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.

Peterson has given considerable thought to managing growth. He says Goochland has financial systems, a zoning plan and an economic development strategy that will ensure that future development covers its own costs. In theory, he says, Goochland “should be able to grow unconstrained.”

The centerpiece of planning for growth is understanding what growth costs. Goochland has created a Capital Impacts Model, developed by the TischlerBise consulting firm, that allows the county to calculate the capital impacts of new development on public safety, schools, roads, parks, courts, convenience centers, libraries and general government.

While state law prohibits local governments from charging developers “unreasonable” cash proffers, Goochland has adopted the philosophy that developers should pay the added incremental capital costs imposed on the county. It’s a first-come, first-serve situation. If there is excess capacity in the system — say a road or water line is under-utilized — one developer might get away with paying less than the next guy in line. The key is demonstrating a tangible nexus between the proffer the county asks for and the cost imposed by the developer. The Capital Impacts Model takes away the guesswork and makes proffer requests less arbitrary.

The next strategy is concentrating growth in areas zoned for development and served by roads and utilities. Peterson rejects the scattered, hop-scotch pattern of development that has characterized so much of Virginia’s development since World War II. “We don’t want scattered pods,” he says. “We want villages.”

Traditional “suburban” style development is occurring in Goochland’s primary growth areas along the Broad Street corridor and in the West Creek Business Park near the Henrico County line. But Goochland’s comprehensive plan also envisions clustered development in so-called “villages” — Centerville Village and Courthouse Village.

Moreover, the plan calls for “balanced” development — mixed residential, retail and office space rather than rigidly separated land uses — within the designated growth areas. “New development should include a desirable mixture of uses combining commercial services with residential development,” states the comprehensive plan. Villages classified as “major” might include schools, libraries, fire stations and post offices. Additionally, the goal is to give them attractive streetscapes to make them pedestrian-friendly. “Landscape and streetscape designs should serve as amenities.”

Many localities resist building apartment complexes, because the residents demand more in local services than they generate in tax revenue. But Peterson is fine with someone building an apartment complex in Goochland… as long as the developer builds retail and/or commercial nearby. Apartment residents need amenities. If the apartments are coupled with retail and/or commercial, he says, the bundled development does pay for itself.

While steering growth into designated areas, the Goochland comprehensive plan aims to protect rural landscapes. Peterson would like to see more craft breweries, barn weddings, distilleries, cideries, and farm-to-table agriculture that provide an economic underpinning to the rural economy. Prosperous landowners can afford to maintain a high quality landscape. 

Thanks to West Creek, Goochland is more than a bedroom community. Major employers — Capital One, CarMax, the Performance Food Group and Virginia Farm Bureau — maintain headquarters and/or major operations there. Bolstered by the many employment opportunities nearby, a large apartment complex in West Creek was a huge success, Peterson says. It leased up immediately.

Goochland’s economic development efforts have been successful in recent years in attracting medical and independent-living facilities. Erickson Living is investing $300 million in the Avery Point senior housing facility in the eastern part of the county. Another large project is Tuckahoe Pines, which Peterson describes as a “land-based cruise ship.” It’s got everything elderly people would need from banks to hair stylists. Peterson loves old people — they pay a lot in taxes and require little in the way of locally provided services. All told, he says, he expects 55-and-older communities to comprise 20% of the county’s tax base.

Whether due to good fortune or smart planning, the Goochland Revolution is working. The county has the lowest tax burden in the metropolitan area, even while building its financial reserves and upgrading the levels of service. Remarkably, Goochland has accomplished all this while sharing with the likes of Arlington and Alexandria the highest possible Composite Index of Local Ability to Pay rating, which means paying for 80% of the cost of operating its school system.

Will success ruin Goochland like it has ruined other fast-growth counties? Will it bring more traffic congestion, create more environmental pressure, and engender greater citizen demand for services? Will the next generation of county supervisors lapse into short-term thinking and corner cutting?

