Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Scottsville Nixes Planned Urban Development

In a microcosm of the challenge the land-use reformers face in Virginia, the tiny Town of Scottsville, 600 people, in Albemarle County rejected a Planned Unit Development ordinance that would have provided more flexibility for developers.

The Daily Progress describes the ordinance this way:
The PUD ordinance, similar to Albemarle County's neighborhood model, promotes higher-density development with a mixture of residential and commercial buildings, open space and pedestrian connections. Its passage would not have required the town to approve any development, rather, it would have given developers the option of filing a rezoning request for a mixed-use development.
The Town Council rejected the proposal by three votes to two. The article didn't say so directly, but it impliedthat citizens were worried by the prospect of "dense" development that would change the charming character of their hamlet. James P. Hogan explained his stance this way: "The Town of Scottsville is literally surrounded by development. I firmly believe the future of the town as we know it, as well as the quality of life, come first and foremost."

But as Harrison Rue, executive director of the Thomas Jefferson Planning District Commission, noted, "Without it, you'll see development by right, with mostly big lots and no usable open big space. That's being built all over the counties around here, and it's sure not the way to add on to a village."

Hamlets around Virginia are threatened by the tide of scattered, low-density development. No one that I've seen has yet put into effect a good way to protect them. The only "solution" is to change the market and regulatory dynamics that create sprawling development in the first place.


At 4:22 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Why is by right development mostly big lots? What Do you mean by big? How is quality of life defined?

Around here, by-right lots are also big. At one time they were smaller, and there were more of them. Prior to that land rights were unrestricted.

How did we get to the big lot situation? By incrementally restrictingproperty rights. Had we left property rights unrestricted there would be no need for an ordinance to allow PUD.

Why were property rights restricted, thereby creating the large and mis-named by-right lots?

Well, that was done so that someone who didn't own the neighboring land could exert control over it without actually buying it. They wanted to protect their quality of life. Specifically they wanted to protect their quality of life at someone else's expense.

Without actually buying it, or alternatively if some form of stealing it is not implemented, how exactly does Rue think he is going to be able to get his hands on, or plan and therefore control a big usable open space?

By reducung the number of by-rights the powers made them far more valuable and more highly protected. Now that they exist, people that have them want to protect their quality of life, by preventing PUD development.

In short we are now in the third round of limiting other peoples right to develop more densely in order to protect our quality of life.

Now suppose that instead, back in the dim dark past, before zoning began in1917, some county supervisor was approached by a voter with the idea of restricting his neighbors in order to protect his quality of life. Suppose that supervisor had recognized this as selfish and avaricious, and suppose he told his costituent to stuff it ?

Under such a condition property owners would be understood to have solid rights not subject to incrementalpolitical recission. And those that desire a different condition would be free to negotiate for it. Both sides are empowered to negotiate through a clear understanding of rights and responsibilities.

Now if you want a large useable space, the path forward is clear. And since everyone has plenty of well repected rights that they don't have to fear for, they might be more willing to put Some of their chips on the table and negotiate.

In other words we might be better off if we had more right to say buzz off and less right to protect our lifestyle at what we think is someone else's expense.

We are probably going to see a transfer of developmentrights law enacted. But since so manydevelopment rights have been eliminated,what is going to be left to trade?

Ed is right. The large lot policy has failed. But that doesn't mean that the replacement should be cramming more density into a town that doesn't want it.

Granted, it is not crammed, but the perceived effect is the same. Looked at another way, hey, if I don't have rights, why shiuld they?

At 7:06 AM, Blogger Larry Gross said...

There are some problems with the planned urban development concept in Virginia.

First, folks need to recognize that dense, urban development works best and is intended in areas where infrastructure and services already exist.

When you put one of these things in a rural area without jobs and without services - it basically becomes yet another auto-dependent development and in the case of Scottsville - commuters to Charlottesville - who are going to use Rt 29.

Flash ahead to say.. 50 of these developments sprinkled in similiar areas along Route 29 and what do you get? Why,of course - a congestion "crisis" with loud plaintive cries of the need to "do something" about the awful congestion on Rt 29.

Second, the "theory" that by building a dense urban settlement pattern will reduce the demand of "by-right" large-lots is screwy.

People who want a single family home in the woods with lots of elbow room are NOT the same as people who want to live cheek-by-jowl in a town-home.

So the question that must be asked is "what is the benefit" of these kinds of developments to rural counties?

The answer is there is no benefit.

They'll get more traffic and a demand from their transplanted city folks for urban-quality EMS and other services that cost big bucks IN ADDITION to by-right large lot development - and, in fact, may accelerate the demand as folks who buy the townhome "discover" the large-lot option.

At 8:38 AM, Blogger Jim Bacon said...

Both Anonymous and Larry Gross made some good points. By way of preface, I think of the PUD in Scottsville as an improvement over the status quo because it expands -- it doesn't restrict, it expands -- the range of development options. However, I readily admit, it is an imperfect solution and I can see why Scottsville residents would be upset by the specter of a major PUD development in their little town.

