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Land Use Planning from the Bottom Up

Henrico County is in the throes of updating its land use plan, and for the past several years the county has engaged its own professional planning staff, along with some outside consultants, to bring about the comprehensive plan for the year 2026. All counties in Virginia are required to update their plans every five years to accommodate future growth.
I offer you a question: “Who should provide the most input for the county’s next 20 years–the planners or the affected businesses and citizens? Or, put another way, how much should the citizens be allowed to contribute?” Does the nature of the question offend you? It might, if you are a landowner and worry about government making decisions for you, especially when it comes to your farm or homestead.

The question arises because of the very passive approach Henrico has taken in its attempts to include public participation in the planning process. A series of “hearings” were held last May, and citizens were invited to look at the maps with the proposed changes in land uses by the year 2026. County representatives were positioned near all these maps, ready to answer questions by any who cared enough to show up.

There were 3×5 cards to fill out with your comments and questions for deposit in a box on your way out. There was no presentation of Henrico’s thinking or opportunity for pubic discussion or debate about the new colors on the maps. One large change was a tract of over 2,000 acres of prime farmland–the once green color (for open space of farms and forests) was now a new color, with the designation of suburban residential, a behind-the-scenes signal that the large landowner was ready to sell out and convert his farmland to housing for big bucks after enjoying years of preferential tax treatment.

Concerned that this kind of so-called “input” by a scattering of influential Henrico citizens did not adequately reflect the real feelings of the residents, a small band of activists from the eastern and rural end of the county requested their supervisor to hold a series of true public hearings on the proposed 2026 land use plan. A first meeting was held September 15 in the renovated Henrico Theater with seating enough for over 300. Lo and behold, over 230 signed in, and over half sat through the entire evening from 7 pm until beyond 10:30.

After a long dissertation about what a land use plan is supposed to be, we were divided into 17 small groups of 4-6 people each with the assignment of determining our top five wishes for the new land use plan. After about an hour of small group discussion each group was given several minutes to report to the reconvened session.

What was amazing was that over half of these 17 groups listed the need for Henrico County to initiate a Purchase of Development Rights Plan in order to help continue Henrico’s open spaces of farms and forests. A PDR is a program whereby the local government offers to purchase the rights to develop the property in exchange for the owner’s placing a conservation easement on his property.

These programs would save Henrico county money since it costs the typical county $1.40 in services for every $1 it receives in residential property taxes, and open space costs the county very little in services. Some 21 local PDR programs already exist in Virginia, and 17 of these are at least partially locally funded. Even Goochland and New Kent Counties fund their own PDR programs, and the commonwealth provides $4.25 million as an incentive.

No sooner were the findings of these 17 “focus groups” revealed than those conducting the meeting warned that a PDR program would never happen in Henrico because of its imagined costs and opposition by the other four supervisors whose districts are almost fully converted to non-green spaces. This is very discouraging to the residents who still farm and tend active forests and enjoy the rural setting of Henrico’s east end.  Consider this:  In 2005 Henrico conducted a survey in which 82 percent of the respondents said they “support further restricting or managing of new development in rural areas.” Why commission a survey if you are going to ignore the results?

Right across the county line in Hanover County the net cost of development hits home with elected officials, where they embrace conservation easements as a tool for fiscal conservatism. You can guess the reaction of the 250 plus residents at the September 15 meeting when the Henrico Planning Commissioner stated that: “In the 2026 plan the county was trying to accommodate the growth that would come to eastern Henrico.” We have to accommodate the growth that will roll down hill and land in our laps? What if we don’t want it? Whose county is it–the planners and developers, or the residents?

Between 1990 and 2006 Henrico County lost over 16 percent of its residential farms and forests-land that planners typically label as “vacant or undeveloped.” What about adequate public facilities? Are we going to build more houses and industry just because the land in Varina is affordable and available, even if there are not enough schools, roads and sewer systems for these new homes and businesses? The cost of growth is tremendous–even if we wanted it.

Several years ago Henrico spent over $43 million in infrastructure for a technology park; now one of the companies that located there laid off 1,200 employees, is going through bankruptcy and is seeking a $452 million loan from banks in Portugal. A PDR program for Henrico would cost only $6 million, but no, there is no money!

Contrast this to the statement by the chairman of the county planning commission in Mathews County on the Chesapeake Bay, “We need to do all we can to preserve our rural character and control the growth; we know what the Mathews citizens want.”

During my summer vacation last August, while my wife and I were tent camping for two weeks in the state and national parks in Oregon, I was able to spend some time with the city planners in Portland, a city of half-a-million, known for its forward-looking planning and anti-sprawl sentiment. But it is not really an anti-sentiment. Somehow, the citizens and the planners have been able to cultivate a democratic regionalism through its strong public involvement in both grassroots environmentalism and neighborhood conservation.
Small waterways, wetlands and natural spaces in the Portland areas benefit from more than 75 “Friends of . . .” organizations. Portland has chosen to build up rather than out and is now known for its urban growth boundaries, beyond which open space remains fairly intact. Portland as both a city and metropolitan region has earned a reputation as the capital of “good planning” for pioneering the actual implementation of the compact city model. They recognize that a compact metropolis concentrates urbanized land within radial corridors and nodes and reduces energy consumption and keeps the infrastructure of roads and utility systems affordable.

David Rusk in Inside Game/Outside Game (1999) comments, “The best evidence for the success of Portland’s growth management policies is the quality of life in so much of the region. It is found in . . . parkland and other natural areas . . .  in strong, healthy city neighborhoods . . . There is a depth and solidity to downtown Portland that compels confidence in its future.”

Maybe we should earmark some of our taxes to send the Henrico supervisors and developers out west to soak up some of the Portland ambience. They could see that planning from the bottom up might not be so threatening. As citizens in all Virginia counties, we need to ask, who is land use planning meant to serve?

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