Peterson remains optimistic. Low taxes, fiscal discipline, and a high quality of services is a winning formula, he says. People and businesses are moving into the county, vindicating and building political support for the Goochland model. “Every county is in a virtuous or a vicious cycle,” he says. “Goochland is in a virtuous cycle.”


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37 responses to “The Goochland Revolution: Making Growth Pay for Itself”

  1. Eric the half a troll Avatar
    Eric the half a troll

    “…to calculate the capital impacts of new development on public safety, schools, roads, parks, courts, convenience centers, libraries and general government.”

    And there you have it. The old incremental capital cost shell game. Our Conservative board played this same game in Loudoun while arguing that we could grow unrestrained. The REAL impact of upzonings (the only time one can exact a proffers from developers) is on the annual OPERATING budget. Yes, there is a capital budget impact but that can be addressed far easier through bond issuance. But the developers leave the county high and dry when it comes to operating budget impacts and residential never pays for itself when it come to the annual costs – year in and year out they bleed. To upzone so you can exact proffers for the Capital budget starts the death spiral and it never ends well – the developers love it though.

    Say goodbye to Goochland – the only thing that can save them now is to oust the Conservatives who think you can grow yourself to fiscal health, adopt a “no upzonings” policy, restrict utility service areas, and rewrite their Comp Plan and ZO to downzone to a healthy density.

  2. Eric the half a troll Avatar
    Eric the half a troll

    “…keep the base property tax rate at an incredibly low $0.53 per hundred dollars of assessed value…”

    According to this document, $0.53 is not really “incredibly low”. I read in an earlier comment that property values have increased by 22% in 2019. If this is true and if assess values reflect that increase, the citizens are realizing double digit annual tax increases regardless of tax rate being static. Those fiscal conservatives…

    https://www.tax.virginia.gov/sites/default/files/inline-files/2018-local-tax-rates.pdf

    1. Nancy Naive Avatar
      Nancy Naive

      Location, location, location.

    2. dick dyas Avatar
      dick dyas

      Down zoning is actually the conservative solution. Try telling that to a county supervisor.
      People are like ants. You can’t stop them.

      1. Eric the half a troll Avatar
        Eric the half a troll

        If you mean conservative as in conserving resources, I agree. However, my experience is that it is the political Conservatives who support unbridled growth and up zoning in the name of deregulation and property rights.

        People are people. They will move to what ever housing is built for them. If you build it they will come but counties have the ability to control at what density those houses are built. You are correct that often BOS members and their governmental associates do not have the will power to say “no” and stand up to the developers.

        1. LarrytheG Avatar
          LarrytheG

          re: ” it is the political Conservatives who support unbridled growth and up zoning in the name of deregulation and property rights.”

          that’s a big 10/4. And they’re the same guys who came up with the changed proffer rules!

          To be fair, houses are no different than cars or kumquats in terms of market and demand.

          We don’t think Walmart is evil because they stock kumquats or Toyota because they put up an auto dealer. What are developers evil for wanting to build houses to meet the demand?

          1. DJRippert Avatar
            DJRippert

            There’s a reason that the fattest fat cats in Northern Virginia are almost always developers. Developers do what developers do.

            The problem is our political class.

            There are no checks and balances in a state where campaign donations are unlimited and new residents from elsewhere are flooding into the growth areas.

            Add in Byrd Machine anti-democracy rules like off-year elections and there you have.

            Corrupt to the core.

  3. Nancy Naive Avatar
    Nancy Naive

    So ONE guy with Wall Street experience gets hisself elected, and doing what he knows how to do, sets the county finances in excellent shape. How many counties are there again? How many people are there with his creds who are running?

    To the other county supervisors and city managers: Just hire one like him.

    1. Eric the half a troll Avatar
      Eric the half a troll

      If this is his solution, he has not actually set the county finances in excellent shape. He is doing EXACTLY what other counties have done at this stage of the growth cycle. I’ve read nothing new here and the path this county will go down thanks to his “leadership” is very predictable.

