Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Henrico Hears Varina, But Will The County Listen?

The above image is stamped on most pages and every map included in the current draft of Henrico County's '2026 Comprehensive Plan'. Notice how the West End is depicted as developed, while the East End is shown as bucolic Open Space?

Last night at 7 o'clock it was difficult to find a seat in The Henrico Theatre, as Varina Supervisor James B. Donati, Jr. graciously used his monthly Varina 'Town Hall Meeting' to educate Varina residents about Land Use in Varina and the 2026 Comprehensive Plan Draft. The beautifully restored art deco theatre's seating capacity is recorded at 400, but it certainly appeared full as some 230 Varina residents signed in and milled to find seating for the Monday evening "working group" presentation. Focusing on Land-Use in Henrico's East End, the meeting had been advertised as running from 7-10 pm, though ran over until about 10:30, as Varina residents were allowed to voice their many opinions concerning future residential
growth and commercial areas targeted to boom in the district.

Supervisor Donati introduced Greg Dale, of 'McBride Dale Clarion' (MDC), the firm contracted by Henrico County to assist in the 2026 Comprehensive Plan update. Mr. Dale spoke from the podium with the aid of a well-crafted Power Point presentation, shown on the theater's main screen. During the introduction which was designed to give an overview of the last three years of work MDC has assisted the County in undertaking, the consultant held up a paper copy of the heavy Comp Plan, saying it would be impossible to cover everything. Dale went on to point out jovially that residents usually flipped right to the maps. Showing the current draft of the entire Henrico Land-Use Map onscreen, he briefly delineated the 17 Land Use Designations that land in Varina has currently been given, though the presentation never included a close-up view of the Varina portion alone.

One interesting highlight took place when the Land-Use Plan Map first appeared on-screen. Pointing at Henrico's 'West End' Dale stated that this is where infrastructure is "in place", and that there was "more than enough room out there to accommodate all of the growth expected between now and 2026." He went on to comment that "people usually like to go where the infrastructure already exists."

Other topics covered in Mr.Dale's introduction were "General Developmental Policies" and "Community Character", (a newly added portion of the 2026 Comp Plan), which has been designed "to ensure compatibility of future development to that currently existing in Henrico"- as he put it.

Nationally known eco-minded planning consultant Randall Arendt's name was mentioned by Dale, citing Arendt's inclusion in the 2026 Planning process. Dale reported that Arendt has spoken before the Supervisory and Planning Commissions here, and pointed out the importance of his inclusion as such. Mr. Arendt is known for promoting residential subdivision patterns designed to include the preservation and conservation of greenspace within. By "clustering" residences within tracts promoted for development, Arendt's form of planning can result in what Dale called "Conservation Subdivisions", promising that the open and forested spaces would be set aside, and remain that way for future generations to enjoy. But residents small group discussions last night included questioning the current lack of succinct definition within the 2026 Plan Draft that should be present to define just what "Open Space" is, and how long it would actually be "preserved".

As Historic Varina previously reported in our March 1st post: "And the....."Survey Says!"
McBride Dale Clarion was also contracted to co-administer the Henrico "2005 Citizen Survey". MDC co-contracted with SERL, "The Survey and Evaluation Research Laboratory", at the Center for Public Policy, of the L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond. The two groups designed and administered the 2005 Survey. According to the survey results URL HERE "The sampling plan was designed to represent the views of citizens in the five magisterial districts of Henrico County: Brookland, Fairfield, Three Chopt, Tuckahoe and Varina. Within each of the five magisterial districts, 620 addresses were selected at random to receive a survey invitation." That would have equalled a total of 3100 responses, but this is where the survey went south.

Of course, if 3100 responses had been received from Henrico residents, it would have been nice, to say the least, but only 725 of the surveys mailed out found their way back into the firms' hands. Sadly, of the responses tabulated, Varina residents opinions represented 13% (as opposed to the 20% expected for reach district) of those included. Yet almost half of the land earmarked for residential development in Henrico lies within Varina's borders. Survey results reported that 46.7% of what County Planners describe as "Vacant Land" is located within the Varina District. During Dales review of the bulleted information shown onscreen, he vocalized his intent to later more fully detail the term "Infill Development", but keeping with the quick pace necessary to keep on schedule, had to be reminded by an audience member to readdress the topic.

