Category Archives: Land use & development

What Is a Farming Landowner to Do?

by Jim Kindig

My 3rd great grandfather came to Augusta County in the 1820s, cleared land and established crops on land that is still in our family. Several of my neighbors could tell similar stories. We love farming, but it’s a hard life. Incredible increases in productivity have kept agricultural commodity prices depressed for 80 years. To keep up with the latest and greatest agricultural machinery and technology, farmers have borrowed heavily, using their ancestral lands as collateral. One or two bad years, and they go broke. Many see no way out of their cycle of indebtedness.

Today there is light at the end of the tunnel, so to speak, and that light comes from the sun. Large-scale solar farms offer landowners a low-risk means to keep their farm land. They can lease acreage to a solar developer for a guaranteed income over 25 years. At the end of the lease, they can easily convert the land back to agricultural production with no degradation of soil quality or health. Continue reading

How Not to Treat a Conservation Easement

Abandoned camper. Photo credit: Wikipedia

The Commonwealth needs to tighten up its system for granting and overseeing conservation easements, the Virginia Office of the State Inspector General (OSIG) has found.

One of three conservation-easement properties visited by OSIG auditors did not meet Conservation Value Review Criteria adopted to provide for quality conservation value. The inspectors saw “trash, old tires, scrap metal piles, old campers, inoperable vehicles, and a manure storage area that contained deceased cattle parts on the property.”

Additionally, easements between $500,000 and $1 million lacked restrictions for water quality, historical preservation and agricultural use when compared to easements resulting in tax credits of $1 million or more. Continue reading

How Hillsboro Reinvented Itself… with Government Grants

“Downtown” Hillsboro. Photo credit; Washington Post

by James A. Bacon

Hillsboro in western Loudoun County is a rural success story, reports The Washington Post. Over the past couple of years, the town of 120 has transformed its main street, a 0.7-mile stretch of Route 9. The addition of sidewalks made the community’s main drag inviting to pedestrians after having been rendered untraversable by the 17,000 vehicles, many of them conveying West Virginians to jobs in the Washington metropolitan area, that passed through every day.

Foot traffic at the Stoneybrook Farm and Market has more than doubled since early 2020. Kids can walk to class. Residents stroll instead of drive to the town’s Friday night concerts. The tiny shopping district is more inviting to the many visitors to the area’s wineries and breweries. Residents are upgrading their homes, and local businesses are expanding.

“It was hard to walk anywhere before. It felt like all you could do is drive to your house, get in your car, get out of your car, get in your car and drive somewhere else,” said Paul Hrebenak, who moved to Hillsboro a year ago. “Now you can walk across the street to your neighbor. You can walk the dog up the street and run into people and sit and chat on the sidewalk, rather than on the side of a busy highway.”

Hillsboro is the perfect illustration of what Bacon’s Rebellion has long advocated as a central part of any rural revitalization strategy — turning hamlets and small towns into walkable communities. There’s just one problem: The Hillsboro model is not replicable anywhere else — unless other communities can figure out how to raise the equivalent of $280,000 per resident in state, federal and local grants. Continue reading

Chaos In the Streets, er, In the Sidewalks

by James A. Bacon

Sidewalks are going to get very crowded, and now is the time to start thinking about what to do about it.

We all know that self-driving cars soon will become a common sight, but a white paper, “The Last Block,” by Canadian Bern Grush, an occasional contributor to Bacon’s Rebellion several  years ago, contends that small robotic vehicles — delivering food and packages, sweeping, removing snow, measuring, monitoring, surveilling, repositioning dockless scooters — will precede them.

Dozens of companies from Amazon and FedEd to Starship and Uber, are building small sidewalk-bound robots to deliver food and parcels over the “last mile.” The arrival of these vehicles will require a significant re-thinking of the function and design of streets, sidewalks, and parking.

Virginia is not ready to accommodate a swarm of delivery bots. But there is still tie to get prepared. Continue reading

From Farming Corn to Electrons

Dominion solar farm. Photo credit: Dominion.

By Dick Hall-Sizemore

In light of recent denials by local governing bodies, there has been some skepticism expressed on this blog as to whether the Commonwealth could meet its goals on solar energy. Going against recent trends, however, has been the city of Chesapeake.

According to the Virginian-Pilot, the city council recently approved an application to build a 900-acre solar farm. This most recent approval about doubles the size of three previously-approved projects. It is estimated the project will cost $100 million. The company anticipates generating 118 megawatts, enough to power about 20,000 homes.

