Monday, June 18, 2012

The Courts Revisited

To date council has been exclusively focused on meeting the perceived needs of the courts in moving forward with the new courthouse. As with any decision there should have been consideration of other factor such as the building and operational costs and how they impact other city priorities, service, and city residents. In the case of the new courthouse there are issues of compatibility with the historic downtown and whether it will be a 21st century courthouse. It’s time to refocus on the big picture.

 The issue of cost has in part been decided when the council approved the sales of $36 million in bonds for the project. Some of these funds have now been spent to purchase property, to renovate space at the Executive Plaza for the Juvenile Domestic Relations Court (JDR), and demolition has commenced on the old JDR site for the new courthouse.  What remains to be decided is the size and scope of the project.  In making these decisions it will be important to look beyond just court needs.

This budget year the actual cost to the city for courts and jails is $7.2 million dollars. Next year the debt service on the courts will go up almost $1 million as the first payment is made that covers the debt principle. Operational cost of the court facility will go up. The amount of increase in building operations, maintenance, and personnel has yet to be considered. In recent conversations with state representative we know that the city cannot expect additional funding for either court construction or operational costs now and into the foreseeable future.

Fredericksburg already has the highest per capita cost for court operations for a city of our size. With no assistance forthcoming from the state, and no new local funds available, city residence will have to bear the cost. With plans to expand court facilities even further in the future we must consider whether the city can continue to bear this cost when you consider other priorities such as education, public safety, and the financial burden on city residents.

If Fredericksburg is looking at future courtroom expansion it should be expected that our two neighbors in the 15th Judicial District, which each currently have five time the city’s population and growing at a greater rate, are facing the same situation.  Understanding this dynamic discussion on the court project should be limited to short term needs. Meeting long-term court needs should be a regional discussion. So what should the city build now?

If completed as currently proposed we are looking at constructing a temporary JDR court, building four full sized court rooms each for the Circuit and District Courts. And finally the current General District court will be renovated as the new JDR court. The Renwick Courthouse will be left vacant. No new parking is included to support the new courthouse. The factors that drove this plan were case loads and the state Guidelines for New Court Construction. How valid are these factors?

The caseload projections used by the city show a continual increase in case loads looking as far out as 2030. It is acknowledged that projections beyond 5-years become less reliable due to the number of variables involved. Going out over 10 years becomes more a guess than a projection. In a June 2011 Government Accounting Office (GAO) report on surplus court space in the federal system one of the causes given was, “inaccurate caseload projections.”  It should also be understood that the projections for the city are being driven by regional growth. Fredericksburg is no longer the economic hub of the region which would call into question any long-term projections.

The GAO report is part of an almost decade long effort by the federal government to reduce court construction and operational costs. They are looking at shared court rooms, and reevaluating space needs in light of technological improvements.  In the current plan for the courts these options have not been considered.

In looking at the plans for two other court facilities in Virginia going back a number of years there are no significant change when compared to the court plans for Fredericksburg. They are all based on the standardized state Courthouse Construction Guidelines. Saving space by digitizing records or recognizing the move towards a paperless court system, or other options that are being implemented at the federal level, have not been considered.

Another consideration is when, and if, additional judges will be appointed by Richmond to fill the courtrooms currently planned. Right now the judges spend at least one day at other courts in the district. This is a question that needs to be addressed as part of the planning process.

While there seems to be agreement to reevaluate space usage there is some hesitance based on perceived opposition from judges and getting too far ahead of the courts in implementing the needed procedural changes that allows for maximum use of technology. We can ensure the courts are prepared for these changes or the city will be faced with costly retro-fits.  Right now the contract is rather vague on the level of technology to be installed.

Another factor yet to be discussed is the impact of this project on the city’s downtown.  The historic small town atmosphere of downtown is something our neighbor’s do not have  and ensuring a good visitor experience is extremely important as the region n continues to grow and the city’s role as regional economic hub diminishes.

The current design is 50+ feet in height, built to the sidewalks. It will be the largest building downtown. There is no room for any public space which is part of other court facilities through-out the state. The finishes of the structure will be castings and there will be very little variations in the structure. It will essentially be a brick box.  To be completed as planned will call for Special Use Permits and even Special Exceptions.

The Architectural Review Board (ARB) criticized the city for presenting them with no other option than what was presented understanding that council would overrule them if the scale and massing was not approved.   At its last meeting the ARB discussed rescinding its vote on the scale and massing. The Certificate of Appropriateness needed for the project has not been provided due to issues with the materials being used and with the lack of public space.

The current design is too big for the site. If we accept the projected court needs and space requirements, and want to achieve the original goal of consolidating court facilities it needs to be built elsewhere. In addition to size there is another issue which has been ignored and that is the projects impact on downtown parking.

The city’s incentives program is credited with bringing businesses downtown that are going to attract more visitors.  A recent survey of shop owners and downtown visitors ranked parking as one of the top four issues to be addressed to ensure a successful downtown. As we move forward with riverfront improvements more parking could be eliminated. So how do new court facilities impact downtown parking?

Between 415 and 434 parking spaces will be needed to support the new court facilities. To meet this need the plan is to continue to use off-street parking—242 spaces, and augment it by taking up  to 192 spaces in the parking garage.  As caseloads increase, the already limited parking options in the city will continue to worsen to the detriment of the downtown economy.

·         Understanding all the factors surrounding the courts project the following modifications should be considered:

·         Remove renovations for the General District Court (GDR) from the proposal.  The JDR court can stay in the Executive Plaza for the foreseeable future or use one of the court rooms in the new facility.

·         Reduce the number of court rooms in the new facility to no more than three.  Also reevaluate space usages with the stakeholders, looking to take advantage of technology and procedural changes being contemplated in the court system.

·         With savings from the elimination of the GDR renovations look to the possibility of addressing parking, renovations of the Renwick courthouse, excluded in the current plan, to include continuing its court function, or using them to pay down debt.