      1. DJRippert Avatar
        DJRippert

        The concept of enforced zoning to create villages is new. More of a New England approach. We’ll see if he can pull it off. I doubt it.

        1. Eric the half a troll Avatar
          Eric the half a troll

          Loudoun wrote a comp plan that envisioned villages with dense growth around the towns and open space elsewhere. In the end we got dense growth around the towns (except Hamilton who won their battle) and McMansions elsewhere. There was not the political will to truly down zone the rural areas or use public dollars to wholesale purchase development rights.

          The classic example of the failure of the town center concept is Reston. They got all the growth around the town center AND suburban development everywhere else. Far from the RES vision.

          1. LarrytheG Avatar
            LarrytheG

            The McMansions are pretty much not stoppable – people will buy 5, 10, 20 acre parcels and few plans that I have seen prohibit 10-20 acre rural subdivides – it’s what a lot of farm families do to make lots for their kids.

            And dense zoning “villages” – will generate significant car traffic unless the jobs are right there in that village which 9 times out of 10 – they’re not.

            If you have a beltway, people will live in on place and take the beltway to their work.

            It works like that pretty much everywhere there are beltways.

            The live, work, play and shop idea is at best, an “idea”. Reality is people don’t do that.

          2. Eric the half a troll Avatar
            Eric the half a troll

            It takes fast action by the BOS to rewrite specific parts of the Comp Plan and quickly enact downzoning (to something like one per 20 or more acres) before they can subdivide all the lots. Loudoun lost that race and everything is effectively around 3 acre lots. 10-20 acre lots are reasonable – 3 acre lots give you McMansions and are developer gold mines.

          3. LarrytheG Avatar
            LarrytheG

            Yep. That was the issue in Spotsylvania and they went to something called “family subdivisions” which allowed limited subdivisions by the owner for his/her family.

            But even 10-20 acre lots are in demand from out of area folks who have sold their NoVa home for 750K or more.

            Stafford is fighting that fight right now.

            The demand for large lot rural is undiminished.

            Folks who move down this way from NoVa do NOT want to live in a “dense” development. In fact, down this way, dense development is often called “workforce housing”.

          4. Richmond has a beltway of sorts, and the southwestern portion of it (Rt 288) passes right through the eastern end of Goochland and the TCSD..

          5. LarrytheG Avatar
            LarrytheG

            Yep. Goochland is dealing with similar issues that exurban counties to Nova are dealing with.

            But the fact that they built this huge capacity water/sewer capability that has to be paid for – leaves them few options to pay for it other than trying to get more folks to settle and help pay for it.

      2. LarrytheG Avatar
        LarrytheG

        I agree. In fact, he and others state up-front , that they way to pay for their overbuilt water/sewer bond debt is to attract more development.

        And that’s why he is ALSO saying – “make growth pay for itself”. He’s PLANNING on growth!

  4. LarrytheG Avatar
    LarrytheG

    TischlerBise also helped Spotsylvania which has had and still has much more growth demand than Goochland has or likely will have.

    Capital costs are one time up-front costs, it’s the operating costs that are the costs of growth – especially schools and public safety.

    What Spotsylvania did was create a fiscal model – not only for capital costs but for operating costs.

    It computes the annual cost for a residential unit then compares that to how much tax that unit will generate.

    Developers will bring their own fiscal models which invariably will show lower costs and higher tax revenues, but at the end of the day, it actually is up to the BOS to say yea or nay and call me a skeptic on the idea that it’s entirely driven by political philosophy.

    When they talk about LOS , they’re really talking about how much citizens want to pay for quality of life issues, like libraries, parks, Fire/EMS response times, etc. None of those are cost-free choices.

    THe more you choose, the more you pay – usually.

    Some on our BOS have mocked qualifty-of-life and said this is the responsibility of individuals who want these things , not all county citizens who do not and who also don’t want to pay for them.

    Sound Familiar?