The land involved is now prime farmland. An interesting aspect of this project is that is an amalgamation of acreage from multiple owners. Continue reading

Bacon Bits: Jerry Reed Tribute Edition

When you’re hot you’re hot. How hot is the data center industry in Northern Virginia? It’s so hot that vacant land in parts of Prince William County is nearing $1 million per acre. “They are just building like crazy,” said Tim Leclerc, Prince William County’s assistant finance director, as reported by the Prince William Times. “We’ve seen land purchases on a per acre basis up in the Loudoun County area that are approaching $2 million. We’ve seen them approaching $1 million here.” The surge in real estate assessments in parts of the country where the data-center use is allowed by right is “being driven principally by developers and speculators who are scooping up land as fast as they can because they know data centers are willing to pay just about any amount for it,” he said.

When you’re not you’re not. Virginia’s eight public mental hospitals for adults are operating at 96% capacity, prompting them to delay admissions and straining the ability of law enforcement officers to maintain custody in psychiatric crisis, reports the Richmond Times-Dispatch. The COVID-19 epidemic has triggered an exodus of employees from state hospitals, which are “overwhelmed” and operating at only 60% to 75% full staffing. The staff shortage has spillover effects. Sheriffs deputies have to stay with patients for hours or days at a time before beds become available.

You can explain it all down at city hall. The State Board of Elections voted Tuesday to ask the Richmond Commonwealth Attorney to look into accusations that City of Richmond electoral officials violated state law in the November 2020 election. Republican election watchers said Democrats improperly opened sealed envelopes on election night and completed the vote count at a board member’s home a few days later. Denying wrongdoing, Democratic Party officials have counter-charged that Republicans were unhappy with a decision to replace former Richmond Registrar Kirk Showalter, who had run-ins with Democrat officials during her 25-year tenure. Claiming a lack of resources to investigate the conflicting claims, the electoral board asked Commonwealth’s Attorney Colette McEachin to get to the bottom of the dispute, reports the Virginia Mercury.

Jerry Reed composed the funniest lyrics of the past half century (maybe ever). When You’re Hot You’re Hot was a classic.

Cronyism Is Back in Virginia Beach

by Kerry Dougherty

You know what they say, it’s easier to say you’re sorry than ask permission.

That’s especially true in Virginia Beach. If you’re a well-connected developer, that is.

Some of us had such high hopes that city officials would stop acting like poodles for the developers now that elections had given us a new mayor and knocked a couple of cronies off city council. They, in turn, had hired a city manager from Ohio with no local connections.

We were naive.

Looks like the owners of the Cavalier Hotel are once again enjoying Favored Developer Status. Continue reading

Flag Fight

by Deborah Hommer

On March 3, 2021, the Fairfax County Planning Commission recommended
against adopting proposed regulations governing the number, size and
setbacks of flags and flagpoles.

“This was a solution, looking for a problem,” said Planning Commission
Vice Chairman John Ulfelder. “I suspect, based on a lot of comments we’ve
received, a lot of other people perceived it the same way. If it ain’t
broken, don’t fix it.”

On March 9, 2021, the Board of Supervisors held approximately five hours of testimony, in which the decision was made to defer the decision for two weeks until 4:30 p.m. March 23. It’s not clear the board will see things the same way as Ulfelder.

“This proposal didn’t come from nowhere,” said Board Chair Jeffrey C.
McKay. “If you had only watched some of the media conversations about
this, you would think Fairfax is the only jurisdiction that has enacted
rules like this before. The public discussion about the zoning change got
off the rails in a way that’s unfortunate.” Continue reading

Podcast: How the General Assembly Has Changed

By Peter Galuszka

I haven’t contributed much to BR lately since I am slammed with non-Virginia work. I did manage to help out on a Podcast about how the General Assembly has changed the state over the last two years as Democrats have gained power.

This Podcast is produced by WTJU, the University of Virginia radio station. I do a weekly talk show on state politics and economics and, on occasion, work on Podcasts.

Joining me is Sally Hudson, a delegate from the Charlottesville area. She is Assistant Professor of Public Policy, Education and Economics. Sally studied at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Stanford and is one of the youngest members of the General Assembly.

I hope you enjoy it.

What Texas’s Crisis Means for Virginia

by Peter Galuszka

The Texas freeze and ensuing energy disaster has clear lessons for Virginia as it sorts out its energy future.

Yet much of the media coverage in Virginia and certainly on Bacon’s Rebellion conveniently leaves out pertinent observations.

The statewide freeze in Texas completely fouled up the entire energy infrastructure as natural gas pipelines and oil wells stopped working, coal at generating plants iced over and wind turbines stopped working.

Making matters much worse, Texas opted not to have power links with other states. Its “free market” system of purchasing power meant utilities skimped on maintenance and adding weather-relative preventive measures such as making sure key generation components were weatherproof.

The result? Scores dead and millions without electricity. Here are more points worth considering in Virginia:

Climate Change is For Real

It is a shame that so much comment in Bacon’s Rebellion is propaganda from people who are or were paid, either directly or indirectly, by the fossil fuel industry. Thus, the blog diminishes the importance of dealing with climate change in a progressive way.  Continue reading

What Is That Strange Building? A Tower of Babel? A Wood Screw? A Poop Emoji?

