"The Dollars & Sense of Protecting Community Character"

Hanover Naturally, a member of the Coalition for Hanover’s Future, is presenting a video program entitled, “The Dollars and Sense of Protecting Community Character” tonight at Ashland’s Public Library (7 p.m., 202 S. Railroad Ave.). A discussion about the ways in which Hanover County can grow without destroying its distinct sense of place, history, character, and natural resources will follow the presentation.

Based upon a presentation given by Ed McMahon, a nationally renowned authority on sustainable development and land conservation, “The Dollars and Sense of Preserving Community Character” makes a strong case for development that is good for the environment, good for business, and good for the community. “Growth is both inevitable and desirable, but the destruction of community character and natural resources that often accompanies growth is not inevitable,” argues McMahon.

“Even as a video, McMahon’s message is powerful,” said Nancy Pecsok, President of Hanover Naturally, “everyone who lives in Hanover should see this – especially now, when decisions are being made about future development and how this will impact all of our lives.” Special buildings, places, vistas, and views – in other words, the power of place in very profound ways, gives us our sense of identity and well-being. As McMahon states, “Communities can grow without destroying the things people love.”

Ed McMahon is a lecturer, author, and expert in sustainable development, land conservation, urban design, and historic preservation. He was instrumental in developing resources for The Conservation Fund.


Hanover Ignores Citizen Intent

Letter to the Editor – RICHMOND TIMES DISPATCH (2/15/07)

The recent articles concerning growth in the Richmond area, and particularly Hanover County, are quite disturbing. Doug Boardman’s recent Op/Ed column highlighted Hanover’s lack of desire to let citizens participate in the formulation of a new Comprehensive Plan. This expressed the frustration of most Hanover citizens, including myself.

I was bemused to read Harold Padgett’s Op/Ed column on his version of how the Hanover Comprehensive Plan update went from his, and I assume, the Planning Commission’s point of view. It seems as if he and I attended different workshops. Essentially, the plan sent to our Board of Supervisors is the same that the Clarion Consultant group, along with McKinney and Associates, presented without any public input. In fact, just about all of the public criticism and input was ignored by the Planning Commission.

The commission’s January hearing on the proposed Comprehensive Plan was a standing room only plea by the citizens to not enact this badly flawed plan. The Planning Commission does not listen to the public — it forwarded the consultants’ plan on to the Board of Supervisors with a unanimous vote.

Thank you for providing coverage on the these issues in Hanover. The public must be informed in order to act regarding this closed process that will dramatically change Hanover and the region’s future. If you don’t think it will have an impact, imagine Roanoke moving to the Atlee/Elmont Interchange.

W. Wingfield, Ashland

Elsewhere – The Loudoun Network: Political Backers Gain From Growth

Excerpts from:
Influence of Developers, Allies Runs Deep

By Michael Laris and David S. Fallis
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, January 21, 2007; A01

Six months after they took office in 2004, members of the Loudoun Board of Supervisors demonstrated in a single afternoon their ability to help a friend.

First, they voted 6 to 3 to boost the number of homes that could be built on the family farm of Dale Polen Myers, a former supervisor who had been instrumental in getting many of them elected. The next month, a builder bought the property from Myers’s family for $12.2 million — four times its assessed value before the zoning decision, records show.

Next, the board agreed unanimously to authorize the county to purchase a different parcel for $13.5 million, once again helping Myers, who was acting as the real estate agent. That earned Myers and her boss a commission that by industry standards would range from $270,000 to $675,000.

Such coziness has become routine among some Loudoun officials and a group of politically connected developers, landowners and others in the real estate industry, The Washington Post found in a year-long investigation.

An examination of thousands of e-mails, telephone records and county land databases and scores of interviews shows the extent to which this network of development advocates was able to influence land-use decisions in one of the country’s fastest-growing and richest counties.

Supervisors sometimes followed step-by-step direction from those in the development industry on how to vote and what to say in public, according to e-mails and other county records. One planning commissioner who resigned last year voted favorably on projects by companies with which he had business ties.

In their three years in office, a majority of the current board members have voted at least two dozen times in favor of projects benefiting people or companies who helped the officials get elected. Many of those political backers were enriched, including developers and landowners who made millions when their home-building and commercial projects were approved by the county board, as well as development lawyers who netted large legal fees and real estate agents who made commissions on the deals.

