Eye on Ruckersville Citizens Council: Where did it go?

By Susan Gibbs

 

About a month ago Greene County Board of Supervisors Vice-chairman Davis Lambs said, “Whatever happened to Andrea Wilkinson? We haven’t heard from her for a while.”

That remark speaks to the heart of what’s wrong in this county: too many of us, our leaders included, don’t keep up with what’s happening.

Though county supervisors appointed Wilkinson the county’s representative to the Thomas Jefferson Planning District Commission (TJPDC) in early 2009, and she is that body’s current vice-chair, they have never asked her to report and, as a result, except for one brief appearance before the board last year, she hasn’t been heard from since.

But when Wilkinson was being heard from, she was kicking up quite a few stirs.

Allow me to explain:

Back in 2005, Wilkinson started a group aimed at preserving a particular quality of life in Ruckersville, where, with her husband Floyd, she owns Spring Ridge Boarding Farms.

Wilkinson dubbed her group the Ruckersville Citizens Council (RCC), even though the group was not –and never would be — officially a council, which, by definition, is a body of persons specially designated or selected to act in an advisory, administrative or legislative capacity.

Nevertheless, the name stuck and within just a few short years RCC had grown from a “membership” consisting of a handful of people to more than 50 citizens. Wilkinson would soon be mobilizing homeowners from subdivisions all over Ruckersville, molding RCC into one of the most visible and vocal citizens’ groups in the county, providing input for just about every commercial development that came before the county government for consideration, and even negotiating proffers.

Few leaders – from Senator Emmett Hanger and Delegate Rob Bell to county supervisors to planning commissioners to developers – would turn down an invitation to meet with Wilkinson’s band of citizens – even though RCC leadership would three times refuse to identify its members.

RCC started off simply enough. Wilkinson got a few people together, appointed herself chairperson and secretary, as well as editor of minutes, published her minutes online, and started holding monthly forums, where topics of discussion consisted of “those that affect the Ruckersville area,” and projects consisted of landscaping at the intersection of Routes 29 and 33, and the installation of “Welcome to Ruckersville” signs at two locations.

Two early RCC forum speakers – back when only a handful of people were attending — were the county’s then-director of economic development, Dennis Jarvis, who had assumed his position in January 2006, and Greene County Zoning Administrator Bart Svoboda.

But then the developers Gateway Market Center – now a major shopping center in Ruckersville anchored by a Walmart SuperCenter and a Lowes Home Improvement Center — asked Jarvis for citizen input and he steered them to the RCC.

Jarvis put the importance of the group in perspective at the time, telling this reporter that the request had been a public relations move on the part of the developer and that RCC was the only citizens group he knew of. But even so, RCC gained exposure, picked up speed and gathered strength.

“The group provided thoughts and comments, including requests regarding traffic lanes, shielded lighting, landscaping, storm water retention, architectural standards, inter-parcel access, and a drive-up pharmacy window,” Wilkinson said back then. “Many (though not all) of these items were then proffered by the developer.”

Public hearings on the project began during the November 14, 2006 regularly-scheduled meeting of the Greene County Board of Supervisors, and though public comments were not recorded in the minutes of that meeting, the speakers were. They included but were not limited to Jarvis, Wilkinson and Carl Schmitt, then-president of the Blue Ridge Foothills Conservancy and an active supporter of time-based zoning as a means to control development.

During that public hearing, then-Chairman of the Board of Supervisors Steve Catalano thanked the developer for discussing the project with citizens and hearing their input. And, then-vice-chairman of the Board Clarence “Buggs” Peyton said he attended the RCC meeting with representatives of the project.

By 2007 Schmitt had become an active participant in RCC forums, and though she would do so in no official capacity, Wilkinson, at the time, told this reporter that she supported him in his bid for an At Large seat on the county’s board of supervisors.

This same year, when Kinvara properties, LLC, the developer of Deerfield Village – a planned unit development to be located on about 38 acres on Route 29 in Ruckersville – extended Greene’s citizens the same courtesy that Gateway Center developers had, RCC claimed center stage. The developer’s representatives spent about a year holding receptions and public meetings for and with the RCC.

