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Free Enterprise Forum Grows Into Louisa

FROM STAFF REPORTS

The Free Enterprise Forum announced plans today to expand its regional coverage to include Louisa County.  “As an organization, we continue to see significant government and business activity in Louisa County that directly impacts our entire  region”, said Free Enterprise Forum President Neil Williamson.  “Our local government reporting and analysis will be greatly enhanced by the Louisa County strategic investment”. 

To facilitate this coverage, the public policy organization is currently looking to add a Louisa County Field Officer to its part-time staff.  Working between ten to fifteen hours a week, the ideal candidate will have first hand knowledge and interest in Louisa County.  A successful candidate will have strong computer and internet research skills as well as the ability to attend weekday and evening meetings.

Potential candidates are requested to reply in confidence to Neil@freeenterpriseforum.org.  No phone calls please.  The Free Enterprise Forum is an equal opportunity employer.

Welcome to the Country

By. Neil Williamson

Despite planning efforts to the contrary, a significant number of new residents are choosing to live in the rural areas.  In addition, the development areas often abut farmland.  While there is a romantic notion of moving from the city to the country (think Green Acres), there is much more to farm life than you find in Rural Living magazine.

In his new book, Welcome to the Country, Patrick County Farmer Frank Levering helps explain some of the niceties, nuances and nuisances that are a part of country living. 

Welcome to the Country introduces urbanites (and the rest of us) to “country culture”… sharing the unwritten rules by which rural people live.  He describes the motivation for the recent rural retreat:

These days, what motivates urban refugees typically isn’t the desire to do serious farming.  But what can happen out in the country, farming or no farming, hasn’t changed much.  The country is still the country — manure is still manure, and a mudhole after a thunderstorm is still a mudhole after a thunderstorm.  The trick — now as it was then — is knowing what to expect, and not going ballistic when things you may have taken for granted back in the city can’t be taken for granted anymore…..

Some of the natives can be a tad ornery about all of this.  “People,” one of them told us tartly, “want a rural setting but urban services.” 

Levering also highlights the farming career, including the “second” job that helps balance the farm families checkbook. He introduces us to local farmers like Carl Tinder, Corky Shackleford, Rob Harrison, Henry Chiles and many others.  The openness and candor they share regarding the challenges and rewards of their agricultural enterprises is most illuminating.  Listening for the other side, Levering spoke to many so called newcomers including  Jim Turpin, Susan Prokrop, Dean and Susan Vidal. 

Levering does a good job describing the high potential for culture clash between farmers, foresters and new homeowners. Whether it is the large piece of farm equipment on the windy backroads between fields or the cows wandering in the front lawn after finding a break in the fence.  There are a multitude of potential conflicts.

One scene in the book relates to a farmer who had sprayed his row crops in the morning running into his newly arrived neighbor at the country store. The neighbor was concerned because there was a bit of wind and some of the spray may have drifted over to his property.  The farmer was defensive, having heard from such knowledgeable newcomers before and he did not think he should have to explain that the fertilizer was expensive and he wasn’t going to waste it if it was too windy to apply it.

There are also warm rural stories where newcomers and farmers work together to get through drought, clear roads, herd lost cattle and much more.  The book concludes with a great list of seven boiled-down tips for creating community in the country.

The Farm Bureau, the Ballyshannon Fund, Virginia Cooperative Extension, Virginia State University and Virginia Tech all contributed to this excellent holiday read.    

Ordering information is available at the Ballyshannon Fund web site you can also Take a peek at Chapter One, here.  At $5.00 (plus S&H), this makes a great stocking stuffer.

Charlottesville to Make New Housing Units LESS affordable

Sometime after 10:00 pm this evening, Charlottesville’s Planning Commission will likely pass the “Affordable Housing Zoning Text Amendment” which will require 5% of the square footage in certain projects (Special Use Permits and Rezonings) be offered as “affordable”, or offer cash equivalent. 

The concept is that applicants that wish to receive additional density will do so at a cost of providing affordable housing.  The reality is the economic result of this action will be an increase of cost of the 95% of the project [or 100% if the cash option is used] to subsidize the non market rate units [or cash equivalent].

In his July 30 Memorandum to the Charlottesville Planning Commission, Neighborhood Planner Nick Rogers delineates the standard of review required for such a change:

The Planning Commission must make an advisory recommendation to City Council.  Council may amend the zoning ordinance upon finding that the proposed amendment would serve the interests of “public necessity, convenience, general welfare, or good zoning practice.”  [Italics in original-nw]

Rogers continues in his analysis:

Staff has not yet developed an effective strategy for implementing or monitoring the 30-year, long term affordability Innovative Ideas are being used throughout the country in similar situations, such as a community land trust, a limited-equity cooperative, or resale-restricted individual ownership.  ….. Given the current economic downturn, and the minimal number of qualifying projects in discussion, staff is comfortable that a solution to guarantee the 30-year term of affordability can be generated in the near future.