Shouldn't the residents of each district have a real say in how their area's future is planned? We can only wait for the results of recent public meetings, and continue to request that they are fairly included in the final draft of the 2026 Comprehensive Plan.

Greg Dale then answered by explaining that "infill" is the term planners use to describe development that could occur in areas "previously passed over during past developmental phases", as well as further build-out that could take place on what he called "underutilized land".

Those in attendance from Historic Varina concur that for generations, when it has come time to pay property taxes, Varina residents have been well aware of how their individual parcels are being "utilized", and that it takes a concerted effort to "pass over" using these "vacant lands" and opt not to develop them.
Graphic provided by HV's friend 'Indigenous'

Wrapping up the initial presentation, Dale fielded questions concerning some of the topics he had covered. Residents asked pertinent questions: requesting further description of industrial growth areas around Richmond International Airport, asking for definition of 'business incentives' promised to promote revitalization in Varina, and also asked "where are the results of the suggestions given County Planners at the Varina District 2026 Open-House meetings in May?"

Answers given were that the Industrial Land Use Designations were available in the Comp Plan Draft available online in the Land-Use portion of the Plan, that business incentives from the Fed and State, as well as Henrico would be further covered in the Plan and on Henrico's website. As to where the results of residents input from the Ward Elementary School "2026 Open-House Meeting" were, Dale reported that they were "still being tabulated", and would "be made public on the County web-site".

HV wonders if Henrico County knows that very few Varina residents actually have the high speed internet connection necessary to view the Comp Plan in it's entirety? Many of the files are much too large to download on a dial-up connection.. Is this really then a public process? We support the suggestion of residents in attendance last night, that further public meetings are necessary.

(If you want to answer any of these questions, this is a blog. Let us remind you, anyone can post a comment below- just use our how to blog FAQ in the column to the right of this post. Anyone can post comments- hint- hint- even consultants, planners or County Officials- we welcome your every thought and contribution.)

Forgive our continual opinion, but this is not a newspaper, and as local media coverage of the potential effects of the Comp Plan upon Varina or the rest of Henrico have been slim at best- here we go:

Almost four months have passed since the Varina "Open House Meeting" on May 22nd. And though it seems the 2026 Comp Plan was initially planned to have been put before Henrico's Planning Commission in either September or October, we are heartened to have learned last night that the process seems to have grown in length. During the meeting (after Mr. Dale was asked,) he told the audience that the 2026 Plan would be "summarized" for County Officials in November, and "at some time after the 1st of the year (2009,) be formally considered for adoption."

Try as we may, we cannot
understand how Henrico Supervisory Board or Planning Commission members can consider the adoption of anything based on a mere summary. And if the residents responses from the Open House Meetings in May have yet to be either tabulated OR made public, how can this happen and still leave enough time for further study of the important changes necessary? How can there be time for either the County or our residents to respond?

It was made more than apparent by the repeated public thanks of those participating in last nights group work session, that Varina residents were very thankful to have the opportunity to gain this initial group participation in planning our districts future. But this "public process" should have begun long ago. As it is by residents votes that our Supervisors are elected, our opinions and desires should be by them represented.

We remind our readers that Henrico has been representing itself as a "pro-growth" & "pro-development" county for some time now. But do these views reflect local residents wishes? Instead, it still seems that planning has been based upon the opinions and desires of consultants, County Planners, and yes, more developers than residents. We can only hope Henrico sees that the current imbalance changes. Otherwise their belated attempt to create a more public planning process will have been another example of too little too late. And that is obviously not how Henrico's future should be formed.

Back to last night's meeting... Mr. Dale next explained that the "group work session" portion of the meeting would commence. The crowd slowly thinned from over 230 to about 85.

Three hour meetings on a work night make it tough to keep those with other home and work obligations in their seats. (May we politely suggest Henrico consider holding the next meeting on a weekend, with plenty of advertisement and forewarning?)