In the meantime, Schmitt won his bid for a seat on the Board of Supervisors and later that month, on November 27, 2007, during a public hearing before county supervisors on a request to rezone 46 acres on Carpenters Mill Road to allow for senior residential housing, Ruckersville resident Matt Strauss, an attendee at RCC forums, expressed concern about the amount of proffer proposed by the developer.

And then, when the rezoning request from Kinvara Properties, LLC was brought to public hearing before supervisors on January 22, 2008, it contained “extensive proffers, which included, but were not limited to, a concept plan by which development would take place. The applicant also designated a two-acre parcel to be dedicated for use by the county as an emergency services facility, community park, community center, government offices, library, etc.”

Some additional proffers included turn lanes, traffic signals, dedication of right-of-way for an additional lane on US29, a stipulation that various textures and/or porches would be used on at least 50 percent of the units to prevent a “row house” look, lighting and landscaping, fencing, a low impact bike trail complete with bike racks, $900,000 for improvements to the intersection of 29 and State Route 607 and $468,000 in cash proffers.

Attorney Butch Davies, who presented the proposal for the developer, also addressed a request – though meeting minutes do not say where that request came from – to tie the residential to commercial, saying it was not feasible due to the financing of the project.

At the meeting, Wilkinson said the proffers were insufficient and questioned funding for the roads, and four people who identified themselves as residents of nearby residential subdivisions objected to the plan to build homes – though whether or not they were RCC members was unclear, as a RCC membership list was never made public.

Schmitt, who by now had taken his seat on the Board, had been named that body’s liaison to TJPDC, and still an active participant in RCC forums. Though supervisors are not permitted by the Code of Virginia to negotiate proffers, he not only commented on proffers, but said that the applicant should cooperate with the county and TJPDC on surfacing for the trail system, and, in keeping with Wilkinson’s objections, that residential should be tied to commercial.

Supervisors unanimously deferred action on the proposal. On March 11, 2008 Svoboda informed supervisors that although new proffers had been submitted the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) had found them unclear, that there were outstanding issues that needed to be worked on, and that the developer had requested another deferral so to address transportation issues.

It should be noted here that in addition to serving as zoning administrator for the county, Svoboda was – and is – a primary voting member of TJPDC’s Rural Technical Committee, which, among other things, integrates land use into all of its activities. Also among other things, the Committee works with the staffs of TJPDC and VDOT to review, comment, recommend, and assist VDOT, participating political jurisdictions, or the TJPDC on any proposal … on the location and design of facilities in the Rural Transportation Plan and serves in an advisory capacity to the TJPDC …”

In addition, at the time the Kinvara proposal was on the table, TJPDC was preparing an update to the federally-mandated Charlottesville-Albemarle Regional Transportation (CHART) Plan for the Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) for the five-county Thomas Jefferson Planning District.

The MPO (CHART) plan is a listing of the most important projects for the MPO area over the next 20 years. The Rural County Plans serve as a coordinating function for major projects, and as a “shopping list” for annual negotiations between Boards of Supervisors and VDOT to set project priorities.

To Eye on Greene’s knowledge, no mention of these negotiations between Greene’s supervisors and VDOT had been made to the public when, on May 13, 2008, the Board finally took action on Kinvara’s proposal.

At that time, Schmitt mentioned that TJPDC meetings about future development indicated that there would be much denser, compact development, providing walking and biking paths for residents. But Supervisor Jeri Allen made no mention of TJPDC’s plans when she noted that the Kinvara request had been under consideration for almost a year. Nor did Catalano mention TJPDC’s plans when he referred to the “exhaustive” effort to address specific concerns shortly before the Board finally approved the developer’s request at that meeting.

RCC was on a roll.

The group was already hard at work addressing a proposal from another developer to rezone than 16 acres that would stretch south down U.S Route 29 from its intersection with State Route 607 to make way for a commercial development to be called Midway Corner – while in the background, Svoboda was preparing to review the county’s comprehensive plan with the help of TJPDC and the Renaissance Planning Group.

Renaissance is a planning, design, and policy analysis consulting firm with three offices in Florida, one in the Washington DC area, one in Chapel Hill, North Carolina and one in Charlottesville.

Svoboda said that with the help of the other two organizations, focus groups – which he likened to town meetings – would be held around the county and that “citizens’ ideas” would “be put to work.”

But unlike the historical town meetings, in which residents gather to act as a legislative body, voting on matters for the community’s operation, these groups were to be led by professional planners from TJPDC and the Renaissance Group.