The problem in Scottsville really originates in and around Charlottesville and the expansion of the urban population there into Albemarle County, and Albemarle's desire to "protect" the rural nature of the county. Albemarle has tried to cope with population growth by imposing large-lot sizes on large swaths of the county in order to "protect" it. The result is low-density development serving a population expecting an urban level of services smeared over scores of square miles. Not smart.

At 9:59 AM, Blogger Larry Gross said...

I mispoke about Route 29. It's Route 20 - which is an even worse situation because Route 20 is not a 4-lane divided road and in fact is an older road, narrow in places with curves and hills associated with older design roads.

The other aspect of Planned Urban Development in rural areas is water/sewer which I suspect in Scottsville's case is probably an older system with limited capacity.

But the point is with respect to both the road system and the water/sewer is that these are infrastructure that will need to be upgraded if a more intense usage is the result of increased development.

The reason that development is cheaper in these kinds of areas is that the infrastructure costs are cheaper because of their less intensive useage and because the pace of development typically has been slow enough that upgrade costs can be spread out over a number of years that, in turn, can be accommodated by the taxpayers who live there.

If the pace of development quickens then what limited capacity that does exist will be used and upgrades will be required on a faster tempo.

Ideally, new development that requires water/sewer would have to pay the replacement costs of expanding the system. Unfortunately rural counties are governed by part-time officials who often lack the professional resources to know what the appropriate costs should be to new development.

If if Albemarle were to change it's land-use policies to allow more dense development closer to the jurisdiction of Charlottesville, the infrastructure needs would be equivalent. Roads, schools, water/sewer, EMS, etc would all have to be upgraded to handled the influx of population.

I'm not arguing that the answer is to just say "no" but rather the fly in the ointment is the infrastructure.

One can go any way that they want in deciding what the appropriate land-use should be - but in the end - there is an infrastructure bill that becomes a fundamental issue and usually what happens is that taxes are raised on a rural population with relatively modest incomes because they don't commute to higher paying jobs in an urban area and so the taxes are lower becauses services are more modest and the equation sort of evens itself out.

Once commuting folks with higher incomes move in, the rural residents are expected to absorb a disporportionate share of the costs associated with new residents.

The land-use legislation making it's way through the GA, (if passed) will give these localities more tools to deal with infrastructure issues - if they are savy enough to implement them.

At 12:44 PM, Blogger Ray Hyde said...

Anonymous was Ray, I pushed the wrong button.

Larry is right, as usual. the market for large lots is not the same as the market for dnsely constructed housing. Try explaining that to Ed, who insists that high urban prices show that this is what "the market" wants. There are many markets.

In his second post Larry waas dead on again. It is the sudden surge in growth that causes big infrastructure demands, big borrowing, and big tax increases. That is powered by big builders. But the big biilders might have to compete with the small builders, if there were any. Instead the zoning laws have eliminated many options, as Jim points out.

About the only thing you can say for mandatory large lots is that they are good for the deer.

And I have seeen it happen before. Mnadatory large lots kill the original owner, then later they get subdivided, and the second or third owner makes a killing. Wouldn't it be better to let the farmer build and sell off a small lot occasionally? Put a time limit on it and spread the growth out. Under that scenario half of my farm will still be here in a hundred years, if I call in a developer - its gone.

Larry hit it dead on a third time by pointing out that taxes on real estate are highly regressive in an expanding market.

Good Job, Larry.

At 7:56 PM, Blogger Toomanytaxes said...

Ray Hyde: Is there a fair and reasonable way to treat smaller builders (however that term can be equitably defined) differently from larger builders? This is not a question designed to punish large, successful companies. Rather, it's a recognition that, so long as basic concerns are addressed adequately, the government should tread more lightly on smaller businesses, so that we can continue to have smaller businesses and the competition that they bring to the market.

At 11:03 PM, Blogger Ray Hyde said...

That's a good question. I really don't know the answer.

The way it is now, only a big builder can show up with the money, engineering, lawyers, PR team, and stamina to get through all the hearings.

I just want one bloody modest house. I'd be willing to dig the footers, pour the foundation, fasten down the sill plate, stud up the walls, apply siding and insulation, put in the plumbing, electrical, and septic, singlehanded, if they would let me.
But the way it is for me, it's all or nothing, ever. If that is generally true, then it is no wonder we have problems.

That is extreme, but maybe if you are your own general contractor, you could get a break of some kind.

The problem is that you can't really adequately plan a development one house at a time, unless the rules are clearly understood up front. The fact that they are not is a big part of the problem now: no transparency. You should not have to need a lawyer to do business with the government.

If the rules were that your building rights were dispersed over time, I could live with that. Draw up a development plan now, and build it over time. Such a plan would necessarily be more rudimentary than the current requirements. As it stands now you have to know the location of every electric outlet before you go to the first hearing. And the staff won't give guidance, it's the bring me a rock routine. If recommendations are made for changing the plan, then it is back to the drawing board. This happened to one builder eleven times.

Spreading out over time is hard because it makes planning hard. It would have the effect of slowing growth without outright denying anything. You could just say builder beware: if you build something that screws up the drainage plan for your next lot, well, too bad. Again it is a case of transparency and consistency.