    1. DJRippert Avatar
      DJRippert

      Familiar? Lol. Oh yes.

      The 1990 Census has Spotsy with 57,403 people. Smaller than 15 sq mi Reston today. The 2019 population estimate is 136,215. 2.4X population growth in less than 30 years.

      You’ve lived there forever.

      How has the quality of life changed since 1990?

      1. LarrytheG Avatar
        LarrytheG

        In terms of traffic and congestion. 😉

        Even the rural roads are a mess these days!

        In terms of retail shopping and restaurants?

        well, we got a lot of chains now…..

        I’m not in the “developers are evil” camp …
        I just see them responding to demand and making as much profit as they can – just like a lot of other businesses AND people DO need a place to live!

        I DO believe we need to have congestion tolling.

        If you want to commute – you need to understand the consequences of everyone driving solo – there are no good outcomes on that. I carpooled to work for 34 years. I believe it’s the right thing to do. If you drive solo everyday, there is no way you are paying your fair share of costs.

        1. If you drive solo everyday, there is no way you are paying your fair share of costs.

          My fair share of the costs for what?

          1. LarrytheG Avatar
            LarrytheG

            Transportation infrastructure

          2. Well then, I disagree. In fact, I think the exact opposite is true. If you carpool you are not paying your fair share of transportation infrastructure. Four people in four cars generates a whole lot more gas tax money than four people in one car.

            😉

            PS – It is very difficult to “carpool” on a motorcycle.

            PPS – By no means am I saying people should not carpool. If you want to carpool then have at it!

          3. LarrytheG Avatar
            LarrytheG

            If one car does not pay for itself on infrastructure then 4 do 4 times worse, no?

            Isn’t this why they are talking about taxing by the mile instead of at the pump?

            https://www.marketwatch.com/story/the-federal-gas-tax-doesnt-bring-in-enough-money-for-highways-heres-a-way-to-change-how-we-pay-for-it-11605731623

          4. Isn’t this why they are talking about taxing by the mile instead of at the pump?

            No, they are talking about taxing by the mile instead of at the pump because gasoline burning cars are eventually going to be greatly reduced in numbers.

            Electric cars don’t have to go to “the pump” so they have to find a new way to tax people for moving around.

          5. LarrytheG Avatar
            LarrytheG

            😉

  5. DJRippert Avatar
    DJRippert

    Peterson is saying all the right things. Walkable communities. Mixed-use. Development covering the incremental capital costs of of their development.

    One only needs to hear that Peterson looks at development through the lens of New Urban Regions with high taxes on undeveloped land within the NUR and high taxes on non-agricultural structures outside the NUR to declare this a “full Risse”. See link below from BaconsRebellion, 2003.

    Unfortunately for Mr Peterson and his plans Eric the half a troll also makes some very good points in his comments. In particular, his observation that fast rising real estate values at flat tax rates still generate quickly rising tax bills for the homeowner.

    Moreover, one of the reasons that companies such as CapitalOne like Goochland is that they can find employees willing to work for reasonable wages. That’s partly because the cost of living is low. Of course, when real estate prices are rising rapidly the cost of living is rising fast too.

    Fast rising real estate values also attracts the green bottle flies of the real estate development industry. These insects arrive with no limits on their political donations to Virginia politicians.

    The issue is money in politics within Virginia’s absurd unlimited campaign contributions environment. Picking Goochland Supervisor Susan Lascolette at random … her campaign spent $21,637 in her victorious campaign in Nov 2019. The fifth largest donor was the Richmond Association of Realtors. Her opponent Crystal Neilson-Hall spent $11,520. Her top donor was the Democratic Party – Goochland County.

    Here we go ….

    Picking a random Loudoun County Supervisor – Juli Briskman – we see her campaign spent $152,314 to garner 6,744 votes in winning the 2019 election. Her largest donor was Brass Ovaries PAC. In turn, the largest donor to Brass Ovaries LLC was MRE LLC which appears to be a real estate development firm.

    As an aside Eric … Juli Briskman is a Democrat.

