Saturday, October 08, 2011

There And Back Again: Why We Need The General Plan 2000, Revised

OK, it is time to resurrect the blog, again.

The following commentary was written based on my experience with the Chesterfield County Comprehensive Plan Update, and my belief that sometimes, moving forward means looking into the past. 
To view the General Plan 2000 and the associated maps, click on the links in the text below, or in the column to the right under "General Plan 2000"

By the time I walked into the small conference room in the Planning Department to review the old General Plan 2000, I had become generally apathetic about our Comprehensive Plan. It was the afternoon of the Planning Commission public hearing on the draft plan. By this point, I had donated nearly three years of my life to the process and I was tired. But I didn’t begin that way.
When Chesterfield County decided to update its countywide comprehensive plan, it chose a professional consultant team and a 34-member citizen Steering Committee to do the work. The committee included a diverse selection of people who represented businesses, civic associations and special interest groups. I remember anxiously waiting for the steering committee application to be released so I could be one of the first to turn it in. Everyone wanted to be a part of the new plan; I can’t recall a time when so many people were excited about the same thing, so I knew I would have to pull all the strings I could to make the short list.

They received over 100 applications to fill 34 spots. Much to my gleeful amazement, I made the short list. So, we went to work. The steering committee held four-hour meetings monthly or bi-monthly for two years. The consultants facilitated the meetings, and staff just about killed themselves to make sure we had the many volumes of background information available so we could “steer” the formation of the plan.

Actually, we were the ones who were “steered’ as I had somewhat expected, but we crafted a vision that was universally appreciated. At times we made progress, at times I felt like I was beating my head against a brick wall. Two years later we had a draft. There were those of us that didn’t support the draft plan for a variety of reasons. Personally, I thought some of the items in the action matrix needed to be in the plan, and we had not addressed the fact that we couldn’t support the recommended land use with adequate sewer capacity. Nevertheless, as required by Virginia law, our draft went to the Planning Commission.

My opinions about the planning commission’s review of the plan are not personal. I know all five commissioners and I appreciate each of them for the perspective they bring to the process. I do not think any of them began this process with the intention of un-doing everything the steering committee had accomplished. The plan places emphasis on infill, and I am all too familiar with the realities of infill development and the residents who never support an office park where open space exists. In order for me to fully explain the impact of the commission’s edits, I need to state my belief that most people are fundamentally opposed to change. The existing plan has been vetted ad nauseam over the years, and the commissioners are comfortable with it. The word comfortable is never given its due respect. The current plan is what they know, and they rightfully take ownership of it.

That said, oh dear Lord! The commission began a series of work sessions with a schedule that was more than ambitious. It was obvious to some of us that the goal of the minority seemed to be more focused on getting the plan to the Board than the commission actually reviewing it. But the majority was in favor of a line by line review. It was painful to watch. Literally painful (those chairs are only good for two hours or so before your backside starts screaming “GET UP”).

So, the commission (in its collective wisdom) totally gutted the draft plan and made the vision nearly impossible to realize. The focus on preservation of existing communities was erased – really! The entire chapter was erased from the draft. They lowered the densities we worked so hard to achieve, lowered the number of future employment opportunities, reduced the fiscal support to the county by 40% and increased the facilities cost per capita by $600. They removed all of the incentives and struck the word “policy” every time it was listed and replaced it with “recommendation”…in a policy document. They took the Southern and Western area of the county designated as “Countryside” (1 unit/25 acres), which happens to be over half of the land mass of the county, and carved it up into 5-acre lots.

Can you say…S-P-R-A-W-L?

Needless to say, I got mad. As the Commission’s review lingered, I became desperate for any common sense to regain the day. And finally, I did what apparently everyone else did; I just didn’t care anymore. I never wanted to see another comprehensive plan again. After spending 11 years studying everything I could find related to urban, rural and regional planning and reading comprehensive plans from all over the country, I never imagined I could feel apathetic about planning.

