Eye on finances: how will the county fund its $185 million CIP?

By Susan Gibbs

The other day somebody stopped me on the street to ask if I had heard that Greene County is getting $185 million, and that $7 million of that is earmarked for the Town of Stanardsville.

But that’s not the case: the county wants $185 million, as stated on its recently updated capital improvement plan – but it has not said where that money will be coming from.

Moreover, sources say that by next year the county will be dipping into its general fund to pay its bills, even with cuts it may be making this year.

Allow me to explain:

About seven years ago, when the county opened its new wastewater treatment facility in Ruckersville it figured it could pay for it with the hefty hookup fees it would charge new development – around $200,000 per commercial establishment and $20,000 per residential dwelling. But within two years recession had struck, the bottom had fallen out of the housing market, and, because commercial development follows rooftops, out of that market as well.

But in the background, the Thomas Jefferson Planning District Commission (TJPDC), planner for the region that includes Greene County, had been working for nearly a decade to institute its Sustainability Accords.

TJPDC’s Sustainability Accords have to do with sustainable development, or smart growth, which has been defined as an urban planning and transportation theory that advocates compact, transit-oriented, walkable, bicycle-friendly land use. Such land use includes neighborhood schools, complete streets, and mixed-use development with a range of housing choices. It values long-range, regional considerations of sustainability over a short-term focus.

By 2005, when a small group of citizens formed the Ruckersville Citizen Council (RCC), TJPDC was already been working with the Town of Stanardsville, helping it with planning and advising it about grants, many of which are believed to carry requirements for the institution of sustainable concepts.

I use the word “believed” because no one from the Town, the RCC, or the county has ever, to my knowledge, explained the meaning and effects of sustainable development to the general population, which explanation would have given taxpayers the right to choose.

I use the word “concepts” because sustainability concepts are just that – they are not laws and no locality is required to enact them.

Also by 2006, RCC — which was never an organization having anything to do with the county’s government – was appearing at public hearings, either speaking against development, or trying to control it. By 2008, developers were as much as instructed by supervisors to negotiate proffers with the group.

That year, Carl Schmitt, an ardent conservationist and RCC participant, was elected to the Board of Supervisors, and became the Board’s liaison to TJPDC. The following year, Andrea Wilkinson, who had formed the RCC, was appointed to serve with Schmitt on the TJPDC board.

In 2009 the county was the site of focus groups – which Greene County Zoning Administrator Bart Svoboda arranged and likened to town meetings. The focus groups – led by TJPDC and the Renaissance Group – were to provide citizen input for the county’s comprehensive plan update.

But such focus groups are now under discussion by bloggers all over the country, who claim that they are held for the sole purpose of manipulating attendees into giving predetermined responses that are in keeping with sustainable development.

All told, only about 30 of Greene County taxpayers attended those focus groups.

Nevertheless, in mid-2010 Greene’s supervisors approved the county’s updated comprehensive plan, written by TJPDC, in keeping with sustainable development concepts. Thereafter, when justification was needed for actions taken by the planning commission or the board of supervisors, the above-referenced “citizen input” was cited.

This, at a time when reports were being online saying that sustainable development does not work.

For example, Howard Baetjer Jr., PhD, who teaches at Towson University in Baltimore, has written that smart growth is “a misguided, and, ultimately, harmful set of land-use policies … nothing more than centralized government planning of private land use.

“Central planners,” Baetjer continues, “who operate outside of a market environment, i.e., who are not attentive to market prices and are unmotivated by the prospect of profits and the fear of losses, (are) utterly unable to … arrive at an economically efficient result.”

In a nutshell, Baetjer says, these planners cannot determine land-use in the general public interest as effectively as the impersonal (development/business) market process does.

Eye on Greene reported those comments some months ago but no matter – the county appears to be pushing through ordinance amendment after ordinance amendment that is in keeping with TJPDC’s Sustainability Accords.

It has also recently approved proffers guidelines meant to compliment the county’s capital improvement plan. While proffers are voluntary, county documents state that all property owners shall consent to proffers being offered as part of the rezoning application, and that the consent shall be evidenced by the owner’s signatures that are witnessed by a notary.

The full list of proffers that may be “offered” is available for viewing in the Eye on Greene post titled “Supervisors set proffers guidelines” published on March 8 of this year – and it is extensive.

While in a perfect world hookup fees and proffers might well pay the county’s bills, this is not a perfect world, and at the moment, nobody seems to be knocking at the county’s door.

It’s time for taxpayers – who are about to be hit with some horrendous bills — to ask their elected officials why not.

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