·         Begin discussions with neighboring jurisdictions to look at a regional approach to meet future court needs.

A number of issues remain that need to be addressed regarding the current courthouse proposal. And when addressed we can proceed with building a courthouse on the chosen site which compliments both the needs of the courts and the city.  And as it will be city residents who will bear the financial burden of this project they should be part of this discussion and kept informed of the deliberations.   

Do we proceed with the plan currently before us or do we revise it?

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Transportation--Where Do We Go From Here?

IN A RECENT op-ed by David Ross of the Spotsylvania County Board of Supervisors about the proposed regional toll road, he presented a one-sided view of the project and did not consider the realities that we face in dealing with transportation. He also failed to acknowledge recent planning efforts to address the region's long-term needs in the face of these realities. Disagreement is to be expected. But it is essential that an accurate picture of regional transportation planning be provided and projects placed in their proper context.
The Fredericksburg Area Metropolitan Planning Organization, which is responsible for regional transportation planning, has, in conjunction with VDOT and the Federal Highway Administration, evaluated transportation needs and options: from the outer connector, to the Interstate 95 corridor from Stafford through Spotsylvania, to traffic light signals and turn lanes. FAMPO is required to have a regional transportation plan looking 30 years ahead, and to periodically update it. Transportation planning is an ongoing process.

It should be understood that we must focus on future growth and not just short-term fixes. Light synchronization and a few miles of new lanes on State Route 3 are not going be enough to handle traffic demands. We must also recognize that building or altering a road has an impact on those that surround them. We must adopt a comprehensive approach to transportation.

C'MON, BE REALISTIC

It is imperative that we be realistic in our approach. The main concern of the FHWA, which has the final say on all improvements to I-95, is maintaining traffic flow. Proposing an off-ramp from I-95 just to serve a narrow jurisdictional need will not be considered.

Whether it's a new interchange or an off-ramp, or even the widening a street, obtaining the necessary right of way will be necessary. If eminent domain is not considered, then we need to rethink any new roads or road improvements. One factor in choosing the current toll road option was that it had the least impact on existing housing and development than any of the other outer-connector proposals.

As for cost, all the proposals considered to date involving a bypass from I-95 exceed the cost of the current toll road proposal. The $300 million cost that has been attributed to the toll road also includes improvements at the U.S. 17 interchange and along I-95 to the proposed interchange, including new bridges over the Rappahannock.

There is an economic development component to be considered in transportation planning. The toll road project provides access to the Celebrate Virginia development. It will also divert residential traffic around one of Spotsylvania County's commercial corridors and will help to alleviate congestion on Route 17 in Stafford, one of the county's commercial corridors. It will also alleviate congestion on I-95, making it easier for tourists to travel here. We need to increase jobs and local business opportunities so that we can provide revenue for schools, public safety, and transportation, without increasing the tax burden for our residents.

And, while we may have a transportation plan, funding is required to implement it. The reality is that this region can expect only a third of the funding from traditional sources. We must look at other sources, such as toll roads, to keep pace with development and to make up for a significant shortfall.

TRANSIT OPTIONS

FAMPO has not only looked at alternate funding plans but also has moved away from jurisdictional self-interest and prioritized a transportation project based on safety, congestion mitigation, and cost/benefit analysis to ensure that the investment of traditional funding has the maximum impact. Part of its most recent transportation plan is a review of transit options. This will require re-thinking how our region will develop. To this end FAMPO has embarked on a regional scenario looking at how changing development patterns could foster transit and reduce our long-term transportation costs.

Contrary to what some may think, FAMPO has over the past few years invited community involvement in the process, with focus groups, surveys, inserts in The Free Lance-Star, news stories, radio interviews, and meetings with civic groups to explain the transportation plan and process. FAMPO has a public participation plan that can be viewed on its website. Meetings are open to the public and attendees are invited to speak. Every project involves multiple public hearings.

To ensure an adequate transportation system we cannot limit our focus to a single jurisdiction or project. This is a regional issue. By 2035, this region has been predicted to double in population. Traditional funding needed to adequately support this growth is not there. Debate on how to achieve our transportation goals is inevitable and necessary. But for honest debate viable alternatives must be proposed. Supervisor Ross has not brought one forward.

Recognizing reality and working together is essential to meeting our transportation needs. Playing politics with this issue will endanger the economic well-being and the quality of life of our region.

Do you believe that this region will meet its transportation goals?

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Public Involvement--More or Less?

While some see an engaged public as an  important component of local governance; others believe that it can go too far becoming an impediment to progress. Fredericksburg has experienced significant public involvement in local government.   From the rezoning of Celebrate Virginia to incentives for Kalahari city residents have actively engaged in the decision- making process.  While the city still faces many challenges, some believe that public involvement has declined.  How should this decline be viewed? How involved should the public be in their local government? And how should, local government respond to the public? 
     
Over the past few weeks I have been in contact with a number of residents who have been involved in city issues to get their take on public involvement in the city. The vast majority agree that public participation in local government has declined. The main reason given was, "what's the use... it's a done deal."  Another  point made more than once  was," Some cannot afford the luxury to spend time to be knowledgeable and outspoken on issues and have to work extra/spend more time making ends meet." Other contributing factors put forward were a lack of information made available by the city;  and a  failure of the local press to  be," willing to do the work to present both sides."

 Based on discussions with city staff, and statements made by members of the City Council, they would take issue with the position that they are responsible  for a decline in public participation.  They note that the city adheres to opening meeting laws and  residents have access to minutes and documents on line. Those with questions can contact the appropriate staff. However, is meeting the requirements of  open meeting laws enough? 

 Meeting the letter of the open meeting laws is a rather passive approach  leaving it up to residents to attend meetings and  do their own research.  It  also requires a working understanding of  such things as zoning law and city/state ordinances.  But its greatest short- coming is that it's not a very effective way of informing the public at large. These shortcomings of meeting  the letter of the  law on open meeting laws was highlighted by an individual who responded to my e-mail inquiry on public participation in regard to the courts.