Credit: Fredrick Kunkle/NBBJ/Amazon) by way of The Washington Post.

by James A. Bacon

Amazon has unveiled the design for one of the buildings on its East Coast headquarters campus in Arlington: a 350-foot-tall structure modeled on a double helix. With trees.

Architectural firm NBBJ says it aspires to reflect nature’s fondness for the helix in structures from DNA to the Milky Way Galaxy. But the design reminds some commentators, observes The Washington Post, of Pieter Bruegel’s “The Tower of Babel” painting…  or the poop emoji. To me, it resembles a giant wood screw. Continue reading

COVID, Urban Flight, and Rural Revival

by James A. Bacon

In announcing the creation of three new conservation easements in Henrico County, a recent press release from the Capital Region Land Conservancy made an eye-catching statement. The easements, said the Conservancy, act as a bulwark against rising pressure to develop agricultural land across Virginia “driven most recently by shifts in COVID-era lifestyles and soaring housing prices.”

This was the first time I recall anyone in Virginia making an explicit connection between the COVID epidemic, urban flight, and rising property values for agricultural land. The notion is worth exploring

The conversion of farmland into subdivisions is a long-standing concern. As the Conservancy notes, more than 339,000 acres of farmland were developed in Virginia between 2001 and 2016. In the Richmond region, more than 87,000 acres of farmland have been lost. By 2017 Henrico County had fewer than 100 farms and 10,000 acres of farmland.

The urban renaissance of the 2010s decade blunted the trend toward metropolitan sprawl. The center of gravity in development shifted back toward urban cores in Virginia and the U.S. generally. Now that momentum seems spent. Perhaps the COVID-19 epidemic is driving the reversal, but I suspect that the reality is more complex. It is also possible — consider it a  hypothesis — that after a year of protests, riots and rising violent crime rates in many cities, many urban dwellers, concerned about social breakdown, fear for their personal safety. The main thing holding them back is the paucity of rural broadband and connectivity. That barrier soon may fall. Continue reading

Behind Dominion’s Shift to Renewables

Image credit: Style Weekly

By Peter Galuszka

Ever wonder why Dominion Energy found religion and announced a major shift to renewable energy?

The answer is that modern, high technology businesses want it and the Richmond-based utility wants to respond to their desires.

This one of the themes in this recent cover story I did for Style Weekly that explores how Dominion’s major shift in direction is part of several dynamics that are pushing solar wind and other renewables instead of keeping on with fossil fuel.

Here’s the reporting in a nutshell:

  • Virginia’s economy is being driven more by data centers, giant box-like warehouses loaded with servers that can handle tremendous amounts of data. Northern Virginia, the incubator of the Internet, already handles about 70% to 80% of the global Net traffic and has a mature and still growing network of data centers.
  • The Northern Virginia experience is shifting downstate. Henrico County now has a partially construction data center run by social media giant Facebook. Centers have been announced or are being planned in Southside and Southwest Virginia.

Continue reading

COVID, Telecommuting and Urban Renewal

Riverfront Towers. Photo credit: Richmond BizSense

Just a year or two ago, the big momentum in commercial real estate markets was for businesses to relocate facilities from the suburbs to the metropolitan core. Young people wanted to live and work in or near Virginia’s downtowns, and corporations followed the talent. The City of Richmond snagged one prestigious tenant after another. One of those was healthcare logistics giant Owens & Minor, which in 2017 supplemented its suburban Mechanicsville headquarters with a 90,000-square-foot lease in Riverfront Tower downtown.

Now, reports Richmond BizSense, Owens & Minor has pulled the plug on its downtown call center and is seeking tenants to sub-lease the space.

The reason? The company has shifted office workers to remote work in response to the coronavirus epidemic. Employees have adapted well to the work-from-home setting.

“As 2020 progressed, the COVID-19 pandemic compelled us to reevaluate our call center operations. The performance of our call center teammates in the work-from-home era has been spectacular, and the teammates requested that we carry that new business model into the future. We have recently made the decision to exit from our call center location in downtown Richmond,” the spokeswoman said. Continue reading

5G and Rural Virginia

A horse pulling fiber in Kentucky. Photo credit: Pro Publica

by DJ Rippert

A tale of two places.  The next generation of consumer wireless technology is called Fifth Generation or 5G. It is being rolled out in select parts of the United States right now. 5G will be a boon to urban and suburban Virginia. Absent heavy government subsidies, it will likely have a minimal direct effect on rural Virginia. Of course, any technology that favors high population density areas over low population density areas expands the rural-urban gap. The reasons for 5G’s value in high density areas vs low density areas run the gamut from physics to economics. However, there are some engineering scenarios and demographic situations where 5G might be effective in select rural areas without massive governmental subsidies. Those will be discussed later in this post. And, of course, massive government subsidies are always on the table. Continue reading