Voting for friends or political allies is not, in itself, improper under Virginia conflict-of-interest laws. Those laws prohibit officials from accepting items of value, including business opportunities, that could influence their actions and from voting on matters in which they have a “personal interest.”

Experts caution that in many cases it is difficult to determine whether a public official has a personal interest because the legal definition is complex and open to interpretation.

The county’s supervisors and planning officials have served as gatekeepers to a wave of suburban development. Since 1990, Loudoun’s population has tripled to more than a quarter-million, transforming a landscape of open fields to a series of expanding construction sites. That growth has brought thriving new communities and jobs, as well as worsening traffic and the financial burden of building new schools and providing other services.

Loudoun officials defended their efforts to work closely with developers and others.

“This is local citizen government, and these are complicated issues, and you have to reach out to somebody,” said Supervisor Stephen J. Snow (R-Dulles). He said supervisors must tap the expertise and resources of the private sector to solve the county’s transportation and other challenges, and that means working proactively with development companies and approving more houses to help generate additional funds.

Snow and other officials also said that their votes were based on the projects’ merits and their view of what is best for the county.

Myers declined repeated requests to be interviewed.

In recent months, FBI agents have interviewed several people in the county about development decisions, according to three who said they have been contacted. One person, who declined to be named because of the sensitivity of the inquiry, was interviewed at length and said the agents probed for information about whether local officials may have development interests that would conflict with their duties on a public body.

Debbie Weierman, spokeswoman for the FBI’s Washington Field Office, would not say whether agents are conducting an investigation in Loudoun but said her office “is looking into reports of possible public corruption, unfair business practices and the like . . . in the Washington metropolitan area.”

Until late last year, the board votes helped spur the county’s swift growth. But as voters have shown signs of displeasure, supervisors seeking reelection in November have backed off from their general enthusiasm for rapid development, voting down a major building project known by advocates as Dulles South and limiting construction in western Loudoun.

At the same time, new construction has slowed with a sagging market. Nevertheless, tens of thousands of homes that have been approved are yet to be built….

Talking Points Prepared

As the pro-growth supervisors settled into office in 2004, they appeared to be taking cues from people with a financial stake in board decisions.

Jeffery Cowart, president of Delta Strategies, Inc., a Leesburg public relations company that has advocated for Greenvest and others, coached Snow, another of the new pro-growth majority, on how to answer critics of growth, records show. In one set of ” talking points,” Cowart included advice on how Snow should respond if he was asked about political contributions from Greenvest. The company gave $2,000 to his campaign.

“Steve Snow’s vote cannot be bought and sold,” Cowart wrote in a 2004 e-mail, providing language for the supervisor. “I served my country in the military for 25 years to protect and preserve democracy and the buying and selling of votes was not among those values.”

Cowart also wrote statements for Snow supporting Cowart’s causes, including a local hospital he represented, e-mails show. And Cowart helped prepare a PowerPoint presentation that Snow could use in meetings to represent his thoughts on why more development in his district was good for the county, records show.

Snow, 61, who refers often to his experience as a military planner, said his work with developers simply reflected his political beliefs.

“I did what I said I was going to do,” he said in a recent interview. “There’s a supposition, I think, built in now to the psyche of the American people, that if you’re in politics that you . . . inherently must be corrupt, that you must be on the take,” he said. “They just assume you’re there for self-interest, as opposed to . . . public service.” Snow said he is in office to protect property rights and solve problems for residents in his district.

Once, in a moment of frustration, Snow became discouraged with his party and entertained thoughts of resignation. He dashed off an e-mail in 2005 to county GOP chairman Minchew, who had joined with Myers, Greenvest and others to help elect the new board.

“I will resign . . . as Supervisor if you wish,” Snow wrote.

Minchew pressed Snow to stay.

“You are too valuable.”

The Ritz-Carlton Project

In the summer of 2005, the board was scheduled to vote on an enclave of resort homes managed by the Ritz-Carlton. The development, including a Jack Nicklaus-designed golf course, is across the street from Oak Hill, the still-pristine estate where President James Monroe retired in 1825.

