Accommodating Development Near “Accommodationist” Monument

There always seems to be a battle raging somewhere in Virginia between developers and preservationists. The Roanoke Times has a story on the latest skirmish. In Franklin County, the Board of Supervisors is considering “four special use permits to allow construction of a 30,000-square-foot shopping center, an office park, patio homes and town houses” adjacent to the Booker T. Washington National Monument.

Of course, as the supervisors consider this request,

A group of activists has rallied to spread the word about what they see as a threat to the tranquility and health of the 239 acres of federally owned land. They oppose the rezoning, saying that heavy development next to the national monument, which had 18,477 visitors in fiscal year 2004, will damage views and a creek that runs along the border between the two properties.

Booker T. Washington, controversial today because of his “accommodationist” racial views, would probably be pleased that the developer is trying to accomodate the concerns of opponents by offering a larger than required wooded buffer between the development and the park. The opponents aren’t interested in being accommodated.

One might argue that there is plenty of undeveloped land in Franklin County, so a spritz of development near a national monument isn’t a big deal. One could also point out that Manassas National Battlefield Park used to be miles from the nearest commercial or residential space.

In a smaller battle, a Williamsburg resident has written to the Daily Press to argue against putting lights at William and Mary’s Cary Field/Zable Stadium. Colonial-era light conditions must be preserved!

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  1. Silly preservationists.

  2. Anonymous Avatar

    If they want to control the land, they should ante up and buy it!

  3. Or convince the owners to donate an conservation or preservation easement…

  4. Jim Bacon Avatar
    Jim Bacon

    What we’re seeing in Franklin County is what I call “rural sprawl,” or what Ed Risse might call more precisely “the disaggregation of urban land uses in the Countryside.” (Did I get it right, Ed?) In other words, small towns and rural areas are mimicking the scattered, disconnected, low-density development patterns of the suburbs. New development, rather than clustering around the town of Rocky Mount or other hamlets, is smearing across the countryside, jeopardizing the the likes of the Booker T. Washington monument.

    The tragedy is that kind of growth destroys two of the few competitive advantages of a place like Franklin County, its tightly knit community and bucolic setting along the Blue Ridge Mountains. It represents a massive failure of imagination on the part of rural elected officials and rural planners.

    Somone needs to develop a mechanism where a growth in rural population can be clustered in hamlet- or village-like enclaves where the concentration of people can be served more efficiently with urban services and commercial amenities.

  5. TheModerate Avatar

    In a perfect world, development would occur in a domino-like pattern outward from an urban center. In the real world, land owners don’t sell their land off in such a way. Rather, a parcel farther away from the urban center may be sold and developed before one that is closer to the urban center.

    A mechanism to satisfy those wanting a “rural with amenities” lifestyle, or those who want to live on a lot that is “too big to mow and too small to farm”, is difficult to achieve.

    It’s hard to have a hamlet or village on rural land that only allows 1 house per 5 or 10 acres.

    In addition, people buying and building in such communities should understand the term rural before they move. You can’t have, and shouldn’t expect all of the urban conveniences on land that is zoned for one house per five or ten acres.

    A solution would be for local officials to educate buyers and developers on what the term rural means and what it does not mean.

  6. Jim Bacon Avatar
    Jim Bacon

    Moderate, without question, citizen education is part of the solution. (A little more education for elected officials wouldn’t hurt, either.) But there’s nothing natural or inevitable about the phenomenon of landowners selling far-out parcels. Land sale patterns are largely a function of our taxation regime. The system advocated by Ed Risse (which I share) is, inside the Clear Edge (or the urban boundary) to tax land and not improvements. That redistributes the tax burden away from people who improve their properties (a good think) and onto people who let their land sit idle or underutilized for speculative purposes (a bad thing). Simply changing the tax code would create a market mechanism that would encourage more infill and redevelopment than currently occurs.

    Outside of the Clear Edge, you would do the reverse. You would tax land and improvements. That way you would not penalize farmers, foresters and others with land-intensive businesses. You’d also create a tax incentive to move into small, urbanized enclaves with their own mini-clear edges — i.e., towns and hamlets.

    A new system would not reorder our dysfunctional patterns of development all by itself — you still have to grapple with how and where and how governments invest in roads, schools, utilities and other public services — but it would certainly nudge things in the right direction.

  7. Jim:

    Shameless plug.

    The preservation community is supporting the effort to shift the tax burden away from rehabilitation. The Federal Historic Tax Credit (and many similar state credits) allow owners to write off a certain percentage of rehabilitation projects.

    Unfortunately, the federal credit isn’t very easy to use for smaller projects, residential units, or in combination with the affordable housing tax credit.

    Right now, a congressional effort is underway to amend the federal credit to make it (1) larger (2) easier to apply to smaller “main street” projects (3) applicable to any building over 50 years old (the current standard is any building built before 1936).

    A recently introduced bill, H.R.3159, sponsored by Phil English (R-PA) and William Jefferson (D-LA) retune the federal historic preservation tax credit in the ways I described above.

  8. Ray Hyde Avatar
    Ray Hyde

    “Somone needs to develop a mechanism where a growth in rural population can be clustered in hamlet- or village-like enclaves where the concentration of people can be served more efficiently with urban services and commercial amenities.”

