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?