My favorite is the building lottery or auction. The locality would decide what is an acceptable growth rate - one percent 1.5 percent, whatever, and determine how many building permits that is, say its a thousand.

In the county are 20,000 technically available development rights. Each building development right would get you the option of a ticket in the lottery. The lottery is held and the 1000 winners get conditional building permits. The condition is that the other technical requiremnts still have to be met. You can then sell the building permit to the highest bidder. Since you have not used your development right, you can enter the lottery again next year.

The only interested bidders would be those with development rights they wish to use. If a developer wanted to increase density, he could offer to buy your building permit and your development right.

This would be fair, equitable, market based, and it would provide (at least the chance for) much needed cash flow to those who do not use their development rights. At the same time it would spread out the building to avoid enormous infrastructure costs.

The county could take a commission for running the lottery. Those that won building rights and are opposed to development need not enter. Everybody wins.

Like I said, I don't know the answer.

At 9:40 AM, Blogger Jim Wamsley said...

Ray hyde addressed the large lot problem with -

“About the only thing you can say for mandatory large lots is that they are good for the deer.
…Mandatory large lots kill the original owner, then later they get subdivided, and the second or third owner makes a killing. Wouldn't it be better to let the farmer build and sell off a small lot occasionally? Put a time limit on it and spread the growth out. Under that scenario half of my farm will still be here in a hundred years, if I call in a developer - it’s gone.”

This is true if you want a deer population that exceeds the food supply. The question he did not answer is when half a farm stops being a farm. Farms require their own support system, and when too many farms become half a farm, the local farm supply store becomes a garden center.

The big infrastructure demands, big borrowing, and big tax increases are hidden by the half a farm technique. Taxpayers find themselves in the frog in the pot situation. The normal way out is to sell the other half of a farm to the developer and everyone ends up with high taxes, just a generation later. Some of us are in the generation later phase.

The way around this is to accept another of ray hyde’s statements – “The market for large lots is not the same as the market for densely constructed housing. Try explaining that to Ed, who insists that high urban prices show that this is what "the market" wants. There are many markets.”

I accept the segmented market. I don’t accept a transportation investment scheme that only supports one segment. If you look at the segments as a life cycle you find single, couple, family, empty nest, retired, and senior. This is matched by a transportation investment system that concentrates on families with the high investment in serving SPRAWL development. A balanced system would allocate a major portion of the investment to transit systems that allow the high density transit oriented development that is favored by many in the other market segments.

We also need an answer to the other question. How do we reward the farmer who planed to use the pasture along the road as his retirement investment fund? If we insist that farm land remain farm land, he joins the folks that invested in Enron stock.

At 10:52 AM, Blogger Ray Hyde said...

Jim: Thank you, I think at least someone understands the problem.

(My comment on the deer was partly sarcasm)

More and more I see myself being the guy who is having the enron rettirement plan pushed on me by friendly officials who want to "save" the farm. I see it a little differently. If they want to put me in the beautification and environmental and the make-other-properties-worth-more business, that's OK with me, but I can't be expected to do it for nothing, forever.

At least if I build one home every tenyears or so the costs are spread out over time. Eventually the farm business may change enough that it is worthwhile, but as it stands now we have far too many farms for them to be profitable as farms. If we are going to have them, there will have to be another way.

Even if you go the large lot route, which I think is a huge mistake, there is a limited market for $5 million dollar homes.

I agree with the people that say we have to save these farms. In Fauquier the argument for thirty years has been that saving farms keeps our taxes low because farms pay more in taxes than they get in services. But the result this assessment period was a doubling in assessments and a probable 50% increas in tax payments. Soon you won't be able to afford to live here OR pay the taxes.

If you want to save the farms, the first thing to do is put their taxes in line with the services they require. That would necessarily shift the burden more equitably to ordinary households that are now subsididized by the farms. In other words, those that want to save the farms would have to pay more of the price, and those that own the farms would have more money to save them with.

At 11:06 AM, Blogger Ray Hyde said...

Larry: If I were permitted to build a modest rental house somewhere on the farm that I can't farm anyway, it would triple the farms income. If I put up a horse stable for the tenant, I'd ensure a market for my product, and for all the other horse product suppliers.

I'd be ahead of the curve for another twelve years or so, until the assesments double again.

Some teacher or Trooper who might otherwise have to commute from outside the county wold be able to live here instead.

That's the benefit, of such a home in the woods. Bacon is right. We need to expand the possibilites, not restrict them.

At 10:56 AM, Blogger Toomanytaxes said...

Do we need at least two different sets of laws to govern zoning in Virginia? Does it make sense to have the same standards in Fairfax County as in Warren County?

What are the societal benefits from, and costs for, development in different parts of the state? Would it be fair to landowners, developers, taxpayers to treat different locations differently based on their current state of development?

It would be beneficial for these types of questions to begin to be aired publicly. We are more likely to develop a reasonable solution with openness than by trying to keep things bottled up. The latter is more likely to result in Oregon-like rules after he 2007 elections.


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