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6/6/09

Why We Not Only Need To Have Prime Agricultural Zoning, But Need To Viligantly Protect It

As you all know, I could go on and on (and often do!) about smart growth and preservation. But Nicole Anderson Ellis outlines much more succinctly and beautifully why Central Virginia and counties *everywhere* need to not only maintain their Prime Agricultural zoning, but protect it. We have seen firsthand the planning disasters that destroyed local farmland to turn western Henrico and surrounding areas into Anywhere, USA.

Let me say first: My big frustration with my encounters with my local government is that:

As a web developer, it is my job to keep up with technology trends and the latest information. My clients and my reputation depends upon it.

As a green building company, it is MY JOB to stay abreast of green building.
Yes, a note to developers and others who will jump to criticize that we're "anti-development" / progress freaks: My business is green building. I am not anti-development, I am anti mass grading, anti "I don't care about Smart Growth," anti "I am going to bulldoze and thrust up a development of homes that are inefficient with no existing need into a saturated market." I am anti doing something, anything, for which there is not an obvious need.

Do I serve a viable purpose in the building industry? Yes. How 'bout yourself?

It seems that the Board of Supervisors, as well as Richmond city council, and much of Virginia, do not look to what their peers are doing nationwide, do not expand their knowledge base to reach out to Smart Growth, preservation of farmland, and sustainability: this is their JOB.

Regarding the need for huge development locally, I see tract after tract of failed, outdated, unwanted development projects. I see house after house for sale in existing neighborhoods. I see inadequate infrastructure. I see row after row of empty retail space.

In yesterday's Times-Dispatch, Mrs. Ellis wrote:

LAND USE: To Pave or Save Henrico’s Farmland?

NICOLE ANDERSON ELLIS TIMES-DISPATCH COLUMNIST
Published: June 5, 2009

NICOLE ANDERSON ELLIS On Tuesday, June 9, at 7 p.m. Henrico County's Board of Supervisors is holding a hearing for public feedback on the latest version of Henrico's draft 2026 Comprehensive Land Use Plan. They call it the county's "road map for growth."

At the same meeting, having supposedly weighed citizen input, the board "will consider adoption of the proposed 2026 comprehensive plan."

If the board does adopt it, for the first time in 400 years Henrico would not have a single acre of Prime Agricultural land. At least, not according to the land use map. Instead, the county's fields would be labeled "Rural Residential/Prime Ag." The draft also suggests that massive residential/retail construction is the best use -- in fact, the final use -- for thousands of acres of fertile riverfront land, America's first farms.

The changes encouraged by this "road map" would have certain consequences -- the loss of landscapes familiar to generations, rural roads clogged with traffic, etc. -- felt most sharply in the county's east end. Yet there are broader ramifications. And despite suggestions that this land use draft is a Varina problem, there is clear, quantified, and county-wide opposition to the proposed destruction of Henrico's last farm district.

ACCORDING to the county's own survey, 82 percent of county residents "support further restricting or managing new development in rural areas."

It's easy to see why. Farmland is increasingly rare, so it's increasingly valuable. Burying it under new houses is one way to cash in on this resource. But it's not the only way. And it's not the best.

Shifting consumer interests and investment trends have created a new wealth of open-space prospects. And Henrico's farmland comes "value added." Our farmland hugs the capital city. It is bordered by rivers. And it is home to historic gold.

Henrico's east end was Pocahontas' backyard. She bathed in creeks that still flow here. John Smith hunted these very forests. In our soil lie the bones of fallen Union and Confederate boys.

One million people visit Williamsburg each year, many driving through Varina on the way. So, is it time for the county to promote historic tourism? Is it time to court development of a living history site on the Henrico bank of the James River, just a boat ride across from Hopewell's Henricus State Park? Is it time for area schoolchildren to mingle with international tour groups at living museums dedicated to farm life, Powhatan culture, the role of Africans in Virginia history, the Civil War, and environmental science?

Then there's the equestrian industry, which generated $1.62 billion in the commonwealth last year. Varina is rich with barns and paddocks. Add trails, and Henrico could promote the landscape between the Chickahominy and the James as a rider's paradise, maximizing our market share.

Varina is already a destination for cyclists. They head east from the city every sunny day. And we received international attention when the 2007 U.S. Open Cycling Championship raced up Osborne Turnpike. Now the Capital-to-Capital trail is coming though the district, drawing bikers (and money) from Richmond and Williamsburg. Isn't it time to nurture that opportunity?

The Virginia Department of Forestry filed official comment noting the word "forestry" is absent from all 300 pages of Henrico's draft plan. But it doesn't have to be. The county's mature forests are a valuable resource. As green building hits the mainstream, Henrico is poised to offer builders sustainably raised and locally harvested timber.

THE IDEAS for profiting by keeping land green are limitless, and all provide healthy diversification to Henrico's tax base. In addition, open space generates revenue for the county -- the entire county -- without demanding the expensive services residential projects require.

So it's no surprise that Henrico citizens want our farmland preserved. What's surprising is that the Board of Supervisors is toying with a land use plan that pushes the county toward a future without farms.

But I have faith they'll reject this draft plan. They'll reject it, not just because it is political suicide to vote for anything that openly flouts 82 percent of voters. And not just because it is legal folly to flout the Virginia law mandating that each county's Land Use Plan "promote the health, safety, morals, order, convenience, prosperity, and general welfare of inhabitants." And not just because, according to the county's own statistics, Henrico's already approved subdivisions more than satisfy projected population growth through 2026 and beyond.

Tuesday night Supervisors James Donati, Richard Glover, David Kaechele, Pat O'Bannon, and Frank Thornton will face their constituents -- people like you and me, people who work hard for every tax dollar they pay, people who would rather be home with their families than at a public hearing but come anyway because they know that sometimes elected officials need to see the people they represent. And I believe that faced with that crowd, all five supervisors will vote against this draft land use plan because Henrico's real economic growth lies in the sustainable development of the history, productivity and beauty of America's first farms.

But don't take my word for it. Come on Tuesday. Watch them vote.

Thank you, Mrs. Ellis, for your practical words.
I hope our local leaders will listen.
It amazes me the plan removes the word "forest." It floors me that with our air quality marks were recently graded so poorly, yet the area would consider further destroying habitat / razing woods and allowing farms to turn into subdivisions!

Quizzical yet? Here's more food for fodder.
It is the responsibility of the citizens to take the time and go attend these meetings to have their voices heard. Otherwise officials only hear what they want. If Varina is paved over, if Ashland turns into a mall... it is our fault.

I believe in creating villages, pockets of community, where people can work, bike, live well.

As a region, our lack of public participation (Did I really hear that only THIRTY citizens showed up to the last comprehensive plan meeting? Really?) to *tell,* via actually showing their faces as proof of endorsement, to show their representatives what we collectively feel is an obvious growing sentiment... How can they listen and react, if you don't speak?

But it is also the responsibility of the elected officials to keep abreast in their industry to see the data to realize that this leap-frog development trend was long ago stopped in many successful cities that are now ranked highest in the nation for their quality of life.

So I will be there Tuesday, on a boring weekday evening, presenting my voice, opinion, and encouragement for Smart Growth and preservation of our natural resources.
Hope to see you there.

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