So, as a last ditch effort to make myself feel better and dispel the endless ranting of some unenlightened individuals that Chesterfield had never actually planned, I popped in to the Planning Department to take a look at the first Comprehensive Plan ever adopted for Chesterfield: The General Plan 2000 and the associated Land Use Map and Cover:  Plan Map Sheet 1 Plan Map Sheet 2  It was adopted by the Board of Supervisors on June 22, 1977, so I was expecting to see an outdated attempt at comprehensive planning. I should have known better when a staff member handed it to me with a look that silently suggested, “Here you go, read a real plan”.

This document of the past is years ahead of its time. Wow. Where has this been for the past three years? I couldn’t believe what I was reading. This old plan, written in 1977, was more connected with the steering committee’s Vision of the new plan than the current commission draft! It references the 1967 RRPDC “Regional Policy Plan” Regional policy plan? WHAT? Yes it did. The General Plan allocated future growth to sectors and corridors, but ever so carefully. It suggests Community plans with area-wide rezoning, (What a novel idea), option districts and fair, compensable regulations. It spelled it all out in black and white terms everyone could understand and come to rely on. This document seems more relevant today than when it was written.

The General Plan 2000 actually contains plans for water, wastewater and solid waste. Tennis Courts were considered public facilities back then. The plan includes fiscal impact analysis and land use compatibility tables so higher density mixed use “development sectors” could develop properly. It had charts that showed the “Energy Use of Various Transportation Systems”
IN 1977! Um, is it just me, or would that information also be beneficial now?

And lest you think that back in 1977 there was nothing better to do than scribble a plan, the growth rate from 1950-1970 was 5.8% per year, and from 1970-1977 it was 8.5% per year. For those of us who have watched, listened and maybe even participated in complaining about the rate of growth in Chesterfield over the past 15 years, we should stand in awe that this document was ever written, much less implemented.

I care again. It’s good to be back, even if I am giving myself carpal-tunnel syndrome writing this commentary. The fantastic, amazing, wonderful county planning staff (no exaggeration; honestly more than gratuitous promotion) is scanning the General Plan 2000 as I type, so I can get a copy and start passing the word.

If you have read this far, do yourself a favor and READ THIS OLD 1977 PLAN, The “General Plan 2000”!!! Read it through the glasses of our current situation.

If we could take that plan and update it using the January, 2011 draft from the consultants and steering committee, we would have one great plan. I bet it would even win one of those fancy awards from the American Planning Association. Who knows? Some people might not agree and that’s OK, but they would be…um…WRONG! All kidding aside, my point is not to suggest the past three years have been wasted. The 1/11 draft plan, and the entire process that led to its creation was beneficial, and provided many solid models for use in the years to come. But the future of the county’s long range plan is certainly worth whatever we need to do to get it right…right?

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Possible Light at the end of the Sprawl Tunnel...Take 2

Ok, it is time to resurrect the blog.

Last night during the Chesterfield County BOS meeting, I shared my thoughts on TDR programs and comprehensive planning with the new board. It isn’t that I had nothing else to do; this topic is near to my heart and has a ton of potential. I gave the BOS members a copy of the 2007 VAPA (Virginia Chapter of the American Planning Association) “Tool Kit” for growth management. This handy document is in its third year of publication and explains the various tools currently available to localities. It is available at:

I also gave them a boatload of information on TDR programs throughout the country. As for planning, it seems like the one concept all of the stakeholders in Chesterfield are willing to champion is the “County-wide Comprehensive Plan”. Finally!