In owner-occupied situations, the initial sale of the unit can be ensured affordable by requiring the developer to submit documentation that the sale price was at or below the 60% income threshold to obtain a certificate of occupancy.  Deed restrictions that require compliance with the 30-year affordability term offer another solution.  However, based on preliminary feedback from the development community,most developers will likely opt to use the cash formula.

….Cash contributions made to satisfy this ordinance’s requirements would aid Council’s strategy to raise “significant resources” for the City’s Housing Fund.

Charlottesville is actually a little late getting in on this stealth new home buyer tax.  Governor Kaine signed the requiring enabling legislation earlier this year.  Albemarle County [which has had such authority] has mandated affordable housing in its new projects for a number of years. As The Free Enterprise Forum predicted when Albemarle considered their ordinance, the costs have been passed on to the end user.  In addition for those new affordable units that have come on-line, it has been VERY difficult to find buyers that meet the income restrictions with quality credit history to permit financing.

Charlottesville City Council has stated their vision for affordable housing to offer housing “that is affordable and attainable for people of all income levels, life stages, and abilities”.   If this is a stated community goal, why is the cost burden being placed clearly on the new residential unit buyer?  

Greene County BOS Talks Tough at Retreat

As a part of their annual retreat on July 2nd, the Greene County Board of Supervisors discussed conflicts between county policy and county employee behavior as well as conflict between the BOS and the Commissioner of the Revenue.  As Free Enterprise Forum Field Officer Kara L. Reese was the only member of the public or media at the meeting, we discern an obligation to report on these issues.  Ms. Reese’s report follows:

The Greene County Board of Supervisors took a tough stance on several County Department’s alleged failure to adequately discharge their duties during their July Retreat.  The Board publicly addressed ongoing concerns about lack of efficiency and accountability within some departments.

The Board of Supervisors is troubled by reports they are receiving about the large number of businesses operating without licenses in the County. A cause for additional concern is allegations that the County Commissioner of Revenue is failing to discharge his duties in issuing business licenses. It is unclear what, if any, funds the County lost due to the alleged failure to issue licenses and collect fees, but with an ever tightening Budget every dollar counts.  

The Board is interested in taking diplomatic steps resolve these matters. If diplomacy fails, the Board may consider more drastic action and request the assistance of the State Corporation Commission. The Board will be seeking an internal audit to determine how many businesses may be operating without a license and whether allegations of the Commissioner’s failure to collect fees can be substantiated.  If assertions of the Commissioner’s failure to discharge his duty as a Constitutional Officer prove accurate the Board may consider a request for his removal.

The Commissioner of Revenue is not the only office under fire. The Board was also concerned with the state of Greene County’s waste transfer station. Board members directed staff to complete a full accounting of the station’s operations within 60 days. At that time, the Board will make a determination regarding the future financial viability of the transfer station.

It is yet to be seen where this tough talk from the Board will lead in the coming months. What is clear is in these hard economic times, the Board of Supervisors is demanding accountability by all County Departments and Officials whether they are Constitutional Officers or County Staff.

The Free Enterprise Forum believes the Greene County Board of Supervisors is acting in the best interest of the citizens in investigating the Commissioner of the Revenue’s activities and accounting at the transfer station.  While we may not agree with the BPOL tax as a tax and will continue to work in Richmond for a reform of this tax, we do believe the proper role of the Commissioner of the Revenue is to collect taxes as authorized by the General Assembly.   By focusing on the proper collection of business taxes, the BOS may be able to mitigate the tax burden on landowners.  As Greene County’s business tax base grows, this will only become a greater issue in the years ahead.

Voter Vocabulary

Forum Watch Editorial

By. Neil Williamson

 

The Free Enterprise Forum’s definition of a Voter Vocabulary term is a government program whose title describes very little but induces lemming-like support.  The grand daddy of this technique is the term “Smart Growth” coined by the staff of then Maryland Governor Parris Glendening.  Other examples include Sustainable Development, Traffic Calming, Land Use Integration and Revenue Enhancement.       

 

Earlier this month Delegate Brian Moran (D-Alexandria) launched the latest entry in Virginia’s Voter Vocabulary hand book.  In a Virginia-Pilot Op-ed, Moran, who has made no secret of his desire for the Governor’s seat, calls for the creation of an “Office of Responsible Growth”.

