Category Archives: Land use & development

$93 Million for Virginia Trails

A newly opened hiking/mountain biking trail outside of Missoula, Montana, in land protected by conservation easements.

The Bacon Family has just returned from a nine-day hiking trip to Montana. We were not surprised that the trails at Glacier National Park, with its rivers and lakes and snow-capped peaks, were world-class spectacular. But we were pleasantly surprised by the quality of the trails around Missoula, where we enjoyed two days of walking around the city’s highly walkable downtown and hiking the hills all around. Virginia has nothing resembling the Glacier National Park, a natural wonder that simply cannot be replicated (unless you have a few hundred-million years to work on it), but we do have college towns set in the mountains like Missoula (home to University of Montana). Blacksburg, Lexington and Harrisonburg come to mind.

What Missoula has done — setting aside land with conservation easements, and investing in hiking trails — can be replicated. Indeed, Virginia’s new budget contains $93 million for multi-use trails, eight times the previous year’s General Fund commitment of $10 million, according to the Virginia Bicycling Federation. Continue reading

The Defense Production Act as a Political Tool to Boost Solar Farms

Courtesy Dominion Energy

by James C. Sherlock

We have had multiple discussions, good ones, on the issues surrounding solar farms in Virginia.

Jim Bacon wrote an excellent column about it in February of 2021 titled “The Political Economy of Solar Farms.” It was good then and prescient as of yesterday.

He wrote another one two days earlier.  From that piece:

With the enactment of the (Virginia Clean Economy Act) VCEA, Freitas wrote in the press release, Virginia is experiencing extensive land leasing and acquisition by solar developers. More than 180 solar projects accounting for 140 million solar panels are in various stages of approval or construction. Full implementation of the ACT would consume 490 square miles of Virginia’s forests and farmland, an area twenty times the size of Manhattan.

Thanks to President Biden’s new political/industrial policy, those solar farms just got cheaper. And Chinese solar stocks just got more expensive.

Both of which were made to happen because the President removed the tariffs on Chinese solar panels. Readers rationally can be for that action or against it. But the left has settled on the Defense Production Act as a favored service animal.

So, the President, in addition to removing the tariffs, invoked that act as a national emergency response to mandate additional domestic production of solar panels.

Let’s try to pin down the nature of the emergency and the unintended consequences. Continue reading

Unaffordable? A Proposed Town Center Doesn’t Have to Answer the Questions It Raises.

Land across from Harrisonburg High School is the site of a proposed 1,000 unit housing development. Photo credit: Daily News-Record

by Joe Fitzgerald

On the website for a proposed 1,000-unit housing development in Harrisonburg is a description of the players in the project. Included is a history of sorts of the Harrisonburg Redevelopment and Housing Authority:

“[A] local election was held on November 8, 1955 and a majority of those voting in the election approved the need for a Redevelopment and Housing Authority to be activated in the City.”

The next sentence says HRHA helps people with their rent today. You’d almost think nothing had happened in the ensuing 67 years.

Sure, there was the time HRHA destroyed the city’s Black business section to build a Safeway and a Rose’s. And the time the authority partnered with the city and county to raze a couple of city blocks downtown to build a jail. There was the theatre that had to be bailed out by the city and the community center renovation that had to be bailed out by the city. (Full disclosure, I voted for the first bailout when I was on City Council and knew the second would have to happen when I voted for the renovation.)

It’s not that HRHA has a checkered history. It just happens to be the agency the city has often used for projects that are off the city’s books, until they’re not. Continue reading

How the City of Richmond Kneecaps Itself

Andreas Addison. Photo credit: Jonathan Spiers, Richmond BizSense

by James A. Bacon

Andreas Addison may be a city councilman in Richmond, but it doesn’t look like he’s getting any special treatment from city hall. With plans to open a gymnasium, he is renovating an old brick building in Scott’s Addition, a neighborhood that is transitioning from light industrial and warehousing into a hipster haven. 

He signed a lease early last year and applied for permits to remodel the space, reports Richmond BizSense. Five months later, he thought he was on track to get his building permit and start work. Then he got a call from City Hall.