As in most localities that offer a wonderful quality of life, we have growth related issues. We have had them for decades. As we begin the process of putting our comp plan back together, I think we should be clear on dividing infrastructure responsibilities between the county and the private sector and implement a process that reflects where we want to be in twenty years. We could do this with a few fundamental principles. These principles have been around for years and some are currently used, in differing forms, in other localities (Yes, I realize some of this would need to acceptable to VDOT)

1. Commission an independent economic analysis to study the relationship between proffers, impact fees, planned improvements, and real estate taxes as they relate to total county revenue and development. We need to open the books and examine the true, non-politically motivated numbers for service levels and costs. (I served on the Chesterfield County Impact Fee committee, and this was one of the committee recommendations we made)

2. Designate “Primary Service Areas” (PSA) that have adequate infrastructure for new development. The county should be responsible for providing the necessary infrastructure so these areas are able to accept new development. (This is sometimes referred to as infill) If a locality does not want to go down the “UDA” route, this is a logical alternative notwithstanding state transportation funds.

3. If an application is filed within the PSA, the developer’s responsibility would be to work with the existing communities and proffer conditions to benefit both.

4. If an application is filed outside of the PSA, the developer would need to submit an “Impact Mitigation Study” (name it whatever you want) that would identify current and projected service levels within a defined sphere of influence. (The 527 regs could be used as guidelines.)They would need to submit a plan to maintain or improve the levels of service that would become insufficient based on the proposed development.

Between VDOT and the General Assembly, most of these requirements are going to be necessary anyway. If the real intention behind the current and pending requirements is to make wise use of public funds, some form of the procedure above should be workable.
AND it would make the process predictable to everyone. Amen

Last year, I posted some information on TDR programs. Because the topic is still near to my heart, and could be used in PSA’s I edited it a bit and included it with this post.

The way I see it, residents want to continue the high quality of life we enjoy, the development community wants to be able to do business, the business community needs flexibility in site location, and the county finds itself struggling to maintain a standard level of service for public facilities and services. A study in Loudoun County found that the cost to provide services to farms was $.50 of every dollar. In contrast, the cost to provide those services to residentially developed land was $1.55. This presents several challenges.
Other communities are experiencing a stronger rate of growth than Chesterfield. However, if you live in Chesterfield, that fact is of little importance.
I have done extensive research on TDR programs and the benefits they offer far outweigh any potential adverse perceptions. The General Assembly amended the enabling legislation last year, and they are currently considering a joint sub-committee to study amendments to the legislation that would make the programs more attractive to localities.

TDR programs have an interesting history. The density transfer concept evolved from clustering. In 1961, Gerald Lloyd published an article for the Urban Land Institute proposing the new technique. Rather than clustering the development on a single property, the transferring of development rights would allow developers to concentrate development on other properties that were better suited for the additional density. The first TDR program, New York City’s Landmark Preservation Law, was adopted in 1968. It prevents the alteration or demolition of historic landmark structures but it allows the property owners the option to transfer unused development rights to adjacent sites. Under this law, the city’s Landmark Preservation Commission denied permission to build an office tower on top of grand Central Station, a designated landmark. The developer sued the City, claiming the law had taken its property. This lawsuit was the basis for the first Supreme Court ruling on property rights in over 50 years. The court ruled that the city had not taken Penn Central’s property rights, and furthermore, gave legitimacy to TDRs by finding they “Undoubtedly mitigate whatever financial burdens the law has imposed on appellants, and, for that reason, are to be taken into account in considering the impact of the regulation.”
This ruling, and others that have followed, show these programs are enforceable when they are thoughtfully created. TDR programs can be used to:

Preserve open space, farmland, historic structures, and environmentally sensitive areas.
Promote revitalization in older communities
Promote Economic Development ( both land uses and site locations)
Provide Affordable Housing
Save money (and in some cases) earn revenue for the locality.