The remaining audience was next counted off by Dale five times, with each audience member being given a number from 1 to 17. He then explained that each number signified which "work group" each resident was asked to join. Numbered residents found their way to tables set up throughout the building, thus ensuring the desired "random mix" of those in attendance. Prior to separating into 17 groups of five people each, the audience was given the night's assignment: each group was to come up with the next 5 points that needed to be addressed by Henrico County, concerning growth in Varina as addressed by the 2026 Comprehensive Plan.

After being given a short time to complete these tasks: introduce and familiarize themselves, address the issues at hand, and record their "Top Five" points for immediate presentation to the audience on the large flipcharts provided.

The groups got to work fast.
During the table time allowed, residents were also handed small strips of paper, containing bright green sticky dots (good color choice by the way) , and it was later explained that each resident should use these green dots to "vote" for the ideas they most supported, after each list was publicly reviewed. County Planning and MDC representatives circulated around the group tables, encouraging all inclusive discussion, and giving residents the remaining time allowed.. The count-down was politely repeated as the clock ticked down to "Time's Up! Please return to your seats in the theatre" The tired but enthusiastic residents then returned to their seats.

Smartly dressed County Employees had quickly posted each groups "Top 5" lists on the left and right walls, so that the audience could see. Much of the text was still far too small to view from the seats, and each group was given the opportunity to send forth a representative to report their conclusions those in attendance. Because some 17 group's members had to leave before 10 p.m., four of the groups were merged to form two groups, rendering the initial 17 groups down to 15 in the end.

May we say here: What an opportunity! Bravo Henrico, Thank you McBride Dale Clarion! Not only were each of the 15 groups of residents left to themselves to hash out the issues, without 'facilitation" or "guidance" from MDC or Henrico, fifteen individuals were actually given the microphone. Standing beside the list their group had made, each group's chosen rep read down their respective lists one after another. These reps were also given the opportunity to answer questions from the audience!!

Furthermore, when the first group rep took the opportunity to vocalize words not written on their list, Mr. Dale responded by asking if that... "was that something (this rep had) added?" There was a small pause, and the intake of breath could be heard throughout the crowd... People must have wondered if the rep was about to be "called down" for this addition?...

But no! Mr. Dale then asked if the resident had a pen, because the comment should be added to their list- to be certain the meaning was understood- if that was in fact the group consensus." Henrico County planners also took turns in taking additional notes on a large pad located to the left of the stage.

Residents clapped enthusiastically after each five points were read by each group's rep, frequently reps reports were stalled by loud bursts of clapping, punctuating many well wrought points.

Ah! So this is public process! Nice! This is how Democracy should work, huh? Perhaps with real intent and proper advertising, this is how Richmond's Master Down Town Plan managed to gain constant inclusion on tv and in local papers?

We'll continue to hope that Henrico actually creates studies to address the ideas given in this meeting, and that these desires are made public for the further comment and review of all Henrico citizens... and of course, that these results go on to actually tailor the 2026 Comprehensive Plan to reflect taxpayers hopes, dreams and aspirations for the County's future.

Now the results of the May Open-Houses and last night's workshop should now be quickly made available to the public: HCTV, all local media, the Henrico Libraries and website... and then give the public time and a way to respond. The Planning Commission should then respond with further Public Hearings and Workshops... prior to any Board of Supervisory hearings, or consideration for adoption.

Our Nation is now in the middle of an obvious financial down-turn.. development in many parts of Henrico, especially residential development, has experienced an obvious lull. Now is the perfect moment for our County Officials to make the best use of these conditions and respond to the desires of residents by taking action, to initiate further studies concerning Varina and the issues residents brought forth- to ensure that the future of Henrico, and Varina are created by the voice of the people, those by whom our officials were elected to represent and serve.


Saving the best for last: just what did Varina residents come up with in their Top Five lists?

Well, the results are not far different from those reported by the 2005 Citizen Survey, but were much more distinct.