The city rejected his permit because an access ramp he’d planned to install on the building’s exterior encroached upon the 10-foot-wide sidewalk. Addison would have to move the ramp inside the building. The change cost him $40,000 and eliminated space for a juice bar he’d intended to install. “The phone call came at month five and (the ramp) was on page two of the plans,” he told BizSense. “Why did it take four months to get to that point?” Continue reading

What Virginia Can Do to Temper Inflation


by James A. Bacon

Governor Glenn Youngkin has proposed using $437 million in unanticipated transportation revenues, much of it generated by the wholesale tax on gasoline, to give Virginians a three-month break on the 26-cent retail gasoline tax.

During his campaign, Youngkin ran on a platform of addressing Virginia’s high cost of living and reversing the erosion of middle-class living standards. A vacation on the gasoline tax is certainly consistent with that theme. And with inflation running at nearly 8% over the past 12 months, Virginians need help wherever they can find it. They will find no succor from Democrats, whose list of unmet societal “needs” is endless. They are delighted to spend every dime in tax revenue on one of their favored causes — which, alas, rarely includes helping financially strapped middle-class taxpayers.

While Youngkin has identified a winning issue, he needs to think bigger and more systematically. It’s fine to dial back the gasoline tax for a time, remove the sales tax on groceries, and try to repeal the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) carbon tax, but there is so much more that he can do.

Forty-one percent of the cost of living, as calculated by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, is housing, 17% transportation, 7% medical care, and almost 7% education. Each of these categories is, to some degree, influenced by state-level budgetary and regulatory policy. Continue reading

Remembering Til Hazel

Photo credit: Virginia Law Foundation

by Ken Reid

Northern Virginia is the object of admiration and contempt, in Republican circles, and even among some liberals in economically stagnant Maryland and Washington, D.C.

In the last few years, Loudoun County, where I had a political career as a Republican, has gone “blue” as has Prince William and much of Fairfax counties.
Some conservatives lament the influx of liberals and also immigrants, notably from Asia and Latin America, though of late, Latinos seem to be voting more Republican.

But the counties and cities that make up “Northern Virginia” – Fairfax, Loudoun, Prince William, Arlington and cities Alexandria, Fairfax, Manassas, etc. – are one of the most prosperous regions in the U.S. It is nearly recession-proof due to the largesse of the federal government, particularly defense and homeland security dollars (which we Republicans support, no?)

The success of NoVa is also due to business leaders who in the 1950s and 60s saw the area, particularly Fairfax County, as a potential economic engine. One of those was John Tilghman Hazel, known as “Til,” a Harvard-educated attorney and developer, who passed away March 15 at his farm in Fauquier County at the age of 91. Continue reading

A Malicious Prosecution

by Carol J. Bova

During the Bob McDonnell administration, the Commonwealth of Virginia preserved 232,000 acres through conservation easements or donations, falling short of the governor’s 400,000-acre goal because of the tight economy. Seizing on the deficit in his 2013 gubernatorial campaign, Terry McAuliffe promised that he would “preserve at least 400,000 acres of open space.” He repeated the number in his first speech to the General Assembly after taking office in 2014.

By 2015, it became obvious McAuliffe could not meet his goal. Scrambling to save face, he announced in April 2015 the launch of “Virginia Treasures,” a strategy for conserving land and expanding access to public outdoor recreation. The goal was to identify, conserve, and protect at least 1,000 “treasures” by the end of his term.

It soon became apparent to many residents of Mathews County that their property and their homes fell within the pale, blue-coded areas of the map where McAuliffe hoped to find his Virginia Treasures. And so began a seven-year nightmare for the Eubank family as the local government tried to bully them, in what they saw as a grotesque abuse of bureaucratic power, to diminish the value of their private land so that it could be acquired for a public access site. Continue reading

Development and Sea-Level Rise in the Tarheel State

by James A. Bacon

People love living on the water. They just can’t get enough of it. If they can’t afford to live on the waterfront, they will pay a premium just to live near it. Signs of the human proclivity for water views are evident all around Beaufort, N.C. (pronounced Bow-fort, not Bew-fort), a waterfront town of 4,000 to 5,000. The heart of Beaufort is a charming hamlet dating back to the 1700s. The walkable small-town core with restaurants, boutiques, marinas and quaint historical buildings is the nucleus from which development radiates in all directions.