Then-TJPDC Senior Regional Planner Bill Wanner explained at the time: “TJPDC is bringing to (Greene’s) table a multi-disciplinary team consisting of environmental planners, graphic designers, transportation planners and engineers, and some who have a background in economic development in terms of land use for rural and urbanizing areas.”

But back to the request for a rezone that would make way for Midway Corner, a commercial development that was to consist of retail shops, office space, and possibly a hotel. Owned by S.J.S. Limited of Charlottesville, it was to be developed by KG Associates, developer of Forest Lakes in Albemarle.

Led by Wilkinson, Ruckersville residents put their hands on this proposal in a very big way.

On May 21, 2008 Michael Barnes of KG Associates – who had attended at least one RCC forum — appeared before the Greene County Planning Commission with his request to rezone the site from R-1 Residential to B-3 Business, which covers those portions of the county characterized by constant heavy traffic, where frequent efficient access to businesses is required.

According to county ordinance, B-3 use regulations allow for all business uses allowed in other business zones, as well as, among other things: hotels and motels; drive-up restaurants; convenience stores; vehicle sales and service; building material sales; service contractors; highway retail service centers and truck stops; and, bus, truck and taxi terminals.

During the public hearing portion of the meeting Wilkinson and nine RCC supporters expressed their concerns regarding the type of rezoning, restriction of rental properties, transportation issues, traffic concerns, safety issues, their property values, buffers, the need for citizen involvement and adequate time to review proffers.

It should be pointed out here that Svoboda said at the time that no developer is ever obligated to meet with citizens, but even so: following the May 21, 2008 public hearing Commissioners Anthony Herring, Davis Lamb, Norman Slezak and Phyllis Woodfolk all suggested that the developer have further meetings with residents of the subdivision abutting the site.

Two months later, on July 16, 2008, Barnes was back before the Commission, and Svoboda reported that amended proffers had been submitted as well as an amended concept plan.

Barnes said that meetings had been held with the citizens to address their concerns regarding the development, and made it clear that the applicant was willing to continue to work with them, with an emphasis on buffers, security and the uses of the property. However, he also pointed out that the property has always been considered as a potential for commercial development.

During the public hearing portion of the meeting eight citizens, led by Wilkinson, voiced their concerns and opinions regarding the concept plan, uses, business hours of operation, the possibility of uncontrolled development, traffic, right-of-way issues, light, security, noise, fence and sign details, nuisance factors and proffers.

Perhaps as a result, Herring made a motion to recommend that the request be denied. Herring, Slezak and Woodfolk agreed, and Commissioner Jim Frydl and Lamb voted nay. The request was sent forward to the Greene County Board of Supervisors.

On August 26, 2008 Barnes appeared before supervisors with yet another updated proffers form that specifically restricted: clubs; nightclubs or dancehalls where alcohol is served; temporary merchants selling fireworks; vehicle sales, service and rental businesses; vehicle repair garages; highway retail service centers and truck stops; bus, truck and taxi terminals; and fuel distribution centers.

In addition, the form included a concept plan describing the location of an expanded buffer, general locations for intersections with exterior roads, and the general concept of an interior road running parallel to Route 29. On one side of that road the developer had restricted: convenience stores; drive-up restaurants; building material sales; and, service contractors.

Even so, one resident of the adjacent subdivision, Justin Claeys, brought a petition against the proposal to rezone the property to B-3, signed by more than 100 subdivision residents, to the meeting with him.

Claeys told supervisors: “We have … been willing to work with (the developer) and try to come to a compromise. In doing so we’ve created an … alternative concept plan. Michael (Barnes) rejected that. We don’t feel that we’re quite ready to (reach an agreement) … we need to work with Michael some more to … proffer some additional measures.”

He said he wanted, among other things, a restriction on hours of operation on the commercial development; a higher fence than that proffered between the commercial and residential properties; and, guarantees for privacy and security. Subdivision residents wanted more time to resolve concerns concerning the limitation of movement and uses of the roads, the placement of restaurants, hotel and motel use and for the applicant to be more involved with helping citizens without citizens having to ask.

RCC wanted a bus stop, sidewalks, and to set design standards.