 The Council has held a public hearing  on the courts (albeit limited to which court complex to build), has posted  the proposals on line  and set up an e-mail address for public comments. As far as the city is concerned it has met its duty to the public. Some would disagree:

 " When the court bids came in, I was very much looking forward to participating, including plans to read through each of the bids (no trivial task), evaluate them as best I could, and provide meaningful feedback to the decision makers in the process.

 Then the city hired an outside firm to study the bids, and kept their report out of the public domain. They used the information in that report to help them narrow the field.
     
I felt like a stooge. My attitude immediately changed, and here's why: Why should I spend ANY time evaluating bids that were going to be tossed out based on criteria that were kept secret? I don't have a problem with using professionals to evaluate bids. It's probably even wise. But when you keep those results secret from me, I can't evaluate the validity of the report."

Add to this the fact that comments to the e-mail address are not acknowledged.  That  City Council is not informing the public of their positions on the issues,  voting without comment, and referring questions to staff seems to justify the  perception of many who say, "what's the use," in getting involved, "it's a done deal." 
It has been intimated by some that  too much public involvement is counterproductive.  Such participation delays the decision making process and creates a chaotic atmosphere that puts the city in a bad light. Their view is we elect a City Council to make  decisions.

One  example  brought forward to support this view  was the construction of the downtown hotel. Sometimes referred to  as the, "Third Battle of Fredericksburg." this issue was hotly debated.  At times it looked like there would be no hotel and some felt  that the debate would negatively impact future economic development opportunities.  In the end,  instead of a cookie -cutter hotel  the city now has a successful one that fits the downtown character  and is an industry  model.
What those who see such a process as time-consuming and chaotic fail to recognize that by encouraging public involvement different perspectives are presented, suppositions are tested, and  other alternatives are bought forward.  Just as important,  addressing public comments, questions, and concerns builds community support.  An assumption is also made that if he public does not come forward on an issue it means they support it.  This assumption is both baseless, and more importantly, irrelevant.

Local  government is here to serve the needs of the community which also provides the money to meet those needs. In that regard they have a vested interest in local government and should expect  their views to be considered and be  well informed  of the actions being taken on their behalf.  Meeting this obligation calls for more than only doing what is required by law. So what should be expected?
Right now  city staff is  not only called upon to field comments and questions from the public  but  is also called upon by the City Council to explain the city's actions to the public. While staff has always been accommodating to resident inquires their primary function is running the city.  The job of informing the public, and encouraging their participation,  should rest with the City Council.

Issues need to be discussed outside  of council chambers. Council members should engage the public through  neighborhood meetings, writing OpEds, giving interviews, and using  the internet.  Such efforts need to occur well before public hearings and/or votes to insured that the public is familiar with all aspects and options related to the issue at hand. While the public should not expect council members to share their view on an issue  but they should expect their questions answered, suggestions considered, and concerns addressed.
The local press needs to be an active participant in this effort by  providing background, cover differing views, and report council members positions. Also to provide Council the opportunity to write OpEds on the issues of the day. The shared goal of the council and the press should be to ensure the  public has the information necessary to engage in the discussion.

The public should also be viewed as a resource to assist in the decision-making process.   By taking pro-active steps to ensure a well-informed public the city will benefit  from an informed debate on the issues facing the city.  The city has had some success with establishing committees of residents with expertise on an issue, an interest in the issue, and/or  who have divergent views on an issue, to build consensus and ensure that all options were considered.
The view From City Hall is that they are doing what is required to inform the public. This  is tantamount to saying public involvement is something to be dealt with not embraced.  This attitude, in part, has contributed to the decline of public participation. The result is a wealth of knowledge, new ideas, and different perspectives not being considered or utilized. At a  time when the city is facing many challenges we can use all the help we can get.  And there needs to be a realization  of who the boss is--The public.

Shoul public involvement be viewed as a help or a hinderance  to local governance?    

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Oversized Housing--Where Are We?

Addition 8/1/2011: Thanks to a more observant individual I have included a link to the attachment, including the Clarion report on the changes, which was presented at the Council's 1/25/2011 work session.  Provides a bit more detail. Don't believe it alters the point of the blog post but I shall leave that final determination up to the reader.

In 2007 responding to resident concerns about the building of oversized houses,  "McMansions;" which were seen to detract from the character of established neighborhoods, City Council began to look at tightening zoning regulations to deal with this issue.   Almost four years later Council, at its last meeting,  voted, without comment, on first read to make those changes.  What has occurred, or not occurred, in getting to this point is of interest on a number of levels.  Beyond the obvious (property rights) other aspects to consider are the interaction between City Council and the public, the continuity of the process, the use of consultants, and making other changes not related to the original intent of the effort.  We will touch on these points as we follow the process from the beginning.

The issue of out-of-scale housing came out of the City's Comprehensive Plan review process.  The plan, which was approved in late 2007, was the culmination of an effort by the city to actively engage the public in the review process -- a novel approach in comparison with prior reviews which had only involved city staff. Public input brought the issue of oversized housing to the fore. In response City Council asked the Planning Commission, without specific recommendations, to come up with zoning changes to deal with it.

Working with staff the Planning Commission submitted a proposal to City Council in February 2008. The highlights were outlined in a February 23, 2008 story in the Free-Lance Star (FLS):

In residential districts, the maximum allowed height of a house would go from 35 feet (or 40 in the R-8 district) to 27 feet. In commercial-transitional districts, the height limit would be set at 27 feet for single-family homes, and 40 feet for all other structures.

A building footprint would not be allowed to cover more than 30 percent of its lot. Front porches and uncovered decks don't count as part of that footprint. For lots less than 40 feet wide, the maximum lot coverage would be 40 percent.