On the eve of the vote, Tulloch and Snow received a detailed e-mail from Minchew, who represented the Ritz developer and had urged them to support his proposal. The vote was also important to Myers: She had been hired as a consultant for the project, according to Jim Brown, one of the developers.

Minchew wanted two entrances to the development so that service workers could enter separately from wealthy residents. The owners of Monroe’s estate opposed the plan, saying it would disturb their historic property, a case also made by Supervisor James Burton (I-Blue Ridge).

“Dear Bruce and Steve . . . You have one heck of an agenda tomorrow,” read the e-mail from Minchew dated July 18.

“I would suggest that Steve simply make the motion (we will e-mail over to you today a draft motion) and let the application be approved over Mr. Burton’s objections, probably on a 5-4 vote,” wrote Minchew, who copied the e-mail to Myers.

“I think that as little discussion as possible is best course of action.”

The two supervisors followed Minchew’s script, with Snow making the motion and Tulloch seconding it. After heated debate, the vote came out better than Minchew predicted: 6 to 3.

Minchew declined to be interviewed.

Tulloch had taken a keen interest in the Ritz project, which he said would be an attractive, high-end addition to the county. He traveled to a similar Ritz-Carlton resort in Jupiter, Fla., at his own expense, he said, and lunched with Nicklaus to discuss golf courses. Later, he offered to use his office budget to fly Zoning Administrator Melinda Artman there to demonstrate the benefits of such a development, Artman said.

Artman said she declined the trip, saying that she would base her zoning decision solely “on what the ordinance says.”
This Year’s Race

In its first two years, Loudoun’s board of supervisors, driven by its pro-growth majority, approved more than 9,000 new homes brought forward by a host of building firms, according to county records.

Greenvest gained permission in four key votes to build more than 1,800 homes in addition to the roughly 300 that would have been allowed under the previous zoning. The total value of those additional homes could reach $1 billion, based on current sale prices.

The recent defeat by supervisors of the Dulles South plan, in which they rejected Greenvest’s proposal to build 15,000 homes there, does not end the company’s plans to build in the area. Greenvest is pursuing four major applications to build the same number of homes there. If the county rejects those plans, the company calculates that it could build about 2,000 homes without new approvals by the board.

Those who helped elect the pro-growth board in 2003 are gearing up for this year’s race, and at least some of their efforts have been aimed at removing one supervisor: Waters, who fell out of line with some of her Republican colleagues.

Waters, the former executive director of the conservative Eagle Forum who had been elected with Myers’s help, began balking in 2004 at Myers’s calls for swifter home building in rural Loudoun and near Dulles.

“We need to ostracize her,” Snow wrote in a 2004 e-mail. “She is anti-growth and anti-property.”

Snow’s e-mail went to Patricia Shockey, a Myers confidante. “Later when the opportunity presents itself, go for the jugular,” Shockey told Snow. “Dale Myers will get her.”

News researchers Madonna Lebling, Bobbye Pratt and Julie Tate contributed to this report.


The Fiscalization of Land Use Planning

The Comprehensive Plan Update has taken place within a policy environment in which land-use decisions are made mostly or entirely based upon fiscal considerations at the expense of achieving a healthy and balanced quality of life. As Hanover’s Comp Plan illustrates, local governments that “fiscalize” land-use planning usually abandon balanced land-use planning policies and instead, use their land-use power to gain fiscal advantage. Over time, the problems associated with fiscalized land-use policies only worsen partly because local governments no longer seek balance in their land-use planning policies, but rather seek to defeat their neighbors in a “win/lose” game of fiscal land-use planning.

Because local government services are labor-intensive, the cost of those service tends to rise steadily over time; property taxes rarely keep pace. Thus, land uses that produce property taxes and require many government services are viewed as unattractive. While rejecting residential development, Hanover and surrounding counties engage in destructive competition for retail developments that will generate sales-tax revenue. In the current fiscal environment, sales-tax revenues are one of the few sources of funds over which local governments perceive they can control. Under the current system of distributing tax revenue, a certain percentage of the state sales tax is returned to local governments. However, these funds are returned to the jurisdiction in which the transaction took place, no matter where the people actually live. For this reason, many local governments pursue aggressive policies of luring and even subsidizing highly profitable retail businesses, especially auto dealerships, department stores, and “big-box” discount retailing establishments.

