Whatever Happened to Smart Growth in Chesterfield?

For years, Marleen Durfee, a peppy Pennsylvanian who talks a mile a minute, has been the point woman in Chesterfield County when it comes to Smart Growth.
For years, she was the lone voice in the desert crying for a stop to the wild, thoughtless development that Chesterfield’s Good Ole Boys and Girls Board of Supervisors had been fostering for three decades. Finally, in 2007, she was elected to the board with high hopes of finally bringing some sanity to county planning.
And it seemed not a moment too soon since Chesterfield’s two big growth areas — Midlothian Turnpike and Hull Street Road — were abortions of traffic congestion, overcrowded schools and too many big boxes that had a tendency to go dark.
Now, Ms. Durfee is in a tizzy. The reason is the “Green Monster,” a zombie-like project that keeps coming back to life no matter how many stakes are thrust into its heart. Back in the heyday of go-go growth in 1991, the Board approved plans for Magnolia Green with 4,886 homes that never seemed to get built.
The project was split into Upper and Lower Magnolia Green and then the big recession hit. The brakes came on in an instant, sending such megaprojects into a crash. Last spring, owners tried to auction off Lower Magnolia Green but there were no bidders. It seemed that a clearly-defined border for sprawl had finally been established at approximately Woodlake along U.S. 360 and Watkins Centre along U.S. 60 in western Chesterfield County.
Well, maybe not. It turns out that a series of developers, including Salvatore Cangiano of Leesburg who still owns Upper Magnolia Green, are considering unsolicited requests to somehow build (pick one) a new shopping mall, a research park with a D.C. university taking the lead (I hear either Georgetown or George Washington, but I have my doubts), some kind of mega mixed-use project and even a gigantic sports and concert hall on the order of Verizon Center in Washington.
To get any of these ideas done, however, the county and private developers would have to extend the toll Powhite Parkway from where it terminates at Route 288 nine miles to U.S. 360 at a tiny crossroads called Skinquarter that consist basically of a gas station that sells fried chicken and is a place you can take your deer to get it tagged after you have shot it.
In a story I did for Style Weekly, Cangiano said that the investors have come to him with the idea and that he has met with the county about it. He says the area that would be penetrated by the extended Powhite would be “strategically located” and that he doesn’t have typical development in mind, He is dismissive of what has been built around 360 as “small boxes.” Nor is he worried about finding financing in this incredibly difficult market. ” We have our own banks,” he told me.
County officials won’t say what might happen but that they are just talking. As Jim Stegmaier, county administrator, told me, Chesterfield has to keep looking because badly imbalanced growth means that the county exports 30 percent of its workforce every day.
So what’s Marleen’s role in all of this? Smart Growthers in Richmond were stunned to hear her say that she’s “excited” by the project and extending the Powhite, as she was reported as saying in Richmond’s metro daily. She told me that her idea is to remake some very bad policies that have plagued Chesterfield for years and that doing Upper Magnolia Green the right way could push the ball forward.
But she’s taking the heat. The Chesterfield Observer notes that the local Responsible Growth Alliance, an activist group headed by Durfee for two years, doesn’t really function any more. And John Moeser, a University of Richmond fellow and planning expert, says that extending the Powhite is anything but smart growth.
There are lots of arguments against doing so. For one thing, there are plenty of other spots to locate an office mark, a mall or an amphitheater, such as the troubled Cloverleaf Mall or the new but largely vacant Watkins Centre. Pushing the Powhite would stretch into virgin territory, although it could offer an alternative commuter route than crowded Hull Street (360).
Any new extension would have to be a public-private deal since the state has no money. Some firms such as Australia’s TransUrban, which runs the Pocahantos Parkway, are said to be interested in it.
The weirdest part of this strange tale is the timing. With the real estate meltdown and subprime mortgage mess having culled many weak residential projects and the commercial market taking its toll, it would seem that now is the time to start rethinking suburban sprawl. Chesterfield promised to do so since it is reconsidering its comprehensive plan at this very moment.
Where, however, do these ideas to push highways farther and farther away from urban centers into the piney woods keep coming from? Doesn’t that violate Rule One of Smart Growth? Whatever happened to Smart Growth in Chesterfield?
Peter Galuszka

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8 responses to “Whatever Happened to Smart Growth in Chesterfield?”

  1. Darrell -- Chesapeake Avatar
    Darrell — Chesapeake

    "I looked as hard as I could at how states could declare bankruptcy," said Michael Genest, director of the California Department of Finance who is stepping down at the end of the year. "I literally looked at the federal constitution to see if there was a way for states to return to territory status."


