Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Knowledge of Comprehensive Plan LOW among Henrico County residents- Survey says.

71% of Henrico residents who responded to the survey on which future planning in Henrico is based said they were not familiar with the "Land Use Plan".

The 2005 "Citizens Survey" was "scientifically administered" (by mail) to a portion of Henrico County residents "regarding their opinions about land use and planning issues". How much basis these survey results will have remains be seen, due to several different factors. The most shocking result of the survey is that out of those who responded, 71% said they were not familiar with it or had never heard of Henrico's Land Use Plan.

The Land Use Plan is described by the County in their Comprehensive Planning FAQ as the component that "primarily addresses development undertaken by the private sector. The Land Use Plan Map depicts the desired future land use (residential, commercial, industrial, etc.) of all parcels within the County." The FAQ further discloses that each component (Land Use Plan, Major Thoroughfare Plan, and The Parks, Recreation, and Open Space Plan) was (will be?) specifically reviewed and approved by the Board of Supervisors following public meetings and public hearings."

One question that the Comp-Plan FAQ does not answer is how much effect County residents actually have on the contents of the final adopted Comprehensive Plan. It is important to point out here that when discussing "the desired future land use (residential, commercial, industrial, etc.) of all parcels within the County", that the County is talking about land, much of which is owned by you, the tax-paying residents of Henrico.

Also of interest in that description is the idea that the Land Use "Plan Map depicts the desired future land use of all parcels within the County." Because no current Plan drafts show the effect of resident's input, we wondered while reviewing the draft, exactly whose "desire" it is that land be used in the future in the way the plan describes?

The two charts below contain figures and graphics styles found in the Fall 2005 "Weinberg Land Use Forum News" (.pdf here), published by "Hirschler Fleischer" a law firm based in Richmond and Fredericksburg.

The Survey's initial results and summarization that are now available on the County website as a downloadable .pdf here were prepared for MDC by the "Survey and Evaluation Research Laboratory", part of the Center for Public Policy of the L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs at Virginia Commonwealth University.

"The Survey and Evaluation Research Laboratory at Virginia Commonwealth University (SERL) contracted with McBride Dale Clarion of Cincinnati, Ohio (MDC), to execute and summarize a sample survey by mail of the citizens of Henrico County,Virginia...The questionnaire was constructed from a larger draft of topic areas and suggested questions. SERL and MDC staff worked closely with staff at Henrico County on the survey."

Because a number of readers have emailed to tell us that the results were difficult to find, or understand, or that they have slow internet connections and spent hours downloading 'draft" portions of the Plan itself, we reprinted the text of the "Initial Results" in a prior post, to ease reader access.

Another point revealed by the "Initial Results" is the small percentage of Varina residents involved. The survey was mailed out to equal numbers of residents in each district, and it is reported that the budget allowed for 3100 residents to participate. Among five districts, that equalled 620 residents surveyed in each. Within the survey's "Additional Findings" it is stated that

"There was differential participation in the survey by magisterial district. Equal numbers of surveys were mailed to households in each magisterial district. Unequal numbers are in the data file. Twenty percent of the survey respondents should be in each of the five magisterial districts, but Tuckahoe has 26%, Three Chopt has 25%, Brookland has 21%, Fairfield has 15% and Varina has 13% lag. Weighting by magisterial district and race adjusts for much of these discrepancies."

As an illustration, the chart below was created by one of our readers, who goes by the nickname "Indigenous".
When we were emailed by a reader and made aware of the fact that 13% of 725 respondents were the only Henrico residents to represent Varina in the Citizen Survey, we began to get much more interested. 13%, that's 94.25 residents. What is the "weighting by magisterial district and race [that] adjusts for much of these discrepancies"? Does this mean that of the 620 potential participants from Varina that 525.75 results were estimated by the county? The way that this is worded is too vague for us to be sure.

After doing some research, we came up with the following figures relating to Henrico Magisterial Districts relating to the same year. This information came from a 2005 newsletter released by the law firm of "Hirschler Fleischer", based in Richmond and Fredericksburg. The firm releases a quarterly newsletter, called the "Weinberg Land Use Forum News". In the Fall of 2005, the news included an article written by James W. Theobald, Esq., which he "VARINA Where It’s At and Going To Be", found within the.pdf here.