Landowners can choose to use the TDR program where the sending site owner places certain deed restrictions specific to the future development of the property (density and use). Once the deed is recorded, the sending site owner is able to sell a commodity created by the program. The commodity is the development right itself, and it is valuable enough to allow those landowners to realize expected profit without the time and money spent navigating the system. It also allows sending sites with non-development potential (farming and forestry) to continue to receive that income.
The most notable of locally governed TDR programs is in Montgomery County, Maryland. They began their program in 1981 and have protected more than 43,000 acres of farm land and open space. One developer was able to purchase 637 development rights from various landowners. He was then able to expand his development on the receiving site from 200 units to 1200 units, revitalize an older community, and preserve land.
The program has a 5:1 ratio for transfer and some have a bonus credit as well. This ratio provides strong incentive to landowners to participate in the program.
In New Jersey the program is regional, spanning seven counties and 56 municipalities. They have preserved over 31,000 acres of land within the 1.1 million acre area. A Commission controls the program, and its primary purpose has always been environmental protection.
Another successful program in Boulder Colorado is slightly different. Landowners sell their development rights to other landowners and place a conservation easement on their property. The county then purchases the property at a reduced price that reflects the agricultural value of the property. Sometimes, the county sells the property to area farmers and retains the easement. In addition, the county grosses roughly $350,000.00 annually from various leases.

There are over 100 programs operating throughout the country and there are many variations on the common theme. Ordinances and comprehensive plans are written to support the program and residents and developers alike can count on the governing bodies sticking to the plan. The Brookings Institute published a paper on the topic and listed several components to any successful TDR program.

Viable receiving areas- Areas that have adequate infrastructure, that can support a higher density have to be thoughtfully evaluated.
Balance between demand and supply- The program must be incentive based, and offer a range of benefits.
Sustainable, suitable sending areas- Areas under immediate threat of development, such as land abutting new highways isn’t practical and will have a value that is too high, forcing allocation rates. Fortunately, our comprehensive plan, and proposed revisions, has selected key areas to be shielded from development.
Strong Incentives for landowner participation- Successful programs allocate sufficient TDRs in the sending area so that the credits remain affordable for receiving area developers, and also provide sufficient compensation to sending area developers.
Presence of clearinghouses or banks-Some programs are coupled with nonprofit banks to aid in market stabilization. Virginia offers various programs that could possibly be used.
Low transaction costs- This is another place an expensive fee isn’t good. Sometimes, local real-estate markets take the administrative costs as part of a land transaction.
Unwavering support and promotion from the locality- The development community needs to understand that the land use plan WILL be followed for those who elect not to participate. This helps provide incentive, and encourages land use decisions that are predictable.
Strong Community support- The residents in the receiving areas need to understand the program and any potential impacts it may have. If an area is properly suited, a basic land use workshop to educate residents is usually successful. They will be more supportive of something they understand.

Some localities choose to partner a TDR program with mitigation banking and/or various types of governmental or nonprofit land banks that boost incentive by acting as intermediary for purchasing, holding, selling, or retiring large amounts of development rights to stabilize the market. There are countless choices and an abundance of resources to choose from. The business community could benefit as well by partnering with different organizations in developing the program. When growth patterns are predictable, the business community has a better opportunity to locate in close proximity to target market areas.
Due to the importance of accurately assessing the value of land in a program of this nature, several different methodologies have been formulated and can be modified to reflect the needs of individual localities. Likewise, ordinances have been adopted that mirror the intention of a sound program and can be tailored to meet to local needs.

These tools provide the opportunity to protect valuable resources and develop in a healthy, managed way. What are we waiting for?

Friday, June 29, 2007

No, I didn't forget the password

When someone asked if I had,I realized that over a year between posts was far too long.
From a personal and local land use perspective, much has happened in the last year.
I went to work for a development company. No, I didn't sell out. I am a tree hugging developer. (Yes, it is possible) I like the work and I am grateful for the
opportunity to actually make a difference.

When I read this commentary on Bacon's Rebellion, I felt compelled to create a post and spread the dialogue. (Not that it is necessary)

There is much to be said locally about recent legislation and its impact on localities, and the shift in public thought on land use issues.
I'm hopeful Chesterfield will set a positive example of infrastructure funding mechanism overhaul. I won't wait another year to post on that topic.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

"Infill" tration v. Sprawl

(I love it…infill tration. It isn’t mine. It came from a letter in the March 2006 issue of Planning magazine.)