 

This Orwellian sounding concept is a logical next step in wrestling control of plans and proposals away from local government (and citizens).  After weeks of meetings at the Planning Commission level, Fluvanna County agreed to “outsource” its Comprehensive Plan to the Thomas Jefferson Planning District Commission (TJPDC).  The Free Enterprise Forum has learned Greene County has indicated some interest in following the same road (pun intended).

 

Over the past five years, TJPDC as an organization has become very good at coordinating public meetings and framing the presentations and questions in a manner that provides the public the perception of involvement and still producing an end product that matches their philosophical bend.

 

TJPDC plans and reports are filled with Voter Vocabulary references such as pedestrian friendly (who would want to be pedestrian unfriendly?), buildings of a human scale (?), and sustainable solutions (if it is not sustainable is it a solution?).

 

Of interest, the Executive Director of the TJPDC, Harrison Rue, recently resigned to accept a position at an international consulting firm, ICF International.  In discussing his departure with Nancy Miner of The Central Virginian Rue stated, “I’ll be in [ICF’s] transportation practice … working with regions around the country on the same kind of land use integration that we have here.”   We anticipate hearing from Rue in the near future regarding Land Use Integration with Sensible Sustainable Solutions.

 

Thus during a search for a new Executive Director and in addition to their current activities, Fluvanna County will be paying the TJPDC to create the vision Comprehensive Plan.  The Free Enterprise Forum remains hopeful that the plan will accurately reflect the core values of Fluvanna citizens.  We are concerned Fluvanna (and possibly Greene’s) Comprehensive Plan may be developed in a cookie cutter methodology filled with Voter Vocabulary words and without significant (and meaningful) citizen involvement.  The Planning Commission, Board of Supervisors and citizens deserve better.     

 

Respectfully Submitted,

 

Neil Williamson

Where Do Rights Come From?

Over the weekend, I was reading a lecture given by Constitutional scholar Charles R. Kesler, a professor at Claremont McKenna College and editor of the Claremont Review of Books

The lecture, titled “Limited Government: Are the Good Times Really Over?” presented many interesting perspectives but one passage posed by the lecture captured my imagination, especially as it relates to the Free Enterprise Forum’s local government focus:

          A new theory of the Constitution corresponded to this new theory of rights. FDR put it memorably in his 1932 Commonwealth Club Address: Government is a contract under which “rulers were accorded power, and the people consented to that power on consideration that they be accorded certain rights.” According to this view, we give the rulers power and the rulers give us rights. In other words, rights are no longer natural or God-given, but emerge from a bargain struck with the government. And it is up to liberal statesmen or leaders to keep the bargain current, redefining rights constantly-adding new rights and subtracting some of the old ones-in order to keep the living Constitution in tune with the times. Entitlement rights-rights created and funded by government-replace natural rights. Given this new relationship of people and government, we don’t need to keep a jealous eye on government anymore, because the more power we give it, the more rights and benefits it gives us back-Social Security, Medicare, prescription drug benefits, unemployment insurance, and on and on.

This statement buried near the end of the lecture caused me great pause as it relates to local government control of land use issues. 

I have often highlighted that it was John Locke in his Second Treatise Concerning Civil Government who first developed the concept of natural rights including “life liberty and property (or estate)”.   Our own Thomas Jefferson, one of many of our aristocratic forefathers who read Locke’s work, altered the language importantly in our Declaration of Independence:

          We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. – That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, – That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

The differences between FDR’s 1932 speech at The Commonwealth Club and The Declaration of Independence are as subtle as they are important.  In the Declaration, governments derive their power by consent of the governed.  In FDR’s speech, rights are doled out by government so as to create a condition for the governed to consent.

Local land use across our region falls more toward the Commonwealth Club address than the Declaration position.  In countless planning commission and Board of Supervisors meetings I have heard the phrase “we are not taking away any rights since we gave them to you in the first place”.

Interestingly, in the 1932 Commonwealth Club Speech FDR also provided his rationale for individual property rights:

          Every man has a right to his own property; which means a right to be assured, to the fullest extent attainable, in the safety of his savings. By no other means can men carry the burdens of those parts of life which, in the nature of things afford no chance of labor; childhood, sickness, old age. In all thought of property, this right is paramount; all other property rights must yield to it. If, in accord with this principle, we must restrict the operations of the speculator, the manipulator, even the financier, I believe we must accept the restriction as needful, not to hamper individualism but to protect it.

The Free Enterprise Forum believes any market that is highly regulated by government will be less agile to respond to consumer demands and thus will be less competitive than a less regulated market. 

Where do rights come from?

We tend to agree with Jefferson and Locke.  Men (and women) are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, Property and the pursuit of Happiness. 

Government should serve the people to protect these Creator given rights. 

At the end of the day, this really does not seem like such a radical position.