New homes would have to be oriented on their properties similarly to those around them.
Property owners would have to seek a special-use permit to build something that doesn't fit within these guidelines.

The FLS story covered the issues which lead up to the effort to deal with oversized homes and included comments from both sides of the issue. The story also came out well in advance of the Public Hearing before City Council giving the public an opportunity to weigh in on the proposed changes and to be prepared for the upcoming hearing.

This is how the local government process should work. The city actively engaging the public to define an issue -- information presented to the public to both familiarize them with both the details and differing views on the issue well in advance of any action being taken. Unfortunately, this was the last time the public was going to be engaged in this process.

What was lacking at this point was any clear policy direction from City Council. While some members of Council, myself included, felt the recommended changes were a good balance between property rights and dealing with oversized homes, a minority of members expressed reservations that the recommendations  didn't go far enough.

As pointed out in an FLS story some members of Council felt, " the proposed height limit would still allow new homes or additions in some neighborhoods to be significantly taller than their neighbors," and why couldn't we, "craft an ordinance that put new construction in perspective with what's around it, instead of setting one rule for every neighborhood in a particular zoning category." But no specifics were provided. And no specific direction was given to the Planning Commission by the Council.

When the Council has policy differences on an issue that directly affects a large segment of the public there should be a discussion before the public to both inform, solicit feedback, and make a case for a particular policy. This did not happen in the case of the Planning Commissions' 2008 recommendations and, as we shall see, it has not happened in regard to the latest changes being considered by Council.

Those who spoke at the public hearing either took the position that the proposed changes were an infringement on the rights of property owners to develop their property  or supported the ordinance changes.  No significant changes or alternate proposals were proposed by the public or City Council.  Council took no action sending the proposed changes back to the Planning Commission without any instructions to either modify or change what they had proposed.

The issue would not come up again until August when a joint meeting between the Council and Planning Commission took place to discuss the next step. Again  general reservations were expressed by some Council members  that the proposed changes didn't go far enough but, " council members seemed OK with bringing the Planning Commission's original proposal back up for a vote." The proposed changes were to be brought back up the following month.  They did not come back to Council until February 2010 and that was only due to an e-mail inquiry received from the press.

On February 2, 2010 I received the  following e-mail from Emily Battle of the Free Lance Star:

"The last time I see this ordinance on the public schedule is August 2008, when the council had a work session with the planning commission about it. It was said at that point that it would come up on the agenda the next month, but from what I can tell it just dropped off the face of the earth after that. If you can think of a more recent time it came up, let me know, I've been looking through the agendas."

I didn't have an explanation as to why the proposed changes to deal with oversized housing, "just dropped off the face of the earth;" but I did  have staff added it to the agenda for a public hearing in February. While most of the public comment was supportive of the changes on this ocassion, some Council members still wanted, " to explore different kinds of zoning tools that could take existing home sizes into consideration in specific areas of town."

At this point It should be pointed out that the concern expressed regarding, "taking existing  home size into consideration,"  was addressed in the Planning Commission recommendations. Below is the wording taken from the proposed ordinance:

"A Special Use Permit may be approved by City Council, in accordance with Division 31,  that permits the principle structure to exceed the 27 foot height limit and/or the maximum allowed lot coverage, so long as the City Council determines that the proposed structure will be compatible to the existing structures located in the established block in which it is to be located, in terms of mass, scale and height, and will not have an adverse effect on the neighborhood in which it is to be located."

This change would allow houses to be built, irrespective of zoning regulations, if the home conformed to the houses in the existing neighborhood. This change acknowledged the differences between city neighborhoods.

A motion was made to pass the ordinances as drafted but failed for a lack of a second. Instead, per the Council Minutes, " Councilor Solley made a motion to revisit the setbacks by themselves at the March 9 meeting and a review of the overall ordinance by a committee to include Planning department, Planning Commission, City Attorney and a council member; motion was seconded by Vice-Mayor Devine." A request to at least put a time line for the committee to report back to Council was ignored.

This vote marked the end of the  Planning Commissions' 2008 recommended changes.  What comes next is the hiring of a consulting firm, a different approach to the oversized housing issue and the inclusion of commercial development in neighborhoods.  It also marks the end of any public involvement or information on the process beyond the required public hearing notices.

Emily Battle's blog post of  February 23, 2010 would be the  last  story on this issue until the FLS story on July 18, 2011 announcing the first read on the new zoning changes. Even a review of both City Council and Planning Commission minutes provide little insight  into the process Council followed or the basis for the current ordinance changes.   For those who don't visit the City website on a regular basis here are the latest recommended changes:

For properties that are located within the 100-year regulatory floodplain, structure height shall be measured from existing grade.

Maximum building height for single-family residential is 35ft.

No off-street parking is required for residential infill  lots.

For sites of record on or before April 25, 1984, or sites in developed areas where a pattern of building height has already been established by existing residential dwellings, the maximum building height of 35 feet for single family dwellings shall be reduced by a percentage that corresponds to the ratio of the actual lot area to the minimum lot area for the district. The formula for calculating the maximum building heights for structures on such lots shall be as follows: Size of lot (in square feet) divided by standard minimum lot size (8,400 square feet) multiplied by the standard height of 35 feet equals the new maximum height. In no case shall the new maximum height be set lower than 25 feet.

Whenever the residential building on a lot equal to or larger than the minimum lot size covers more than 20% of the total lot area, the side setbacks shall be no less than 10 feet.

Specific commercial uses to be allowed in neighborhoods by Special Use Permit that meet specific guidelines.

These latest changes were drafted by Clarion Associates of Colorado, LLC. This firm has provided consulting services on planning issues in the past.  The contract, signed on July 20, 2010, at a cost of $18,000.00, was to provide the following services:

This scope of services proposes a review of all residential zoning district regulations in the Zoning Ordinance, followed by recommended revisions to address the permitted mix of limited non-residential uses in single family residential districts; the allowed height and scale of houses; setback requirements; limitations on heights located within the 100 year floodplain; and off-street parking requirements for infill parcels particularly where established neighborhoods do not have or have very little existing off-street parking. 