    And when they do that they will need to do it in such a way that those who do not live in the (newly defined and controlled) hamlets are not treated disadvantageously. You cannot reasonably expect, as EMR suggests, to charge these people 10X in taxes for their services at the same time they are maintaining the competitive advantages of tightly knit community and bucolic countryside, for the benefit of everyone else.

    The idea of taxing land and not improvements in town and the opposite in the countryside is a terrible idea. In town, it is the improvements that make the land valuable. As it stands now those in the countryside already pay taxes on their improvements, and then they pay more tax (ususally at a lower rate) on the unimproved land. As a result farms currently pay taxes at three times the rate they get services.

    This is hardly a way to encourage owners to keep the land open.

    Characterizing the idea of letting land sit idle as a bad thing merely shows a lack of understanding of business, and a disregard for both ownership rights and political reality. It may very well be that developing a property before the market develops is cost inefficient in the sense that a capital investment will be made prior to the time at which it will return a cash flow sufficient to support the investment. If that investment is for a row of townhomes, for example, it might be great from a policy viewpoint because those homes will have to be rented or sold at lower rates and they will improve the availability of affordable housing.

    More precisely, it shifts the cost of affordable housing onto the developer by creating an artificial market situation: if he holds the land he loses money, if he develops it prematurely he loses money. Probably he is going to have to pay for infrastructure in the form of proffers as well, so it is not as if the government has a financial interest in getting its infrastructure fully used.

    The other side of the coin is that the developer slaps up whatever is cheapest in order to get some return against his land until the real opportunity presents itself.

    You cannot “create” a market mechanism through the tax code and also have a free market. Every zoning ordinance or tax inducement creates some winners and some losers, so the test of a good rule is if the winners can compensate the losers and still come out ahead.

    The essence of a deal is that both parties come away feeling they are better off, but there is no way this proposed plan will be perceived as a deal by either party. That is why the purchase of the property proposed by anonymous works: the price is negotiated until both parties think they win.

    Writing a rule that satisfies the “do no harm” criteria (and can prove it) is extraordinarily difficult.

    The Moderate is right about educating people to what rural means. Some communities have a rural preservation contract built into the recordation of the deed: These are things you can expect and agree to prior to this purchase (your neighbors may own guns and hunt, may have animals that smell, may use chemicals on their crops, you may not have high speed internet, your roads may not be cleared in a timely manner etc. etc.)

    Unless those towns and hamlets have their own job base, you will still have the same transportation problems as now, and even if they do there is no guarantee that people will work in the same hamlet where they live. We will need thousands of new hamlets. Those people will not be satisfied living in a hamlet adjacent to bucolic space without access to it.

    Finally, recent census data show that nearly all growth in the past few years (since 2000)has been in the suburbs, not the central cities. Is it any wonder that rural areas have chosen to mimic the burbs rather than the cities? Isn’t it the lesser of three evils?

    Why promote a broken tax code to enforce a market regime for which there is no popular support and no evidence that it will work to provide it’s supposed benefits?

    Don’t get me wrong, I am not in favor of rampant growth, and I favor preservationism. Where we part ways is on the issue of education. I believe that people need to understand that preservation costs money – a lot of money. When they understand the true costs, then we will get as much preservation as we can afford.

    But as long as conservationists persist in claiming this is “free, no-cost, for the public benefit” then they are going to be perceived as socialist radicals, charlatans, or worse.

    This is no way to win the battle.

  9. Yeah I mean…the bill I was talking about just encourages revitalization and reuse of existing urban structures. Now harm in that. Either we revitalize them or let them rot.

  10. Ray Hyde Avatar
    Ray Hyde

    Well, sure. The idea is to make the best with what you have. I’m currently in the “historic” gaslight district of San Diego. It has been so totally rebuilt that it is hard to find anything remotely historic other than the faux electrified gaslights.

    For all the reconstruction, the town is remarkably dead. Little or no traffic, uncrowded restaurants, towering condos that, based on the lighting, are 20% occupied. Somebody evidently thinks this is all going to make money, but it is hard to see it this evening.

    I understand it will be jammed to the hilt in a few days when the comedian’s convention comes to town.

    I asked a local about the vacant condos and he said many of them were maintained for people to use during the Padre’s games. He pointed out one and said Stallone owned all the top floors, but you don’t expect to see him around much.

    So much for affordable housing, and this in a town that has lost much of its industrial base.

    In Chicago, I read that some buildings have been razed, plowed under and converted to urban farmland until the land is eventually rebuilt. Now there is a twist: rehabilitate the cities into suburbia.

    When it comes to revitalization, you can go the historic route, or you can start over. Mostly, its cheaper to start over, especially since you are going to have to rebuild most of the infrastructure anyway.

    I’ve got a log barn that I figure dates to the 1830’s. I’d hate to see it fall down on my watch, and I’d love to restore it, but the tax credits aren’t nearly enough to undertake the job. I’ve got enough problems with the house falling down around me. Even if I did it, it would wind up being a structure totally unsuited to my current farm operations.

    I can easily imagine the same thing is true of many restoration projects. There may be satisfaction and beauty in the end result, which is however totally impractical for most modern uses.

    Just as with farm preservation, you have to ask how much restoration you can afford. Then there is the problem of “real” restoration using old materials and methods, vs faux restoration like keeping a facade and wrecking the rest of the building or restoring plaster by replacing it with wallboard.

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