 

Economic Development Role of Government

In the general, most folks are in favor of economic development as a concept.  The idea of increasing business revenues (and thus relieving some of the homeowner tax burden) is very close to apple pie on the political spectrum.  The difficulty comes in when one starts to discuss what economic development looks like.

Should local economic development activities be restricted to business retention?  If we fail to retain even some existing businesses, shouldn’t we have a plan for attracting new “replacement” enterprises? 

Two years ago, there was a thirty minute discussion at the Albemarle County Board of Supervisors meeting regarding the proper title for a new position in the county charged with business vitality – especially in the growth areas.  There was significant reluctance on the board to call this position an Economic Development officer, in the end they determined a business facilitator would better suit the duties of the position.

Next week, Susan Stimart, Albemarle County’s business facilitator will start work sessions with the Planning Commission on the Economic Development chapter of their comprehensive plan.  Buried in the text of the 50+ page chapter of the comp plan are significant decisions for the Planning Commission regarding the need for larger tracts of light industrial land the related exodus of small vibrant service companies from Albemarle County.

One question The Free Enterprise Forum routinely asks regards the proper function of government (if any) in a market segment.  At this time when both Greene and Fluvanna are updating their comprehensive plans and Albemarle is working on their Economic Development chapter, it is approriate to look at where government should and should not interceed.

The economic development environment is directly tied to the quality of life of the citizens.  Rather than looking toward a single large employer to woo to your locality, the Free Enterprise Forum believes government should focus on making business/government interaction minimally invasive and highly efficent.  In addition, government should regularly work with business as members of the Chamber of Commerce, Thomas Jefferson Partnership for Economic Development and other civic activities.  

Business must be a partner in this process as well.  Our region’s businesses have regularly pulled together to improve the quality of life of our residents (who are their employees and customers).  Business must work to have a seat at the table for discussions of local issues and be a strong voice for the importance of economic vitality. 

Perhaps the toughest thing for some government and quasi-government practitioners of economic development to understand is many businesses want to be good citizens and want government to simply  get out of the way.  Too often, localities layer ordinance on top of ordinance without recognizing the increase cost of complexity they are passing on to the businesses charged with complience.  If each locality required a cost/benefit analysis of each new regulation and a clear understanding of who is paying the cost (and the impact on that business), this would go a long way to building the economic vitality of the locality and the region.

 

Using a Sledge Hammer to Kill a Fly

Last night, Albemarle County’s Planning Commission, in a knee jerk reaction to an application plan it reviewed last week, (Charlottesville Tomorrow has the story here) approved a Resolution of Intent – to amend a section of the zoning ordinance. 

The Readers’ Digest version of this story is that last week the Planning Commission was very frustrated that the did not have the legal power to halt a plan they did not like, so this week they took immediate steps to garner this authority.  

While this may seem like waay inside baseball, I raise the issue because rarely does such knee jerk regulatory action result in positive public policy.

The section the Planning Commission is seeking to amend provides owners of Planned Districts (Neighborhood Model, Planned Urban District, Historic District, Rural Preservation District, etc.) the option of having their plans reviewed utilizing the regulations that were in force at the time of their district designation or the regulations in place the day of the review.

In last night’s meeting, the Free Enterprise Forum raised the concern that this proposal had not properly been vetted for the scope of its potential application.  We also called for stakeholder roundtables prior to drafting the ordinance.

In subsequent testimony, Valerie Long of Williams Mullen cited Biscuit Run, Northpointe, The University of Virginia Research parks, Martha Jefferson Hospital, and Monticello as just a few of the projects that could be impacted by this amendment. 

In response to our comments, one commissioner deftly turned the burden of proof of over regulation to those being regulated.

The Albemarle County Planning Commission sees this amendment as closing a loophole in the ordinance.  Based on the manner in which ordinances are drafted in this community I am certain there was careful thought in the creation of this loophole.  The genesis of this section of code was not discussed in detail last night.

 

At no point were metrics provided regarding the number of applications that had utilized this section of code.  It was clear this proposal was a way for staff to answer the concerns raised by the Planning Commission in the previous week without any critical analysis [or staff report] to support the action.  

IMHO this is using a sledgehammer to kill a fly.  Since 2002, I can only think of two projects that utilized this provision in the code. 

Albemarle County staff has taken great pains to express their concerns with the ever increasing workload being placed on their department, which has been decimated by frozen positions.  I fear that since this is a pet project, either items higher on the priority list may be moved down the pecking order or, more discouraging, the planning commission attempts to move this proposal through with all deliberate speed at the cost of stakeholder involvement. 

The optimist in me hopes staff will be able to dedicate the appropriate time to evaluate if this ordinance change is really needed and not be pressured into wasting limited staff time drafting an ordinance whose primary mission may be to soothe a frustrated commission.