Even when divided, and mixed together with other residents, many strangers to one another, the "work-group" exercise has proven that Varina residents agree about what is important for their district's future.

Not surprisingly, little if any vocal support was given for the high density growth in Varina which the Comp Plan has previously targeted for the area.

Paraphrased below, grouped in random order, points of importance of the fifteen remaining group lists overwhelmingly focused on the the following topics:

  • That Henrico should have already and should continue to provide more "focus groups" like the meeting last night, the results of which should be used to further craft the 2026 Comprehensive Plan.

  • That there needed to be an actual finite definition for "Special Strategy Area" in the Comprehensive plan, so that residents have a full understanding of what that term means.

  • That there is serious need for "public access transportation" planning, and the creation of systems that did not focus primarily on the car as a means of transport. Examples given were light-rail, bus routes, as well the need for a study to address the needs of locals and tourists by the creation of Walking, Hiking and Cycling Routes, and even trails for horses. Some groups suggested that these paths could be adjacent to though separated from the current roadways. The inclusion of such ideas could automatically create 'buffer zones' requested by some groups, which could preserve the rural character of Varina's roadways and "Virginia Scenic Bi-ways".

  • That Varina needs more land to be designated as Parks, and for Recreation. Parks can be created to preserve many historic sites , including battlefields.

  • That the Transportation planning be specifically designed to preserve the "rural character" of existing roadways. That a study be created for the proper planning of the Route 5 Corridor, and how it would function as an artery into and out of Richmond. The need for balance with other such main arteries into Richmond to provide against a repeat of the result in roadway failure/inability of many Varina residents to reach their homes or places of work in prior times of emergency.

  • That Planning and Ordinances be designed and enacted to preserve Open Space or Green Space, also referred to as farmed areas, forested areas, agricultural areas, sensitive natural areas, and silviculture.

  • That "Open Space" needs to be defined in the Comp Plan's final draft, and should be the same definition provided in the Code of Virginia.

  • That TDR and PDR Programs be instituted to aid landowners and farmers in being able to afford to keep these tracts open and undeveloped. Groups reported that Henrico is surrounded by other Counties with Developmental Rights Programs, and that Henrico Officials cannot any longer say "we don't know how to do this."

  • That though revitalization and development is planned on all of the major roadways that intersect with Laburnum Avenue, Laburnum itself is conspicuously absent. Laburnum Avenue should be made a Special Strategy Area, and assisted by programs designed for its revitalization.

  • The need for focus on Educational Facilities and Educational Planning, and that the school systems need to first serve the existing residential base.

  • That Henrico follow through on their prior promises to build a new High School in the Elko area. That Henrico address existing school system problems prior to creating more.

  • That residential capacity analysis be studied to include lower density growth. Other locales cited in the kind of planning necessary in Varina spanned the Globe: It was pointed out the New York City has not been witnessed "chipping away at" or slowly developing Central Park, nor was that the case with The Vienna Woods in Austria- which residents saw as a "sacred place", and Portland, Oregon was referred to for having created urban-growth boundaries, beyond which development would not occur. These locales were given as patterns for what needs to happen in Varina.

  • That tax credit programs and county funding programs be created and put in to use to promote and support revitalization funding of individual residential rehabilitation, to include rehabilitation of historic homes and structures.

  • That Historic Sites and Structures be distinctly and properly identified, and that definite ordinances be created to ensure the preservation of these sites. That prior losses have gone unchecked, and that this can not continue.

  • That "Overlay Districts" be created to identify and preserve our natural, historic and cultural resource areas, as are employed in various means by all the other Counties surrounding Henrico.

  • That the infrastructure necessary for new development be in place prior to the start of development of any areas which do not currently contain the completed water and sewer systems necessary to support such growth.

  • That Varina should also be seen as an entry point to Richmond, and should be sensitively planned as such and adapted to be more visually inviting, by playing up our historic, natural, and cultural assets including the Rt. 5 corridor.

  • That a County-promised visitors center focusing on local history be created at the intersection of Route 5 (New Market Road) and 295.