We have to give some credence to the statistics in Mr. Theobald's piece, as it was published by a firm that includes lawyers who specialize in "Land Use" issues, some of whom have a history of working with Henrico County. One way or the other, after reading his article, and sharing it with other members of our group, we received from an "HV' reader, the donation of 'recreations' of the two of the pie-charts ('Total Acreage' and 'Vacant Acres', shown above) that were used in his article. The graph below was based on the one in the same issue of the "Weinberg Land Use Forum News", but has been adapted by our reader to include the two additional '%Survey Input '05' and 'Varina's % of Total' columns.

Theobald's article opened with the statements that "Tuckahoe and Three Chopt are largely developed, with Brookland and Fairfield still enjoying development and redevelopment opportunities. But a look at Varina suggests that the bulk of undeveloped land in the County is obviously in the East End."

Comprehensive Planning to establish a vision for the future growth and development of Henrico will have an immeasurable impact on those currently residing in the Varina District, as it should now be obvious the bulk of 'undeveloped land' lies within our district boundaries।

To date, the majority of the meetings addressing the Comp-Plan draft have been either closed work sessions, or public meetings where no comments from residents are allowed.

In many locales Nation-wide, local governments have invited residents to participate in "Citizen Planning Workshops", where instead of just being shown what will happen in their future, they are encouraged to participate in the planning of their own cities and counties. These workshops are one of the best forms of open-government, because they are based in transparency and the inclusion of local participants.

Instead, in Henrico we see vague language, goals and rationales, and indecipherable graphs pertaining to 'housing demand' and 'potential growth scenarios'. Developers plans are "approved with conditions"- the conditions being listed in a numbered 'code'- no doubt to save time, but is this "open government"?

The 2026 Comp-Plan will be the tool by which our future use of your land is decided. There is no doubt that lands which are now 'open-space', farm land, and forests, will be sold by their current owners, mostly for future development. It is the undisputed right of these owners to sell these lands, and yet- as current residents all of us have a right to be involved in deciding how the rural character of our district is preserved.

Our review of the Comprehensive Plan is what spawned the idea for this blog. Our concern is that the drafts now available suggest including commercial areas within current residential areas, as a way to "create infrastructure" for future development. All of us are for "Common Sense Growth","Smart Growth", and the creation of "Green-Infrastructure", but we believe that residents should be included as active participants with a voice in land use planning.

The creation of infrastructure, fire-houses, libraries, schools, sewers, new roads, additional retail and commercial establishments is a given necessity of growth in any area. But the jump from rural or rural-suburban directly to urban (outside of new developments)is more than many of us expected. There are a number of large planned developments based on rezonings already in the works in Varina which by estimate will increase our District population by 20,000 residents in the next ten years.

Add to those projects smaller "by-rights" infill developments already under application, and you'll see what is occurring even prior to the adoption of the new Comprehensive Plan. Henrico County representatives have repeatedly addressed their desire for development of only the "highest quality" in Varina, but smaller developments, not requiring rezoning fall outside of the grid. One way to assure sensitive development in by-rights projects would be to adopt much stricter ordinances to address preservation of areas both natural and historic. This has been done in other parts of the Commonwealth, why not in Henrico?

In the past as an "effort to get a handle on the pace and impacts of residential growth, both Chesterfield County and Henrico County have adopted policies which amount to de facto moratoriums on new rezonings for a period of time." The previous description comes from another Hirschler Fleischer newsletter article "Chesterfield and Henrico Counties Put Rezonings in “Time Out”",(in .pdf here) which actually happened in 2004. Why not do this again, now?

While the 2026 Comprehensive Plan is still in review and during the current building 'slump' it's the perfect time for the County to study growth rates, density and water quality impacts in the Varina District. If Henrico truly means to stand by their desire for only the "highest quality development", we and readers who have written in would love to see this work begin now. The necessity could not be higher, and the timing is perfect.

General Disclaimer: The opinions found herein are solely those of "Historic Varina" and some of our readers, and do not in any way reflect the opinions of "Hirschler Fleischer", James W. Theobald, Esq., "The Weinberg Land Use Forum News" or any of their employees or assigns. Some of the graphics above were based on those found in materials published by the above mentioned, and Historic Varina is thankful for their work.

Graphics Credit: The graphics above were donated to 'Historic Varina' by a crafty local resident, who asked as payment only that we mention that "he LOVES farm land, parks, history and open spaces", which is why he says he moved to Varina over a decade ago. Oh, and he likes to be referred to as 'Indigenous'. Thanks again, Indigenous!

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