Category Archives: Land use & development

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

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