The contract provides for a presentation to Council during a work session but no public presentations.

It has been confirmed with  City Planning staff that the request for outside services was not the result of Council action. In reviewing the Planning Commission minutes from March through July of 2010 there is no mention of hiring outside services, nor for that matter, any discussion at all on the oversized housing issue.  As to who made the decision to hire Clarion, why was it  necessary to do so, and why was commercial development in neighborhoods added, these are questions that will have to be answered by others. In any event, this step effectively by-passed the Planning Commission.

Based on a review of the Planning Commission Minutes from April 2010  through April, 2011 their involvement in these changes was rather limited. Their  first discussion was held on March 30, 2011 as a work session on the revisions drafted by Clarion. These changes do not show up again on the Planning Commission agenda  until the public hearings held on May 11th and on June 8th. The Planning Commission seems to have gone from active participants to passive observers.

Based on a review of the minutes of the Planning Commission,  the City's planning staff's involvement in drafting the latest ordinance changes was also diminished. While one may have issue with the changes recommended by the staff and Planning Commission back in 2008, a review of the supporting documentation that accompanied those recommendations showed a good grasp of the issue and provided a thorough explanation of  the basis for the changes. From what can be found in the public domain the same cannot be said of the Clarion changes.

Trying to determine why commercial development in neighborhoods became interjected into the oversized housing issues is also hard to determine. Planning staff and a member of the Planning Commission I talked with both said that mixed-use development, to include neighborhoods, is part of the Comprehensive Plan.  But at the March 30th Planning Commission work session  staff,  "stressed that this amendment was something new, a plan to promote walk ability and sustainability. For the first time the city was opening up neighborhoods for some commercial uses." 

There are no specific recommendations in the Comprehensive Plan  regarding  commercial development in neighborhoods. One reference under Corridor Issues which calls for," Achieve mixed-use development patterns as redevelopment occurs within Fredericksburg’s designated corridors, blending retail, office, and residential uses."  Under Neighborhood Issues the plan calls for preserving the character of existing neighborhoods.   Both the Planning Commission and City Council expressed concerns about this change in their respective work sessions but neither body pushed the issue or express their concerns outside the confines of the meetings..

There are pros and cons on allowing the possibility of limited commercial development  in neighborhoods.  However, the City's past experiences with this issue has not gone smoothly  As a Council member I dealt on a number of occasions with neighborhood concerns about commercial encroachment. This issue has been the basis for litigation.

In 2007-08 there was public input to deal with oversized houses.  Now an issue, commercial development in neighborhoods,  is being considered  without a public input. It is also unfortunate that the City was not more forthcoming in the Public Hearing notices which only mentioned, "expanding uses permitted by Special Use Permit." There is no mention of commercial development.  This change has nothing to do with the issue of oversized houses and there is no deadline looming that requires immediate action.  The issue of commercial development in neighborhoods  should be pulled and dealt with as a separate issue.

As for  changes related to oversized housing a Council member that was not involved in this issue in 2008 stated that at the one work session held on this issue on January 25th  that they were not made aware of the original Planning Commission proposals. One would expect that Council members would have at least compared the two proposals, and why one addressed the issue better than the other.  When a decision is being made like this that affects residents' property rights one would expect a similar presentation to the public. But this has not been the case. Even when  Council voted to approve the latest changes they did so without comment. An additional and troubling question is raised:  where has the public been?

Some would say that because no one has spoken at the scheduled public hearings that there is obvious support for these changes and no explanation is necessary.  I would again point out that since February 2008 there have been no stories, OpEds,  or interviews on this topic. No effort has been made to educate the public on the latest changes beyond posting changes on the city website and the obligatory public hearing notices which are not always  easy to understand or read in small print:

Ordinance 11-__, First Read, Addressing the Issue of Out-Of-Scale Houses in the R-4 and R-8 Zoning Districts; Removing the Requirement for Off-Street Parking for New Residences on Infill Lots; Expanding the Uses Permitted by Special Use Permit in the R-4 and R-8 Zoning Districts; and Amending the Definition of Building Height for Buildings in the 100-Year Floodplain; by Amending City Code Chapter 78, “Zoning, Planning and Development,” Article III, “Zoning,” Sections 78-1, 78-112, 78-242, 78-245, 78-273 and 78-276

Even if you go to the city website, check City Council and Planning Commission agendas and minutes you will find very little information, or  explanation, of the ordinance changes passed by Council.

I asked some of the people who spoke on  the 2008 Planning Commission proposals why they did not attend the Public Hearings on the latest zoning changes.  Most said that they were unaware of the hearings.  One person  said that while he also missed the notices he stated, "why bother?"  

Not all expenditures, or decisions to hire outside consultants, require Council approval. The city has met all legal requirements regarding advertising and holding public hearings.  The process followed by the city in dealing  with oversized houses, for the most part is probably typical of how such issues are dealt with by local governments.  The question is whether, only doing what is required is enough?

Because an issue such as ordinance changes to deal with oversized housing  impacts most every property owner in the city, should we expect more from City Council than only doing what is required?  Or should they be doing what is necessary to inform the public solicit their input, answer their questions and address their concerns? In regard to the latest ordinance  changes Council decided to only do what was required . Council needs to explain the process they followed, why  hiring a consultant was necessary, and the rationale for choosing one set of changes over the other before they take the final vote.

How far should local government go to infom the public?

Friday, May 20, 2011

Numbers Not Content Is What Counts

As a member of City Council I made some decisions that did not receive universal acclaim. But in leading up to those decisions I laid out my position in OpEds, news interviews, and on-line. I answered questions and addressed comments no matter if the person involved lived in the city or not. If the question or comment had merit it is immaterial where it came from. As far as I was concerned it was part of my job description. In reading the FLS editorial Courts Forward (Link upper left), I learned I was wrong.