  • That Henrico actually follow through on promises to create buffered scenic corridors: 'The James River Corridor', 'The Osborne Turnpike Corridor' among others.

  • That Henrico address existing problems which have been repeatedly promised and yet not acted upon, including existing drainage, school, and roadway problems.

    The topics repeated most often included: Environmental Protection/ Open Space Preservation, Historic Site and Structure Identification and Protection, Transportation (Roadways) Planning and Mass Transit Planning.

    The number one topic of the evening, on which more time was spent in open discussion than any other, was the need for PDR (Purchase of Developmental Rights) and TDR (Transfer of Developmental Rights) programs in Henrico, as a way to protect and preserve endangered forested and undeveloped lands for future generations.

    Apparently Varinians do not like the terms "underutilized", "passed over", or "vacant" just one bit.

    Residents stood up and said in many different ways that they moved here or live here because they love
    Varina the way it is. Monday night, many people said, "I was born in Varina".

    With MDC's Greg Dale as emcee, myriad questions from the audience repeatedly focused on the need for Developmental Rights programs. After the first few questions were put forth, Mr. Dale explained the reasoning that he had been given for the lack of support of these programs by the current Board of Supervisors:

    He said that the current focus reflected in the 2026 Plan draft comes from the Supervisors support of "fiscal responsibility", and that money for such programs would have to come from "somewhere".

    But Varina residents hammered away at the issue, pointing out that many areas in Virginia, including Virginia Beach had found that as a locality that it was less expensive to keep Open Space open, because the creation of the infrastructure necessary to support development of such areas was much too expensive.

    Dale countered by saying that he was not voicing disagreement, that these programs do work elsewhere, but that the Supervisors had not previously supported them, and went on to ask "Do you really want to raise taxes?"

    Dale's response was disingenuous- a scare tactic that has been seen many other times in this part of the county. Threats of imminent domain, and the past run created by the County's supposed desire to change the minimum buildable parcel size in areas zoned A-1 for agriculture are similar in tone. Bullying threats which do not sustain the sustainable growth currently supported across our nation.

    Is this planning for the future, or planning for development alone? And this is how our tax dollars are being put to use? Shameful, just shameful. We had hoped for much more creative thinking.

    After all, it has been shown that the Open Space in Varina that lack infrastructure cost the County less than the rising 16 cents (reported by Donati) that Henrico County must now pay out over and above each tax dollar taken in for the creation of the infrastructure necessary to support new developments.

    That Varina and other districts currently have enough problems that have repeatedly required and yet have been met by no address or solution, without the creation of further problems to top them off.

    That even though those representing Henrico County apparently had to be told repeatedly that the PDR and TDR programs were seen as one possible solution that bears further study, Mr. Dale seemed to continue to shoot these suggestions down.

    Giving examples of why Developmental Rights programs would not work, Dale was met with a number of responses from the audience, among the best were "Where there's a will, there's a way", ..that there were many creative possibilities available to make these programs work, and didn't Henrico understand that this is what the Varina residents were asking of County Officials?

    At some point, one resident must have heard the phrase "Henrico County doesn't want" one too many times, and raised their hand to address those up front with the statement: "The last time I checked, the residents ARE Henrico. We are Henrico!"

    Sometime soon after that, one by one residents began to rise from their seats in small numbers to begin using each of their five green dot stickers to vote for the points they supported among those on the walls.

    These five votes each resident made
    should help to determine "where Henrico goes next" regarding Varina in the Comprehensive Planning Process.

    No surprise that the vast majority of these votes will be seen to reflect the bright, fertile green that so represents Varina's agricultural past, the green that we are asking to carry with us all into her sustainable future.

    But as residents trickled homeward up the aisles, Varina's Planning Commissioner (and 2008 Planning Commission Chairman) Ray Jernigan could be heard telling a resident why Developmental Rights Programs would never be implemented in Henrico...

    Let's hope that he and his co-workers will adopt a more "can-do" approach as the Comprehensive Planning process moves forward in Varina. Let's all continue to ask the tough questions, and demand that they be answered and addressed.