Coastal North Carolina in these parts, just south of the Outer Banks, is as low-lying and vulnerable to flooding and hurricanes as Tidewater Virginia. I know nothing of what preparations the Tarheel state might be taking in anticipation of the kind of extreme weather events that Jim Sherlock has described in recent posts. I will simply observe that whatever restrictions exist, they don’t seem to be slowing the pace of development on the state’s barrier islands and along its sounds, channels and estuaries. Continue reading

Uh, Oh, Now Conservation Easements Are Racist

by James A. Bacon

There’s a lot of talk in the environmental community about “environmental justice,” but here in Virginia, nearly all of the $1.8 billion spent on land conservation over the past two decades mostly benefited well-to-do white people. That observation doesn’t come from me (although it sounds like something I would say). It comes from Matthew Strickler, Virginia’s Secretary of Natural Resources.

More than 30% of conservation easements have gone to land conservation in five counties — Loudoun, Albemarle, Fauquier, Culpeper and Orange — all of which have Black populations below the 19.9% state average.

“In fairness, rural areas are where the land is, and many rural areas have lower minority populations,” Strickler said. “But rural places like the Eastern Shore, western Hampton Roads and some parts of Southside Virginia have higher than average African American populations and are not even in the top 10 localities.”

Environmentalists have engaged in racial bean counting whenever it suits their purposes. Most visibly in recent years, foes of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline made a racial issue of a compressor station that Dominion Energy proposed to locate in what turned out to be a predominantly African-American community in Buckingham County. With this new report, the racialization of statistical disparities has turned around to bite environmentalists in the ass. Continue reading

The Goochland Revolution: Making Growth Pay for Itself

Goochland County’s location within the Richmond MSA

by James A. Bacon

Ken Peterson, a leader of Goochland County’s turnaround from fiscal basket case to bearer of a AAA bond rating, thinks he has discovered the holy grail of fast-growth county governance: how to make development pay for itself.

In previous posts I described how Peterson and his fellow fiscal conservatives swept into power in the so-called Goochland Revolution of 2011 and began implementing strict financial discipline. The exurban county west of Richmond, population 23,000, put management systems into place that identified the Level of Service (LoS) desired for schools, utilities, roads, and other public amenities, and then set up a 25-year capital improvement plan that identified how much money would be needed to pay not only for the upgrades but the ongoing maintenance. Goochland would not fall into the deferred-maintenance trap on Peterson’s watch. To the contrary, the county has accumulated large reserves.

Skeptics might say that Peterson and his allies benefited from fortunate timing. The year 2011 coincided with the nation’s recovery from the great real estate crash of 2008. Growth in fast-urbanizing Henrico County had reached the county line and was leap-frogging into Goochland. Tax revenues gushing from the economic revival made it easy to balance budgets and keep the base property tax rate at an incredibly low $0.53 per hundred dollars of assessed value. However, one might argue, if Goochland follows the same path as Virginia’s other fast-growth counties — Fairfax, Loudoun, Prince William, Stafford — it could experience the same fiscal stresses that they have. Continue reading

The Craziness Chronicles: Missing Students, Missing News Articles, and ABC Licenses for Teetotalers

Where are the students? Enrollments in many Virginia school districts declined in the 2020-21 school year as parents yanked their children out of schools beset by COVID shutdowns. Now that anyone who wants to can get vaccinated can get a shot and the epidemic has receded somewhat, will enrollment bounce back? The first whiff of evidence I’ve seem comes from a letter distributed by an Arlington County middle-school principal that starts out this way:

Yesterday I, along with my other middle school principal colleagues, was notified that due to a decrease in student enrollment for the 2021-22 school year, our Middle School Instruction staffing at Swanson was being reduced by 2.8 positions.

Arlington County school enrollment had declined 4.0% in the 2021-21 school year from the previous year. No bounce-back here. My correspondent asks: “Are public schools shrinking due to homeschooling and people shifting to Catholic schools?”

Your electric-bill dollars at work. The Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative has gone into effect in Virginia, and it is expected to generate an estimated $100 million in annual carbon auction proceeds, according to Energy News Network. About half of that sum is directed to weatherization programs for low-income households. Now Virginians are being treated to a heart-warming story about how weatherization nonprofits “finally have the funding for necessary house repairs after years of chronic shortages.” I’m still waiting to see an article (other than in Bacon’s Rebellion) explaining where all that money money is coming from. Continue reading

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