Wilkinson remarked: “We’ve not had a chance to understand every ramification,” and requested a deferral to “get everything straightened out with VDOT and everything straightened out with all the neighbors.”

She noted that the Planning Commission had recommended denial of the project last month – partially due to unresolved citizen concerns.

However, minutes of the meeting also indicate that safety concerns had been addressed and that the applicant had met with residents of the area, both in the context of an RCC forum as well as in Barnes’ office in Charlottesville.

Finally, it appeared that Barnes, though contained, was losing patience, as were Catalano and Allen.

Barnes told supervisors that in his work with residents he had tried to be honest and direct about plans for the property. He noted that the county’s comprehensive plan designated the area as commercial; that the covenants and the restrictions for the adjacent subdivision recognized the subject parcels, as well as others bordering the property as potentially commercial properties; and that citizens purchasing property there would have been put on notice that these parcels were considered potential commercial development.

He said: “We’re trying to strike (a balance that maintains) the flexibility we’ll need to (create) a successful project … if we don’t have flexibility our chances of the project being a financial success will be hurt.”

Nonetheless, Peyton suggested that the developer might have another conversation with the residents.

But Allen said she was prepared to support the project.  “There has been tremendous effort put forth on the part of the developer … to work with the neighbors. While I am sympathetic to the concerns of the nearby residents I don’t think it’s in the best interests of the residents or the county to put so many restrictions on this development that will virtually doom it to fail.”

Catalano agreed with Allen and applauded the efforts of the developer in working with the citizens. “A lot of work has gone into this; more than I’ve ever seen on a B-3 rezone … the land use is appropriate; it is something that is designated in our comprehensive plan,” he said, and called for the request to be deferred only due to questions surrounding comments made by VDOT.

Schmitt, who had appeared upset at times during the meeting with the applicant, said that citizens had been making significant progress but felt that further thought and clarity should be considered. He asked that the deferment give concerned residents more time to meet with the developer, but Catalano scheduled the request as an action item at the Board’s next regularly meeting.

On September 9, 2008 Catalano made it clear that the public hearing had already been held.

Svoboda reported that the developer had met with residents of the adjacent development again and that “staff is comfortable with the submitted proffers.”

Schmitt reviewed changes to the proffers, which included agreements by the applicant to: restrict any hotel to interior room access on either side of a parallel road; position sales and services of equipment on the east side of a parallel road, and restrict interior testing to the interior of the building; and to offer language regarding a cash proffer that includes the opportunity to use money from the applicant as a match for federal funds.

Allen moved that the request be approved, and the Board voted unanimously to do so.

On October 17, 2008 the Greene County Record published an editorial that I wrote titled “Who’s running the show?”

In that article I expressed my opinion that it was time for the county’s politicians to come clean about whatever relationships they might have with special interest groups and called attention to the fact that some of our commissioners and supervisors had called on a developer proposing to bring economic development to Greene “negotiate” with “concerned citizens.”

At the same time I pointed out that those citizens numbered just about a dozen of the county’s 18,000, and that many belonged to RCC – which was not a government agency but whose meetings had been attended at least once by every supervisor, some commissioners, and some economic development authority board members. I noted that some were guest speakers, who left their relationships with RCC at that, but that others may have been more involved with the group, and if they were, the public needed to know.

I quoted Cordel Faulk, director of communications at the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, as saying that the public has “a right to calculate a politician’s relationship” with whatever special interest group he or she might be involved with “into its voting decisions,” and for that reason, any such relationship had to be “above board.”

I noted that RCC leadership had stated developers of Gateway Plaza and Deerfield Village solicited its input and that as a result, certain proffers were forthcoming. But I also pointed out that when Midway Corner’s developer requested a rezoning late last spring, citizens sought out the developer, demanding proffers. It was in response to those demands that some officials suggested negotiations.

I said then and I say now, those suggestions were not appropriate.

If neither Board nor Commission members are allowed, by the Code of Virginia, to negotiate proffers, why on Earth would any suggest that citizens do so – especially when county officials say no developer is ever under any obligation to speak to any citizen?

Moreover, the law states that proffers are to be voluntary, and that a developer’s failure to offer them does not mean the county can turn down his project. Proffers can, however, be discussed – but they should not be discussed with a band of citizens, none of whom, to Eye on Greene’s knowledge, has any experience whatsoever in professional planning or negotiations.