Richmond Times-Dispatch, Lacking in Varina Again

It might be better than nothing, but not much. The following RT-D coverage of Monday night's "Varina Town Hall meeting", managed to get just inside the theatre door, but not quite far enough.

As recently as two months ago, a search of the Richmond Times-Dispatch archives for the word "Varina" brought up 32 results for East End School sports coverage, before presenting the first hint of current events in Eastern Henrico. These results may be ranked in relation to the clicks they receive from readers, but the coverage of the Varina District is still slim at best.

Melodie N. Martin should school herself in the prior works of RT-D Staff Writer Will Jones. While on the Henrico desk, Mr. Jones covered the real issues concerning growth and the results of rampant sprawl in Henrico and the Richmond Region. Where is that kind of coverage when we need it now?

According to some of residents in attendance at the recent Varina Town Hall Meeting, the reporter was "not to be found" 45 minutes after the presentation started. Residents had walked around looking for her and come up dry. Perhaps there was a more important story elsewhere in the County that she had to dash off to cover?

If she had stayed (or actually covered the "group workshop" process, if she was still there) HV would be thankful. Martin was overheard earlier this year at another Henrico meeting, telling a resident, "They (the RT-D) just assigned me Henrico, I don't really know much about it."

As it stands, we're hoping Martin will attempt to address the issues in the field with a greater measure of depth in the future. Bone up! Dig a little- it's not like you have to dig too far in Varina before you hit dirt.

"Eastern Henrico growth concerns some residents"
Wednesday, Sep 17, 2008 - 12:08 AM Updated: 02:26 PM


The future development of eastern Henrico County took center stage Monday night.

About 210 people gathered at the Henrico Theatre in Highland Springs for a town meeting on the proposed update to Henrico's comprehensive plan -- a guide for land use in the county through 2026.

One goal of the plan is to maintain a good balance in the county's tax base, which is currently 68 percent residential and 32 percent commercial and industrial, said Varina District Supervisor James B. Donati Jr., who called the meeting.

The proposed land-use plan has been controversial in Varina, where more growth is planned for the largely-rural area.

Greg Dale, founding principal with county-hired consulting firm McBride, Dale, Clarion, told the audience the county's population continues to grow at an annual rate of 1.5 percent and that the western end has the capacity to support growth for the next 15 to 20 years.

Lifelong Sandston resident Brenda Seal, 48, said she hoped to learn more details about the plan but was not comforted by what she heard.

"I know you have to have growth, but not everything has to be a planned community," Seal said.

"If it keeps on going this way, it will be like [western Henrico]. I might as well move farther out."

Sheila Sheppard, coordinator of the Richmond-based Partnership for Smarter Growth, said the meeting resulted from conversations a group of concerned Henrico residents had with county officials about providing an opportunity for residents to examine and discuss the plan publicly.

Sheppard said aspects of the plan that are missing or need improving include encouraging pedestrian and bicycle-friendly communities, transportation alternatives, environmental-impact analysis and more emphasis on using space within already developed areas.

But she also commended the plan for moving toward smart-growth principles.

"A lot of people in Varina want to preserve the rural character of Varina, and this area is being targeted for growth in the comprehensive plan," Sheppard said.

Responding to an audience member's comment that the plan plays down preserving rural and historic areas, Dale said that compared with the current 2010 land-use plan, the amount of rural land would be reduced by 7 percent.

"The reality is the amount of rural identified in this plan is not much less than the amount of rural in the current plan," Dale said.

"There really hasn't been a change away from rural as the prominent development plan in the area."

The Planning Commission and the Board of Supervisors each will conduct formal public hearings before voting on the plan.
Contact Melodie N. Martin at (804) 649-6290 or mmartin@timesdispatch.com.

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1 comment:

concerned citizen's said...

What I don't understand Mr/Ms(?) Cornhill is WHY is it that blogs like yours do a better job of detailing the NEWS than the area's own supposed media organization? Shame on them for dropping balls (or are they throwing the game on purpose?). Kudos to you for taking the time to itemize the list of ISSUES brought forth by the citizens that night. - Concerned Citizen