Because some land uses are fiscal “winners” and others deemed fiscal “losers,” local governments seek to attract the winners inside their boundaries and dump the losers on other jurisdictions. This has led to a competitive approach to land-use planning, rather than a balanced approach. For many communities, the “goal” of land-use planning becomes to attract large retailers or other big sales tax producers inside their boundaries while dumping the affordable housing required by retail employees somewhere else. The goal of a balanced community is not only forgotten, but regarded as detrimental to the community’s fiscal well-being.

Flawed planning assumptions and fuzzy economic development goals are being used to justify irrational land use planning in Hanover County. In most parts of the country, “economic development” is a phrase indicating a set of public policies designed to attract and retain jobs that are appropriate for the local work force. In this regard, economic development is a critical component in building a balanced community. Unfortuantely, this notion of economic development has become warped by fiscal land-use policies. No longer does “economic development” mean jobs that are appropriate or that pay well; instead, the phrase usually means little more than subsidizing retail businesses in order to boost a county treasury, whether or not the low-paying service jobs created by retailers provide a good match with the local work force.

Fiscalized land-use policies create significant imbalances within metropolitan regions. As communities seek to “defeat” their neighbors and “win” the fiscal land-use planning game, land uses that should be integrated into each community become segregated into separate communities, creating regional imbalance. For example, some communities may successfully attract shopping centers or business parks, while forcing housing projects into distant suburbs and rural areas. On a regional basis, this imbalance creates major problems that are often beyond the ability of any government unit to solve, including traffic congestion, deteriorating air-quality, and the loss of a sense of place and community.

Fiscalized land-use policies tend to be connected to revenue sources that are not as stable or predictable as local governments need. For all of its flaws, property taxes provide the County with stability, because property tax revenues do not move dramatically upward or downward in any given year. Revenue from sales taxes and development fees, however, tend to fluctuate a great deal from year to year. Retail sales can rise or fall sharply during an economic boom or a recession, and development fee revenue can fall from millions of dollars to virtually nothing in a real estate bust. Reliance on these taxation sources, which fiscalized land-use policies usually seek to attract, makes stable, long-term budgeting much more difficult for local governments to achieve. Dramatic swings between layoffs and new hires tend to result, often harming the stability of local government and further eroding public confidence in local officials.

The fiscalization of land use planning also undermines public trust in the local planning process and, ultimately, in the role of local government. The way land is used inevitably shapes the revenue potential of counties and the cost requirements with which they must contend. Yet the goal of balanced communities and a high quality of life need not be sacrificed. By changing financial incentives for local governments, we can move away from fiscalized land-use policies, back toward policies that encourage community balance and responsible land-use planning that will be benefit all.

Is PARTNERSHIP possible?

Over the past year, through extremely limited opportunities, citizens have questioned the flawed assumptions on which the current draft of the Comprehensive Land Use Plan is based. An overwhelming majority of citizens have expressed concern about the magnitude and expansion of the Suburban Service Area (SSA).

Following months of letters to the editors, handouts, op-ed pieces, calls and emails to the Planning Commission, the Board of Supervisors and the Planning Department, along with attending numerous meetings and speaking (when allowed), there appears to be NO discernable evidence that the efforts of concerned citizens have had any impact on the revised version of the Comprehensive Plan. Although citizens were listened to, they were not heard.

Without substantial changes, the current draft of the Comprehensive Plan will accelerate residential and commercial growth resulting in the type of sprawl many other localities, including Henrico and Chesterfield, are experiencing. Citizens have asked for COMMON SENSE growth that is phased, appropriate and forward thinking—characteristics evidenced in several other Comprehensive Plans in Virginia localities and across the nation. Why are citizens voices falling upon deaf ears?

Given the total disregard of citizen concerns, residents of Hanover still look hopefully and expectantly to their elected representatives to respond by revisiting and amending this proposed Comprehensive Plan – to make it reflect the community’s desire to preserve Hanover county’s unique character and sense of place.

We are at a historic fork in the road. By re-visioning this Plan in a manner that includes the citizens of Hanover in a meaningful, proactive, and cooperative partnership, the Board of Supervisors will help restore our faith in representative democracy and make Hanover an even greater place to live, work, and play.