I cannot expect Council to see things as I do and recognize the current shape of the economy and the impacts of a new courts facility on city taxpayers, services, other city priorities, and slow down. What I believe should be expected is that Council would explain their positions, acknowledge what the impacts there will be on the city moving forward with this project, and address comments and questions. And, also to ensure that if they move forward that we get the best return on investment. But again, because only a few people have voiced this view it is irrelevant in the eyes of the media and Council. So what should we expect? Here is the answer provided in the FLS editorial--

"So at least let the sleeper behold a truly handsome and fully functional new courthouse facility. The worst outcome would be a civic sacrifice of finances and opportunities that brought forth a mediocre product."

And what about obligations to the public?

"The council should have invited public input earlier in the selection process, before the embryos were fully formed, and it has played some of its deliberations too close to the vest. Yet attempts by foes of a full-scale courts project--e.g., former Councilman Matt Kelly--to galvanize the citizenry have made little headway."

So, relevancy is based on numbers, informing the public is not a requirement, silence is assent, and if anything goes wrong it will be the fault of city residents. Again speaking for the minority I take issue with this line of thinking. Always thought that through public debate and discussion the best solutions come forward.

So what next? There are still many unanswered questions. Let's take a look at some recent questions submitted to the FLS and get your thoughts on whether they are irrelevant. First to the newsroom--

"There is are some underling questions behind the request for the referendum which I would suggest be asked of Council members. Do they believe that a single public hearing, in what they describe as at least a five year process (beginning with the Mosley study), which was advertised as a discussion on which court facility to build, is sufficient to gage public support for building new court facilities? Do they believe, and I've enclosed the quotes for the FLS I referred to in my presentation, that they took adequate steps to inform the public throughout this process? Can the public expect any further hearing to address the comments and concerns expressed Tuesday night or is one public hearing all that will be provided? Just a suggestion."

To the Editorial Board--

Rob copied me on what he sent on to you. A few points should be made for context:

1. Rob is not the only one with a background in this area which has questioned the scope of the proposals submitted. During the public hearing the project manager for the Spotsy courthouse spoke. He is quoted in the alternative news source as follows: "David Breedon, both a city resident and the project manager for the new $20 million Spotsylvania Courthouse said that the scale of the proposed new city court facilities were too large."

2. Another interesting statement made by Commonwealth Attorney LaBravia Jenkins was that she had never been consulted on the court plans. In talking to some of the proposers they explained that as part of the RFP they were not allowed to talk with anyone involved with the courts.

3. In relation to #2, it was pointed out (I picked this up in a discussion with Hap Connors who was involved in Fed court construction when he was with GSA) that a needs/space assessment was never done. Not even by Mosley when putting their report together in 2006. This process involves on-site inspections and interviews with the people who work in the courts, or use them, to see how things are done and how space is actually used. From this changes can be made in procedures as well as changes noted by Rob in better utilizing space.

4. None of the proposers covered technology in their proposals, as noted by Rob, which present both advantages and challenges. This is a key factor in designing a 21st century courthouse.
5. One would hope that the issues highlighted by Rob were brought up in the Council's closed session. If they were then the question is again why was the info held from the public. If not there is still a lot of work to be done.

6. I agree with Rob that the proposals submitted were done in good faith but when they only have the Mosley report to go by they did the best they could. But under the time line, the open-ended site selection, and rules of the RFP we got what we asked for--"cookie-cutter" proposals which do not deal with the real issues at hand.

7. None of the proposals deal with the parking issue. If, as we are being told, that caseloads are skyrocketing then additional parking is going to be necessary unless we plan on shutting out shoppers and visitors during the week. When discussing the post office site it was made clear that at some point another parking deck would be required just to service the courts.

I still believe that this is not the time to take on a project of this magnitude. I also do not believe this project and its impacts have been adequately explained nor the public given the opportunity to comment. Thought due to the lack of information coming from the city it is difficult to be in a position to comment. Most people I've talked to about this project begin their comments with, "I don't understand....." However, if the Council majority is set to move forward then we should make sure we are getting what we need and not just rushing forward to build something. Right now we seem poised to build a larger than necessary facility based on 20th century technology and thinking. At a minimum Council should not take any further action go back and take the proper steps to make sure we are in fact building a 21st Century courthouse.


So will these questions and comments, and all the others put forward over the past five years remain unaddressed? Should they be addressed or are we just expecting too much from our local elected officials and media?

I would like to get your thoughts.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Incentives for UMW Foundation--A Discussion

"On the incentives for the Eagle Village hotel there are some question to ask--A hotel has always been part of this project to support the university and hospital. if it was planned to be here anyway why are we providing incentives? If the incentives were not provided would the hotel go away? Doubt it. What is the hospital contributing... to this project? How many hotel rooms are currently in the area and what is the vacancy rate? How are they doing financially? Again, the intent of incentives was to actively recruit businesses that diversify the city's tax base. Are we still just taking what is offered and throwing incentives at it? What is the city's overall plan towards the future economic development of the city? Do we have one?"

"If the case is made that this incentives package meets city goals Council should also take this opportunity to get some commitment out of the university regarding their plans, and city involvement in, future land acquisitions. Land that will potentially be going off the tax rolls. Up to this point the city has not been consulted by... the university regarding land acquisitions. And the Foundation seems to have adopted a "target of opportunity" approach acquiring land without any specific plans for its use. Actual adherence to, and input from the city in, the university's long range plan should also be up for discussion. A city representative on the Board of Visitors could also be a consideration."

These two posts I made on the recent Free-Lance Star story on the Mary Washington Foundation application for incentives to build a new hotel at Eagle Village resulting in an interesting e-mail exchange in which local businessman Rodger Provo took issue with my position. The e-mails were copied to Council members, city staff, UMW President Rick Hurley, Foundation CEO Jeff Rountree, EDA members, and the press. My thanks to Councilman Howe and Foundation CEO Jeff Rountree for their input in this discussion.

