Yeah, It’s Probably a Good Idea to Update Your Zoning Code Every Half Century or So

Pouring whale oil. At long last, Henrico zoning code will leave the 19th century behind.
Pouring whale oil. At long last, Henrico’s zoning code will leave the 19th century behind.

News flash: Henrico County officials see the need to bring the county zoning code into the 21st century.  Although the zoning code has been amended 240 times, it was adopted in 1960 and has never seen a systematic overhaul since.

The code, Randy Silber, deputy county manager for community development, tells the Richmond Times-Dispatch, is “over 55 years old. It’s antiquated. … There’s disconnect in the uses in the zoning ordinance and the economic development that is being put before us.”

Regulations governing sperm whale oil and poison manufacturing remain on the books, notes Silber. The code also refers to bone distilleries. “I don’t even know what that is,” he says.

The 1960 zoning code shaped the “suburban sprawl” model that propelled Henrico County growth in the 56 years since. But the model has run its course, having saddled the county with vast expanses of low-density land use patterns that are costly to maintain and are beset by intractable road congestion issues. Moreover, businesses are reversing a decades-long migration from the central city to the suburbs as Millennials and Empty Nesters seek walkable, mixed-use communities found in the urban core, along with easy access to the city’s museums, festivals and cultural events. To avoid the same kind of hollowing out that central cities experienced a half century ago, Henrico must create walkable, urban places as well.

While Henrico has permitted a few such places, growth continues to be dominated by old-fashioned sprawl. An outdated zoning code is, in effect, mandating the county’s premature obsolescence.

The fact that county professionals see the need for change is encouraging — although the examples cited in the Times-Dispatch article suggest that they may be in more of a mind to tinker with the code than to embrace an alternative paradigm for development and re-development. It’s also unclear whether the citizenry, which is terrified of any change that might affect their homes’ property values, sees the need for change. But at least it’s a start.

Share this article


(comments below)


(comments below)


21 responses to “Yeah, It’s Probably a Good Idea to Update Your Zoning Code Every Half Century or So”

  1. LarrytheG Avatar

    used to be a fella here named Hydra … dunno what happened to him but I’m quite sure he would have had a thing or two to say about the evils of zoning of any kind – as an outrageous taking of private property “bundle of sticks”.!!!

      1. LarrytheG Avatar

        good catch Don.. glad to see he’s still around …but I did not see where he got the benefit… he signed his comment : Ray Hyde, Ashby Glen Farm and I did not see that farm named in the PDR parcels.

  2. CrazyJD Avatar

    And your point would be?…That argument, now a complete outlier, has no relevance to anything these days. It was disposed of in 1926 by the SCOTUS decision in Euclid v. Ambler.

    1. LarrytheG Avatar

      Crazy – you don’t think zoning affects property rights?

  3. Jim, you would probably not be surprised if I told you that most local zoning ordinances are woefully out of date. It’s easier to keep amending the original document than do a complete update/rewrite.
    According to what is taught in school, you do a comprehensive plan then you update your zoning ordinance to implement the plan. If you amend the plan, update the ordinance. Repeat ad infinitum. Simple and easy, right?
    Once you announce you want to update the ordinance, all sorts of creatures come out of the woodwork. The usual suspects – developers who want as few regulations as possible, businesses that want to do more, neighborhood groups who want to protect their property values, the greens, NIMBYs, etc.
    Plus, while you are trying to comply with all the requirements in the law about how to update the ordinance, you have to do your day-to-day job. Remember, you are shooting at a moving target; the stampede trying to get in under the old ordinance not knowing what the new brings.
    I wish Henrico the best of luck. They have a great staff and hopefully can devote a team to the job. It will be a long and fractious process. Bosun

  4. LarrytheG Avatar

    One of the interesting things about Henrico , and it’s Comp Plan and Zoning is that unlike the other counties in Va – save one – it is also responsible for it’s road and that’s a whole different ball game when the county is responsible for both land-use and transportation.

    Most counties in Va don’t pay much attention to the impacts that they have with land-use decisions on transportation infrastructure – they just do their thing and expect VDOT to follow along and fix it and it will…after a decade or so…

    Even in Henrico , VDOT still ends up with the Primary and Interstates – which are impacted by land-use decisions. which go back to the Comp Plan and the zoning …

    Comp Plans and zoning ultimately lead to Schools and fire/EMS stations – and … transportation infrastructure.

    this is where the pedal hits the metal on the role of govt in taxing citizens to pay for infrastructure – needed in response to growth and business need for access to transportation infrastructure.

  5. Cville Resident Avatar
    Cville Resident

    Do you know if this update to Henrico’s zoning ordinance will explore form based code?

    1. There was no indication in the RTD article I cited whether form-based codes are being considered or not.

  6. LarrytheG Avatar

    I don’t know about Henrico – but locally one of the things that bugs me is that the maps for existing and planned water/sewer are not overlayed on the existing and planned zoning maps – they’re treated separately and are not to the same scale.

    I think the two are tightly related… and to a certain extent what some of the planning is about is where you’re NOT going to put the infrastructure to support density.

