructure?  The home in the rural countryside or the urban ring townhouse?

Albemarle County FAQs indicate the proposed rain tax will result in a steady revenue stream that grows with the community.  The only thing stopping this from happening under the existing funding system is political will of 4 supervisors (the number needed for action).  Such political will has existed in recent years, evidenced by the $.007 dedicated to storm water in the current budget.

Albemarle FAQs suggest the proposed rain tax was selected because of a “Regulatory Preference” and that the proposed rain tax will ‘create advantages when audited or applying for grants’.  The Free Enterprise Forum wishes to be perfectly clear – the proposed rain tax is NOT mandated by any governmental agency.  Among regulators some preference may exist but the regulation relates to the projects not how the projects are funded. Albemarle can say “no” to the proposed rain tax and have a very successful stormwater program.

The last bullet ‘wider funding base’ is perhaps the most jarring. Government and tax exempt properties may be charged under the proposed rain tax but not charged taxes.  This means Albemarle County will have to pay the proposed rain tax on all of their properties (including schools), these funds will come out of the general fund creating a need for more tax dollars to pay for those costs.

In addition, rural churches, often with impervious gravel parking lots will need to spend hundreds of dollars annually either through higher contributions or by cutting ministries in the community.

PrintThe proposed rain tax is not a fair allocation of costs as it does not consider parcel context in its calculations.  Stormwater management is not a utility it is a public service.  The costs should be shared via the general fund not the proposed rain tax.

Respectfully Submitted,

Neil Williamson, President

Photo Credits: Google (accessed 3/19/18)

 

 

 

 

 

Albemarle’s RAIN TAX Bureaucracy

By. Neil Williamson, President

PrintIn preparation for an April 11th work session, Albemarle County has released a set of answers to Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ’s) regarding their proposed Stormwater Utility Fee (AKA RAIN TAX).  Generally, we support good information getting out to the public on such an important issue.  Unfortunately there were some clear political spin to some of the answers – not untruths, but spin.  This is the first in a series of blog posts to unpack the answers.

Today’s question ‘Will the stormwater utility result in the creation of a new bureaucracy?’ 

Albemarle’s FAQ’s response:

A stormwater utility will not result in the creation of a separate organization or a new County department. Revenues from the utility will be used to support existing staff and mandated programs related to stormwater management and water resource protection, as well as some program enhancements to better achieve County needs and goals [link to below “New Programs”]. Administration of the utility is expected to require the equivalent of about one-half additional staff. [Emphasis added-nw]

To be fair, like a good politician, Albemarle did not answer the yes/no question posed.  Perhaps we have a different definition of bureaucracy.  Merriam-Webster defines it as follows:

image

In the answer above,  Albemarle references the revenues will be used to “support existing staff”; true but not complete.  The program budget projects staff INCREASES from the current  ~16.5 Full Time Equivalents (FTE) to 23.4 staff in FY28 (nearly a 42% increase).  But note there is not a new department.

Albemarle’s Stormwater Utility Program’s 10 year budget is $52 Million dollars But note there is no new department.

The program budget approved by the Board of Supervisors included two line items that we think of as bureaucratic (absent the fee they are not needed):  Program Management/Administration and Regulation and Enforcement.

Albemarle County’s program budget (chart below) shows that roughly 1/3 of every dollar generated by the RAIN TAX foes to these two line items.  That between $1.2 – $2 million dollars annually.   The Free Enterprise Forum contends absent this funding mechanism, those funds could be used for stormwater infrastructure if they were not being spent on administration and enforcement.

2018-03-15 14_00_44-Rain Tax Figures - Excel

Let’s the question for the class; ‘Will the stormwater utility result in the creation of a new bureaucracy?’

PrintYES!  The Free Enterprise Forum believes the RAIN TAX will create a new bureaucracy (but not a new department).  The storm water mitigation credits allowed by the RAIN TAX will need to be verified at installation and regularly inspected to ensure proper compliance.  In addition, the mapping services required to make parcel corrections and other adjustments will be most significant in the first five years.  While we can understand some considering this work a part of the stormwater protection, we contend this specific, bureaucratic work would not be required if this funding mechanism was not used.

To paraphrase William Shakespeare, “A bureaucracy by any other name would smell as sweet”

Respectfully Submitted,

Neil Williamson

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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

Albemarle’s Prophylactic Proffer Policy

By. Neil Williamson, President

Adapted from Comments to the Albemarle Board of Supervisors March 7, 2018

Good afternoon, my name is Neil Williamson with the Free Enterprise Forum, a privately funded Public Policy organization focused on local government in Central Virginia.

This afternoon you will receive a detailed report from your Residential Development Impact Work Group regarding the Proffer reform legislation that became effective in July of 2016. The bulk of their recommendation is to pursue enabling legislation for impact fees at the General Assembly.

For the last thirty six months or so, Albemarle (and many other localities across the Commonwealth) have had a Prophylactic Proffer Policy that prevented the types of rezonings envisioned in your Comprehensive Plan from moving forward.

In a related development, all of this year’s proffer legislation in the General Assembly has been set aside for this session with the promise of a “Proffer Party” this summer to discuss solutions with all stakeholders.

The Free Enterprise Forum has been concerned about proffers (also known as a ‘Welcome Stranger’ tax) for a very long time. I have provided each of you a copy of our 2013 Contradictory Consequences report. It is interesting that the three case studies internal to the report are now entering the market.

As you contemplate your advocacy for residential impact fees that will drive up the cost of housing, we have a few questions:

  • How would you grade Albemarle’s efforts to fund the infrastructure promised in your own Comprehensive Plan?
  • Considering the unintended consequences of getting the very type of development you don’t want, are proffers or impact fees worth it?
  • With the community growing at a predictable (and sustainable) rate of about 2% annually, how has Albemarle’s infrastructure spending properly prepared for this growth?

It is clear the siren’s song of cash proffers and impact fees is very strong for elected officials. The idea of generating revenue from new home buyers (who are not yet voters) to “pay their way” is too good to be true.

The negative impacts of cash proffers and impact fees as documented in our report include tearing up the community vision as expressed in the Comprehensive Plan. Cash Proffers and Impact Fees produce a plethora of contradictory consequences without achieving significant community benefit.

Thank you for the opportunity to speak.

Respectfully Submitted,

Neil Williamson, President

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

Photo Credit: Charlottesville Tomorrow