Below is the e-mails thread which covers issues such as the city's use of incentives. The merits of the Hotel project. And whether the city should use this opportunity to secure commitments from the university on other issues such as future land acquisitions. It is a good discussion and while some questions put forward have been answered others have not. The question is whether these issues will be discussed, and answers to the questions forthcoming, at Tuesday night's Council meeting?

Get yourself your drink of choice, get comfortable, and let's discuss incentives for a hotel at Eagle Village...............................

Matt -

I read your posting on the Free Lance-Star about this matter. I would suggest to you this opportunity means more to the community and the university than what you appear to want to acknowledge. I seem to recall when you were in office you never took issue with such packages. Now that you are exercising your free speech rights as an activist your position appears to be different. Cheers!

Rodger

******

Well I guess there are at least two of us concerned on the direction in which we are headed, if that’s the case, because I personally agree with Matt’s analysis – for the record!

There really doesn’t seem to be any comprehensive plan embraced by both the City and UMW – just the continued real estate acquisitions of what minimal City land base we have, with the promise of spill-over taxable income in return to off-set our City services expenses.

The master plan expansion for the University places continued stress on the surrounding communities who are struggling to deal with the student population / rental issues, parking issues to provide just a couple examples, of resident complaints I have personally received.

I am equally concerned that we are enabling without a plan the demise of our historic City character into just another College town – as the University continues to expand and gain a larger foot print and a more prominent position, ultimately over shadowing who we are, as a national historical City.

I will offer an observation – case in point, the Rt. 1 UMW Eagle Village walking bridge where travelers are not greeted to the City Fredericksburg – they are greeted to the University – the walking bridge UMW Bill Board is a very clear representative of where we are headed and yet two more walking bridges are planned across City property to accompany the further expansion of the Foundation and University City land grabs.

I am deeply concerned for the City’s ability to retain its historical prominence in the ever growing expansion efforts of the University and concur that we need to address this at a higher planning and economic development level than we have done to date. There definitely needs to be a plan we can all support and embrace offering a balance between further development based on internal pressure for University expansion within the City’s limited foot print, which serves the City, UMW and our citizens - well into the future.

Respectfully,
Fred Howe

*****
I would suggest to all of you that the university is a great asset for the community. We should be grateful it has taken on the task of revitalizing a dead shopping center on Rt. 1. Yes, we do have problems resulting from the presence of UMW in the city, such as the adverse impact of student renting of single family homes in College Heights. Our energies would be better spent working with the university administration relative to that problem that hurts the quality of life of our residents and the value of their homes than getting over exercised about issues I consider to be in the margins.

Rodger Provo

*****
With the recent university land acquisitions, all the construction going on, and announced business openings at Eagle Village some explanation is necessary as to why this one project will not move forward without an incentives package from the city. Has the university/foundation financially over-extended themselves? If that is the case, is Phase II also in jeopardy? Does this also mean that the city should not see any further acquisition of property in the foreseeable future? Don't oppose the hotel concept, said so when it was first discussed, but why incentives now? What other requests can the city expect in the future? Just asking for a public explanation.

As for the issue of future land acquisitions this has been an issue for years. And frankly just, "working with the administration," has not been very productive as is the case on other issues to which Roger alluded. Based on past experience even the University's long-range plan is already suspect. If the University/Foundation are truly looking for a partnership with the city then coming to an agreement with the city in regards to a process for future land acquisitions, and establishing boundaries for future expansion, should not be an issue. The request for incentives by the University is a good time to have that conversation, before taking action, so as to establish a good and open working relationship for the future.

-Matt-

*****
Matt -

It appears to me that you and one member of City Council have a fix on certain issues concerning the university without regards to other matters more important to the community.

The reality is current hotel financial markets are difficult and, though I have no seen a budget for this proposed hotel, I think it probably needs certain considerations from the city, not unlike the massive
tax concession package you so willingly supported for the proposed Celebrate Virginia water park resort that has yet to be funded.

The university acquisitions are a driving force in revitalizing the Rt. 1 corridor that adjoins our neighborhood, College Heights. We should be thrilled with their activity at Eagle Village which has had a positive impact on the city. I think the current UMW administration will work with the city and residents about problems we need resolved and we should not slam the door on them relative to that prospect by being unreasonable relative to their request about the hotel.

It strikes me as odd that you and Mr. Howe are so exercised about this matter, given he has supported two zoning requests that adds more rental units to the city's housing inventory which we do not need. In one case, we got additional townhouses for a portion of a project primarily located in Spotsylvania County that adjoins commercial properties along Rt. 1. That land should have been packaged with the Rt. 1 property for commercial development.

I guess you and Mr. Howe's concerns about our tax base are tainted by who is involved with the property. All of this reminds me of a less productive time in the city's history when one City Council member-activist often used the the college and hospital for political purposes with unproductive attacks and criticisms.

Rodger Provo

*****
Rodger,

There are hotels that will attract new visitors to the area and spur additional development to meet city tourism goals. The primary goal of the hotel proposed by the University/Foundation is to meet a need for both the university and hospital by providing hotel rooms close to their respective facilities. For people who would be coming anyway and would normally stay at another hotel facility like the downtown Marriot. I know that Marriott had conversations with the University as a potential user for their hotel in making their decision to move forward with the project. This is not a criticism it is a reality.

It is also a reality that Eagle Village and even the proposed hotel will have a positive financial impact on the city. Don't know where you get the idea that I am opposed to the University or this specific project. As noted above it has potential impacts on similar facilities in the area. As discussed before the city needs to stop looking at projects in a fishbowl ignoring other outside factors. I also have a concern that no case has been made that this project would not move forward without the incentives package. Is this another example of just taking advantage of the incentives program. Again not a criticism of the university. If I were in Rick's and Jeff's shoes I'd be doing the same thing.

