I offer a simple question: “Who should provide the most input to determine Henrico County's next 20 years: The planners or the affected businesses and citizens?” 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. The 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 develop a comprehensive plan for the year 2026. State law requires Virginia counties to update such plans every five years to accommodate for future growth.
A series of hearings was held last May, and residents were invited to look at the maps with the proposed changes in land use 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-by-5-inch cards to fill out with comments and questions to deposit in a box on the way out. There was no presentation of Henrico's thinking or opportunity for pubic discussion or debate about the new colors on the maps.
For example, one large change involved more than 2,000 acres of prime farmland on the James River — it was slated to be converted from open green space to a zoning of suburban residential, an obvious signal that the large landowner was ready to sell out and convert his farmland to housing for big bucks.
Concerned that this kind of so-called input by a scattering of influential Henrico people did not adequately reflect the real feelings of the residents, a few activists from the eastern and rural end of the county requested their supervisor hold a series of true public hearings on the proposed 2026 land-use plan.
The first and only meeting was held Sept. 15 and, lo and behold, more than 230 people signed in, with more than half sitting through the entire evening, from 7 until after 10:30. After hearing a long dissertation about what a land use plan is supposed to be, we were divided into 17 small groups of a half-dozen or so 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 back to the entire gathering.
What was amazing was that more than half of these 17 groups listed the need for Henrico to initiate a plan in order to help preserve Henrico's open spaces of farms and forests. The plan is known as a purchase of development rights, in which the local government purchases the rights to develop the property in exchange for the owners placing a conservation easement on the property. The state has $4.75 million in incentives set aside, of which $400,000 is available to Henrico to do just that. Some 21 similar programs already exist in Virginia, and 17 of these are at least partially locally funded.
No sooner were the findings of the focus groups revealed than those conducting the meeting warned that a purchase of development rights program would never happen in Henrico because of its imagined costs and opposition by the other four supervisors whose districts are almost fully developed.
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.” It also costs the typical Virginia county about $1.40 in services for every $1 in residential property taxes, according to a study by the Piedmont Environmental Council in Warrenton, but open space costs very little in services.
So at what cost does the county ignore its residents?
Between 1990 and 2006 Henrico lost more than 16 percent of its residential farms and forests — land that planners typically label “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?
Next door in Hanover County, the net cost of development hits home with elected officials, where they embrace conservation easements as a tool for fiscal conservatism. Ditto in Mathews County, where the Planning Commission chairman once commented, “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 of Oregon, I was able to spend some time with the planners in Portland, a city of half a million, known for its forward-looking planning and anti-sprawl sentiment.
Somehow, its residents and the planners have been able to cultivate a democratic regionalism with strong public involvement in both grass-roots environmentalism and neighborhood conservation. Small waterways, wetlands and natural spaces in the Portland region 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. As a result, Portland, as both a city and metropolitan region, has earned a reputation as the capital of good planning.
David Rusk in his book, “Inside Game/Outside Game,” observes: “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. S
Charlie Finley, a Varina resident, is former executive vice president of the Virginia Forestry Association and chairs the Varina Beautification Committee.
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