The fact that our elected officials and the planning commissioners they appointed directed a developer to negotiate with Wilkinson and her followers is a frightening thing – especially in view of the fact that RCC refused to release the names of its membership.

Back in October 2008 RCC Membership Coordinator Nicole Strickland said that the group numbered about 50, but had, by that time, refused three requests for its membership list – thereby preventing the public from knowing whether or not the names of any of our elected officials were on that list.

As Faulk explained it, “a lot of politicians get close to special interest groups,” but what’s bad is when that relationship leads politicians “to slam the door on the public.”

In that same editorial, I expressed my opinion that, by the same token, the public needed to make sure no doors got slammed on it, and that they could start assuring that their voices were heard by participating in one of the focus groups that would lead to their wishes for the future of Greene County to be incorporated into its updated comprehensive plan.

That suggestion, I freely confess now, might very well have been misgiven.

Since then I have read a September 2002 Virginia Land Rights Coalition article titled “The Delphi Technique: Let’s Stop Being Manipulated!” In it, Albert V. Burns wrote: “We are seeing citizens being invited to ‘participate’ in various forms of meetings … to ‘help determine’ public policy in one field or another. They are supposedly being included to get ‘input’ from the public … in one of those meetings … you will find that there is already someone designated to lead or ‘facilitate’ the meeting.

“Actually, he or she is there for exactly the opposite reason: to see that the conclusions reached during the meeting are in accord with a plan already decided upon by those who called the meeting … The process used to ‘facilitate’ the meeting is called the Delphi Technique … the facilitator manipulates the discussion…”

All told, about 30 county residents attended the focus groups, and they all came up with the “sustainable” goals that have been written into Greene’s current comprehensive plan – and which was approved by supervisors on June 8, 2010.

Still, when commissioners and supervisors refer to the county’s comprehensive plan and reference the incorporation into it of “citizens’ wishes,” they are referring to those 30 – out of about 18,500 – citizens.

But back to Lamb’s question: “Whatever happened to Andrea Wilkinson?”

When supervisors appointed her to TJPDC in the spring of 2009, she went to work with Schmitt, who was still the Board’s liaison, and would, that year, become its chair.

Schmitt lost that chairmanship, as well as his representation to TJPDC on behalf of the county when he lost his bid for reelection in 2011 to current At Large Supervisor Eddie Deane, who was then named the Board’s liaison to TJPDC.

But Deane only attended three meetings last year, and Wilkinson has not been asked to report on happenings there  in his stead,  so all Eye on Greene knows about her is that she made a brief appearance before supervisors during their regularly scheduled meeting on July 12, 2012.

At that time, during the matters from the public portion of the meeting, Wilkinson said that she had attended a “little meeting” with Svoboda and the county’s planner, Stephanie Golon, the day before “about the prospect of Greene (having) the urban sections join the Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) … to cover Ruckersville and possibly Twin Lakes.”

She explained: “The (MPO) is the transportation arm of the region … it doesn’t cost anything … what it allows you to do is benefit from some transportation funding … so we could get the benefit of that planning … that includes long-range planning for transportation improvement projects that are important to our locality … the disadvantage is, of course, there’s meetings.”

But what she did not tell supervisors is that TJPDC’s plan was to integrate strategies for: land use; transportation; housing; economic development; air and water quality; energy use; and human behavior change into local ordinances that comply with its 1998 Sustainability Accords and other, unidentified, planning documents.

Nor did Svoboda, who was also at the meeting.

In the end, after the TJPDC request was amended to include Stanardsville as well, supervisors unanimously said “no” to the MPO on August 14, 2012.

Early this year our supervisors reappointed Wilkinson to TJPDC.

As of this positing the RCC Web site can still be found online at http://orgsites.com/va/ruckersvillecitizens/index.html, but it is now a shell. While it lists Frank Wilczek, vice-president and stewardship committee of the Blue Ridge Foothills Conservancy as its chairman, and Wilkinson as its vice-chair, there is no news on the site, nor any minutes of meetings.

Editor’s Note: The above information has been compiled from TJPDC’s Web site, Greene County Board of Supervisors meeting minutes, and Greene County Record and Eye on Greene archives. For more information on the Delphi Technique, view http://www.freerepublic.com/focus/f-chat/2839005/posts.

Posted in: Editorials

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