We have had conversations regarding the city's recent use of incentives before and I thought we were in agreement on the lines noted above. It is also a discussion, as you know, that has gone on in the community. Regardless if the project is a downtown bar or a hotel for the university. The city needs to do a better job explaining the use of incentives in meeting the city's overall goals.

As for the issues with the university in other areas such as future land acquisitions I do believe this is a good opportunity for the city and university to come to some kind of understanding and a little leverage doesn't hurt. Especially based on past experiences. It's called negotiating. And I think the city should be looking at more than just space for artwork.

Most of questions, not criticisms, I have put forward should be asked of any applicant for incentives. For example--Meeting city goals, issues of competition, other parties to the deal and what they bring to the table, and finally is there a real need for the incentives.

Finally, I would like to thank-you Rodger for starting this discussion. While we may not agree on all the points it is a discussion that should be taking place. It probably would not have if you didn't start the ball rolling.

-Matt-

*****
Matt -

Given my experiences in the hotel industry, I would suggest to you and others a hotel at Eagle Village will generate new business for the city. It will offer the opportunity for the medical center and university to provide rooms for patient families, student families and attendees for special events, etc. Many communities would love to have a quality medical center and university as a cornerstone of their economy. We should be more grateful for the opportunities we have.

Rodger

*****
Rodger,

As always I do respect your insights and experience but, as is sometimes the case, we may not agree. In this case, our disagreement is not as much about the project itself but rather on the process that has brought it before Council. I have asked a number of questions--not criticisms--which I believe are legitimate in judging the overall merits of this or any project. Some questions are project specific but most should be asked regarding any project that involve incentives. Should they be ignored?
The city does have some legitimate issues, many you have voiced yourself, with UMW. And on occasion you have expressed frustration with the university's response. Again our disagreement is not with the project but whether the city should take the opportunity presented by the university's request for incentives to come up with more concrete solutions that will strengthen the university/city relationship.

Thank-you again for your comments and criticisms. Unfortunately most of those who should be participating in this discussion remain quietly on the sidelines. Yet they will ultimately make the decision on providing incentives for this project. Based on past actions I would surmise that there will be little public discussion on these issues and the incentives package passed. If that is the case it is a great disservice to city residents.

-Matt-

*****
Matt -

I am a real estate guy. The merits of this opportunity are simple .... the city will trade a poorly built 1960s vintage portion of a shopping cheaply updated now with low end businesses and stores and vacancies for a new hotel that will bring new customers to the neighborhood. I think it is a great opportunity.

Rodger

*****
Fred, Matt and Roger,

My apologies for being late to the discussion, but with Graduation and family commitments this weekend, I have been uncharacteristically off email for a few days. Although I’m not exactly sure where to jump in here, let me focus purely on the hotel project and answer one key question that was asked several times…”why the need for a City incentive.”

The answer is very simple, we probably can’t make the numbers work without it. As I will report to Council tomorrow night, the UMW Foundation has discussed this project with 22 banks, with only four positive responses…that is how tight the lenders are right now, especially with hotels. The equity requirements for a hotel developer borders on the ridiculous right now and the preliminary deal we have with our “bank of focus” is contingent on successfully receiving the proposed City and State incentive. Simply put, if we do not get the incentives, that deal will be withdrawn and will need to be restructured in a way that will not work for us.

Please also note that the University (and hospital for that matter) have nothing to do with the hotel ownership or operation…this is purely a UMW Foundation issue.

Hope this answers the question,

Jeff
Jeff W. Rountree

So you now have a handle on the issue does the city move forward with providing incentives? Should the city provide incentives with additional stipulations regarding outstanding issues with the university? Should incentives be denied? Are there other issues you feel were not covered?

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

I'm a Hypocrite--Reason for Closed Session

In a recent story in Patch http://fredericksburg.patch.com/articles/closed-session-cleaves-council-considering-courts my name came up regarding a closed session for the parking deck. Some clarification is in order as well as a comment or two on what happened last night.

In regards to the parking deck the city received a proposal from Donely's Inc. for a five story pre-fab deck. No Request for Proposals (RFP) had been sent out by the city. After a lively public discussion, including public meetings, the scope of the project was changed to a smaller structure and design more in keeping with the character of downtown. At that point the city entered into contract negotiations with Donely's for a different project than what was proposed.

In regards to last night's closed session Council was being presented comparisons of the court facility proposals based on a public RFP which included required specs, and which had been presented in public sessions by the applicants which also included costs. It was made clear that there were no negotiations going on.

The only legitimate reason provided by the City Attorney to go into closed session was that there would be information presented regarding financial statements of the companies involved and information on claims and outstanding litigation involving the applicants. That was the only information that should have been considered for a closed session. There was no legitimate reason given for not holding the majority of this presentation in open session.

And let's look at the reasons given by Council members for keeping the rest of the meeting closed to the public:

--Council needs to talk behind closed doors before they openly debate big decisions like this. No contracts are to be awarded we are just going to ask questions.

--It is the responsibility of Council to use its authority to make decisions like this. We owe it to the taxpayers and the people who elected us to make significant decisions and get the best deal possible.

--Matt Kelly voted to go into closed session for the parking garage project.

Does anyone agree that these are legitimate reasons for a closed session?

There was no legitimate reason given for not holding the majority of this presentation in open session. A different situation that what occurred with the parking deck.

As the process for the parking deck has now been brought up I would invite anyone to search the FLS archives not only on the parking deck, but also the downtown hotel, and schools and compare the amount of public participation involved in those projects as opposed to what is now happening with the court process.

The city had a rancorous, and sometime contentions dialogue with the public which resulted in an award-winning garage /hotel and state of the art schools. Those who have to foot the bill have a right to participate in the process. Council is going out of its way to avoid public dialogue in regard to the courts. Why?

How much public involvement is enough?