    These local governments had better start paying attention. Virginia isn't going to have money to support ambitious plans by fantasyland politicians.

    The Feds are going to get their taxes over the bodies of bankrupt cities. They have no choice. When economic engines like Calif. and New York have gone bust with no legal way out of their situation, the states that have avoided most of the suffering will find themselves prime targets to make up the difference by federal cuts to their budgets. Cities and counties will find themselves sacrificed for the greater good.

  2. "Smart Growth" has become an abortion of the concept much as "green" has…

    The time-honored way for development to open up new land for single family detached homes with cul-de-sacs has been extending roads…

    but now when they do that – they call it "smart" and folks who say they are for "Smart Growth" demonstrate how much they do not understand the concept.

    Mind you, I'm not advocating one kind over the other – only that when you have folks who say they advocate one and they don't even recognize it when's it's morphed into the mirror opposite… that those folks simply do not themselves truly understand the difference.

    We have the same problem in the Fredericksburg Area.

    They think that Commuter Rail is "smart growth" because a developer has offered to build "Smart Growth" around the new train station…

    as if.. no one is going to drive their car away from that train station to your run-of-the-mill single family detached with a cul-de-sac 10-20 miles away….

  3. Anonymous Avatar

    I'll bet the guy who owns the deer tagging station is thrilled.

  4. Anonymous Avatar

    Smart Growth in Warrenton:

    The town has approved or is about to approve a new zoning category PUD for mixed use development.

    The new categeroy will apply to approximately 3 to 5 lots within the town.

    Why not just write a check to the owners?


  5. We just had a rezone to PUD that was all residential…

    and so the subject came up that within an area designated for PUD does every parcel that will ultimately be developed have to have proportional elements of mixed residential and office and the planners said that no…

    that it meant that the entire area "could" be developed as proportional residential and office.

    So they were asked what happens if one parcel is brought forward as residential does that mean the other parcels cannot be brought forward as residential if in doing so the "mix" becomes more residential than office…

    and they said .. "nothing" – each parcel is judged independently on it's merits.

    So then they were asked what if all the parcels are ultimately developed as residential and none as office what happens and they shrugged their shoulders.

    So the PUD designation is basically an "invite" but there is no hard requirement that the area designed as PUD actually be developed as "mixed".

    I don't know how this works in other places but in our area, a multi-parcel area designed as PUD can apparently end up all residential.

    Oh.. and not a peep out of the folks yammering about Smart Growth….

    In fact, one of them showed up and said that since the houses were on smaller lots that typical subdivisions that it was "sorta" "smart".

  6. E M Risse Avatar


    Thank you for the horror story.

    The facts here are SO frightening on SO MANY levels. Those of us who only go to the Richmond NUR when we have to still need to keep informed about how bad things are there.

    But why now?

    The calender says that Thanksgiving is coming up soon. This story belongs in the Halloween section along with Saw X. It this a hang over from Friday the 13th? On second reading it must be a hang over from April Fools Day.

    That a ANYONE could consider EXTENDING Powhite Parkway or building ANYTHING other than Cluster and Neighborhood support facilities beyond US Route 288 shows how close land speculators have driven the US of A to COLLAPSE.

    Chesterfield County should buy every voter (and every governance practitioner) a copy of "Green Metropolis: Why Living smaller, Living Closer, and driving Less are the Keys to Sustainability."

    Larry is right about the corruption of ‘smart growth’ but this fact / location context takes use of the term to the fringes on the other side of insanity.

    One clarification: Verizon Center is a recreation venue with METRO access and little parking in the Zentrum of the National Capital Subregion. A recreation venue in Upper Magnolia could only be compared to a place such as Nissan Pavilion in Prince William County.

    As bad as Nissan Pavilion is – and it is an infected but still bleeding wound on rump of the SubRegion – a recreation venue in Upper Magnolia would make Nissan look like a beauty spot and a Lincoln Center, the Kennedy Center and Carnegie Hall rolled into one.


  7. EMR – this lady is not the only "Smart Growther" who is advocating along these lines..

    It's comical.

    All a developer has to do is say… that he's building a place where folks can live, work, shop and play and it'll have a perimeter trail system for "walking" and "biking" and the Smart Growth folks get on board.

  8. Anonymous Avatar

    Virginia's state religion — developer worship. Not many people elected to public office are willing to skip worship services.


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