What defines the soul of a community? Is it the living patterns of people or the relationship between multi-dimensional forms in relation to space over time? I think it is a combination of both.
Within Chesterfield are many diverse communities; each with its own distinct character. People that have lived in a community for years easily recall a time when the visual characteristics of the community were different.
Change is inevitable and humans are usually hesitant to embrace it. As the county grows, logic dictates and the Comprehensive Plan suggests, development be guided to infill areas. The costs associated with extending facilities and services beyond planned areas create problems for both taxpayers and government officials. No locality can afford to recklessly abandon any particular area in favor of the next, best, bigger trend. Eliminating blight is far more expensive than preventing it.

However, there are problems associated with infill tration as well. The existing residents have little say in what happens to their surroundings. Additional noise, traffic, loss of privacy (if site location and design are poor) and the shrinking of everything green have a significant impact. I think it is a territorial thing. “Not in my backyard” is overused. I think it would be beneficial for local officials to investigate the reasons behind the concerns.

There is a middle ground. Safety needs to be paramount and the system should be fair to the existing residents and the development community; even if it means denying a rezoning, conditional use, variance, or site plan when necessary.

Oh, by the way… Could we PLEASE stop abusing deferrals? Can we adopt an ordinance that places stringent criteria on when a deferral can be used? Couldn’t the “standing” test be used as a template? Ordinances …a topic I will visit soon.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Are older communities forgotten as revisions are made?

How is it possible that society has changed to the extent that we allow (or sometimes encourage) zoning decisions that are so obviously wrong and are detrimental to the residents of a community? Case in point: A community was zoned over 30 years ago. In 1994, with the re-codification of the ordinance, the zoning of this community was reaffirmed. All is seemingly well in the community. Until…One fine day, a developer and the Planning Commissioner for the Clover Hill district presented the community (association) with plans for a drugstore with a drive-thru. During the presentation, said Planning Commissioner stated “zoning can’t be changed” (as quoted in the community paper) and was not the purpose of the meeting. He went past the point of presenting, clear to advocating for said proposal which by the way, is not as supported by the residents as they led us to believe.

The purpose for both the Comprehensive Plan and local ordinances is to protect the public, provide well designed projects with proper land use transitions, and promote balanced communities, among other things. The zoning on this property is incorrect; I will leave that issue for another post.

No reasonable human could look at this as protection. It will endanger the residents of this community and slaughters the notion of proper land use transitions. (The property and main entrance to the drugstore adjoin a graveyard that has been connected to this community since the 1950s)
That aside, zoning is changed every month, to say otherwise is indecent and a blatant abuse of position by a public official.

So, what would be wrong with a sunset clause for zoning to ensure the needs and well-being of the public are addressed? It would need to be fair to all property owners’. Yes, it could be. The law is clear that when purchasing property no one is ever guaranteed of zoning. Do we not have the ability to look at older communities that were zoned 20-30 years ago, examine the patterns of development, community needs, and base land use decisions on what will be a benefit for, and not a danger to, that community? Or is it that we do have the ability…it simply isn’t an issue those in position want to deal with?
Either way, if we don’t make it known that there is a problem within a community it can not be solved.

Monday, February 20, 2006

Can we shape the future?

Can we speculate what the future holds? For example, are we allowed to sneak a peek into the future of the Swift Creek Reservoir by studying the decisions of the past? The concerns shared by so many people are the same as they were 30 years ago. With the zoning of Brandermill, the question was asked. What impact will this development have on our water supply? Impact. On transportation, education and utilities. What about those that are already living here? Is there adequate protection for these residents as well as those that will come?Do we ever know the impact of our decisions before they are made or are we forced to learn from the lessons of trial and error? Watkins, Hunt, Highlands, Chesdin, MIP...The growth and change we will experience will be what we make it. What we demand it to be. Will we try to reinvent the wheel or look to the past for guidance?Throughout life there is change; It should be well planned and not improvident. We have a wonderful opportunity standing at this crossroad to shape the future of Chesterfield for our children. Any suggestions?