    1. In many respects, in counties like Prince William, planning is all about where you are NOT going to put in the infrastructure necessary to support density.

      That is presently coming to the forefront as the administrative war regarding what is to be done with the County’s Rural Area heats up. The short-sighted elected officials whose campaigns are almost exclusively funded by deep-pocketed development interests have opened Pandora’s Box and probably will not like the ultimate outcome.

      1. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
        Reed Fawell 3rd

        Hope to hear more as events unfold.

  7. Everyone needs to remember that the power to control land use thru zoning, extension of utilities, etc. is the next most important thing a local official does second only to the power to tax and budget. Therefore, it is subject to a lot of pressures. Bosun

    1. Sorry, it is the most important thing as it necessarily defines the tax rate and budget. It also defines congestion, school classroom size, water and sewer issues, etc., etc., etc.

    2. LarrytheG Avatar

      you keep tempting with your short responses – that indicate to me that you know a lot more on these subjects and others here in BR including me would greatly benefit from sharing your knowledge!

      You seem to know for some of these things how they REALLY work!

  8. LarrytheG Avatar

    Indeed – when a county designates where density is going to be – it’s making a commitment to infrastructure -water/sewer, schools, roads, EMS .. debt… levels of service….

    and the question is – do they essentially make those to-be-expanded areas self-funded with service districts and hold other taxpayers outside those districts harmless … or are they making all taxpayers including those outside the designated growth areas – responsible for the costs?

    In my experience in Spotsylvania – it’s been the latter more than the former although we do have some service districts… the focus of the county on infrastructure in the designated areas involves taxpayers countywide-wide unless they are doing a TIF district.

    I note that the city adjacent to the county – Fredericksburg has indeed used TIF to expand commercial areas near I-95… and it has it’s own issues because the tax on undeveloped properties in the TIF district – go up before the land is developed and taxes on commercial property are not exactly cheap to start with. That puts some roadblocks down for projects that are close on the finances – a theme amusement park bailed out when local support had some opposition and they had a friendlier reception in another locality – so that land now sits raw and undeveloped 5+ years and counting but the roads and water/sewer are in and property owners paying for. The owners have yet to find what kind of business has some promise of succeeding… not so easy these days when other commercial development has cherry-picked the more profitable ones and what’s left are ones that are more marginal and/or only found in larger metro areas.

    Fredericksburg has been able to use commercial growth to keep down residential taxes, so far.

  9. LarryG-am in the countryside with poor connection to the ether (this is being composed from a Mexican restaurant in Hardy, VA). When I resurface I will try to respond to your request for planning education for the jaded. Perhaps by then BR will have moved on to another bouquet of hot topics. Bosun

    1. LarrytheG Avatar

      I’m looking forward to it Bosun! I had to look up the location of Hardy – you ARE out in the boondocks…!!! But then I do remember being there on the way home from a trip because we visited the Booker T. Washington National Monument.

      If BR has moved on to other threads – find one that fits are better yet write a guest thread and send it to Jim – and I bet he posts it!

  10. CrazyJD Avatar

    It usually does. But zoning per se is not an outrageous taking of private property. See Euclid v. Ambler.

    1. LarrytheG Avatar

      “outrageous” is pretty subjective… they certainly are “takings” but ostensibly for the good of all… and I bet that phrase DOES rankle you Crazy, right? 😉

      And zoning is – most certainly a top-down, govt-edict type process performed by do-gooder planning bureaucrats… right?

  11. The reference to the PDR program in Fauquier County brings up the point that all land use tools are controversial. PDR has it critics, especially in Fauquier. That county’s program is probably the most robust due, in part, to former county CAO, Bob Lee, who went on to head the state agency that administers the program statewide.
    What’s wrong with PDR? First, there is the cost to the state. Those tax incentives that benefit land owners who enter into the program have to be paid out of the state budget. There were years, I recall, when the Gen’l. Ass. wanted to lower the amount of new tax benefits and they may have succeeded since I quit watching.
    There were charges from some counties that the purchase of development rights was done with no regard to the comprehensive plan of the affected locality. The state law, however, requires consideration of the comp plan. Counties were worried that DRs. were being removed from land that had been designated for growth. After all, prime farmland is also the best land for development.
    Then, there is the question of who and how the restrictions on the affected land will be administered. Say someone purchases or rents property where the DRs. have been removed and the purchase agreement contains requirements on how the the property can be used or what can be done with certain buildings on the property that contributed to why the DRs. were purchased. I think that was one of the controversies encountered by everyone’s favorite farmer, Ms. Bonita, in Fauquier. She had a ‘disagreement’ with the Virginia Outdoors Foundation over the use of certain buildings on a PDR property and how the VOF was enforcing the provisions of the agreement.
    Finally, there is the issue of perpetuity. Some attorneys question locking up anything, much less land, forever. No one knows the future.
    PDRs have benefits and the program has expanded to many areas of the state. Virginia Beach’s program has protected much of the southern portions of its area from suburban sprawl. Some localities provide support in the form of tax dollars to help the purchase of DRs. and the state use to provide some money for a competitive grant for purchases. Bosun.

Leave a Reply