    As new voters move into Goochland, as the value of real estate rises, how does Mr Peterson hope to prevent the real estate special interests from buying supervisors through campaign contributions as they have done in Fairfax and Loudoun Counties?

    Mr Peterson sounds very intelligent. However, history has shown that no level of intelligence or honesty can defeat The Imperial Clown Show in Richmond. Until that ongoing RICO violation caps campaign contributions in Virginia Mr Peterson will be fighting a losing battle.

    Move now, Mr Peterson … Virginia is far too corrupt for your plans to work.

    https://www.baconsrebellion.com/archive/issues/03/12-15/Five_critical_realities.htm

    1. Eric the half a troll Avatar
      Eric the half a troll

      Yes, DJ, the developers certainly do like to cover all their bases. It is not an easily winnable war as is evident if one knows the history of Loudoun. But the real damage was done during the Tulloch/Snow years. The future is more cast now.

      1. DJRippert Avatar
        DJRippert

        I could jog to Loudoun from where I live. The damage is ongoing. Go to Purcellville and look at the development. New tract housing outside that town as far as they eye can see. Or, drive through Crystal City in Arlington and tell me how well the Arlington Board of Supervisors have done in controlling growth. Just wait until the Amazon employees start really ramping up.

        The only check on over-development in fast growing parts of Virginia is for communities to refuse to allow public water and sewer.

        The supervisors blame the state, the state blames the supervisors and politicians from both go laughing all the way to the bank.

        I’ve lived in NoVa for the vast majority of my life, starting when I was born in 1959. You’re fooling yourself if you think this is progressive vs conservative or Democrat vs Republican.

        It’s the continuing reverberation of the Byrd Machine with deals in smoke filled rooms, a lack of transparency and vast rivers of special interest money sloshing through our political class.

        1. LarrytheG Avatar
          LarrytheG

          I really don’t see much difference between NoVa and satellite exurban like Loudoun and many other urban areas in the nation and their growth into the suburbs.

          Just about every single urban region in the US looks a lot like NoVa and region.

          One of the big “tells” is the beltway.

          Look at the urban areas in the US – almost all of them are recognizable by beltways and major E/W/N/S intersections bisecting them.

        2. Eric the half a troll Avatar
          Eric the half a troll

          “The only check on over-development in fast growing parts of Virginia is for communities to refuse to allow public water and sewer.”

          Agreed. Very few tools left in the chest. Also, refuse upzonings on a wholesale basis. Purchase of development rights is another but hard to sell.

          1. LarrytheG Avatar
            LarrytheG

            But you gotta have water/sewer if you want dense village type development and also to trade for PDRs, no?

            It’s a paradox of sorts.

            The only way to stop dense development is no water/sewer but that won’t stop large lot sprawl ..that does not depend on water/sewer.

            Both Stafford and Spotsy have this problem. NoVa folks move out to the rural areas and buy large lots with well and septic… they actually do not want to live in dense development.

        3. James Wyatt Whitehead Avatar
          James Wyatt Whitehead

          You are right about water and sewer. I toured the Warrenton Water Treatment plant this summer. It was interesting and one thing I learned is that Fauquier will not be able to grow without a big time platinum upgrade of the water plant. Those water works workers could use a raise. They get peanuts for a very important and skills demanding job.

    2. Susan Lascolette Avatar
      Susan Lascolette

      Hi DJ – Please correct your statement about my campaign finance record.

      I received $22,885 in contributions in the 2019 election cycle. Richmond Association of Realtors donated only $500 – 2.1% of that amount. The $1,500 you cited is a cumulative total for all three election cycles. In 2019, RAR was the 12th largest donor, not the 5th.

      I accepted no contributions from developers, in fact, I have turned down contributions. A vast majority of contributions to my campaign were from individuals.

      Our voting records are posted on line on the Goochland County website and anyone can see that my voting record reflects the will of the citizens as I can best discern it, not the will of any one industry group.

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