Powhatan Board of Supervisors denies large development project

Resident Michael Thompson asks everyone in the auditorium opposed to a proposed development to stand during an Oct. 28 supervisor meeting.

POWHATAN – The Powhatan County Board of Supervisors recently voted 3-2 in favor of denying a rezoning application for a mixed-use development proposing up to 249 dwelling homes and townhomes near the Chesterfield County line.

East West Communities proposed to build some commercial development and up to 249 homes on a 120-acre site on the north side of Page Road at its intersection with U.S. Route 60 (Anderson Highway) adjacent to the Chesterfield County line. This project, called the Ellis Farm Development, would have included single-family detached and townhouse dwellings.

When the board started discussing the issue at 6:30 p.m. on Monday, Oct. 28 in front of a packed Village Building auditorium, the initial route forward appeared to be to defer the case to a future meeting. But after about three hours –filled with a developer presentation, dozens of citizen comments, and speeches from the board – the supervisors went ahead and took the vote to deny the project.

David Williams, who represents District 1, Larry Nordvig, District 2, and Carson Tucker, District 5, voted to deny the project. Chairwoman Angie Cabell, District 3, and Bill Melton, District 4, voted against the denial.

When the rezoning case was presented to the board at the meeting by Andrew Pompei, planning director, he said that the staff recommendeation was to defer until a future meeting because the developer had submitted documentation at the request of the county that still needed to be examined closely.

Based on those recommendations and some questions the supervisors had about staff’s recommendation, there seemed to be some agreement that deferment was going to be the route the board took. But they still allowed Chris Shust with Balzer and Associates to give a presentation about the proposal.

They also still held the public hearing to allow citizens to comment on the case. In all, 32 people spoke to voice opposition to the proposal and six people were in favor of it. Of those six in favor of the project, at least three said they had direct ties to it.

While Williams and Nordvig voiced their opposition to the project before the public hearing was held, Tucker, Melton, and Cabell did not offer an opinion on the case itself. Instead, after all of the citizens had spoken – a few of whom implored directly to Tucker, saying he would be the swing vote since they “already knew” how Melton and Cabell would vote – Melton and Tucker spoke.

As soon as the public hearing ended, Tucker said he had been willing to vote for deferral but now had changed his mind. This prompted Williams to immediately make a motion to deny the rezoning request.

In the comments that followed, Tucker didn’t speak about the case itself but admonished some people in the crowd for rude behavior and accusations. He also said it is his practice and duty to hear all sides of a case before making a decision to be fair to all, which is why he won’t offer an opinion on a case at its beginning.

Melton echoed Tucker’s words about the importance of being a “fact-based decision maker” but also addressed issues related to Powhatan’s Long Range Comprehensive Plan and the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) statements about the future of traffic mitigation in the future.

Williams and Nordvig spoke again about why they weren’t in support of the project before the 3-2 vote on the motion to deny was taken.

Project clarity

Near the start of the time focused on the Ellis Farm Development case, Chris Shust gave a presentation similar to what he had offered in previous meetings of the Powhatan County Planning Commission but with a few more details added.

His presentation again focused on all of the benefits he said the project would bring to the county: about $1 million in real estate tax revenue, roughly $3.036 million in water and sewer connect fees, and $500,000 for a new pump station to serve the development.

The developer also proffered $1.5 million to fund the VDOT-approved addition of a restricted crossing u-turn (RCUT) intersection on Anderson Highway across from Page Road to handle the increase of traffic that would be expected to come with the project.

Shust once again referenced how the school enrollment numbers would be projected to increase but not be expected to push any of the buildings over capacity. He also provided details about the RCUT, which is one of the alternative road improvement solutions VDOT has recently been advocating.

Shust outlined a number of ways the project is in compliance with the comprehensive plan and defined a few aspects of the project that were previously in question. He made the point that about 96 percent of the county’s 262 square miles has been set aside for rural preservation, and only 4 percent as concentrated growth areas. The project falls in that area.

The project was proposed with four main areas: 6.2 acres on Route 60 for commercial use; a section for up to 50 townhomes; a section for mid-range lots, and larger estate lots in the back. He stressed no apartments were planned or would have been permitted on the project. In addition to sidewalks, the conceptual plan also showed a walking trail, pocket parks, and one big park.

Shust also discussed several other aspects of the project, including buffers; an environmentally-friendly landscape design; 23 acres of open space; preserving existing wildlife corridors; buffers to protect waterways, and homes fitting with the community character of Powhatan.

For the first time, the developer provided more of a timeline for the project, with milestones such as: Day 1, water and sewer service available, one access point opened, and subdivision street improvements for first 50 lots built; after 49th lot built, second street access off Page Road built along with associated road improvements and horizontal improvements for RCUT on Route 60 built; after 100th lot built, signals installed on RCUT.

Shust also laid out several misperceptions he said have been shared in the community.

He said the project is not a high density develop; it didn’t even plan to build to the full capacity allowed under the comprehensive plan. The developer is offering a proffer for road improvements. He refuted the argument that citizens are against the project to a ratio of 12:1. He also addressed the “wrong place, wrong time,” argument, saying the project was proposed for a portion of the county identified for this type of development on the comprehensive plan, water and sewer are available, and a solution to transportation has been provided. The neighborhood would not be visible urban sprawl, instead tucked behind many buffers, he said.

At the end of his presentation, Shust said if the case was not approved, it would send a strong message to businesses “that Powhatan is not open for business” and a “precedent is going to be set that the comprehensive plan does not matter in Powhatan.”

Board comments

In questions and statements made both before and after the public hearing, Williams and Nordvig made it clear that they did not support the development project. Each stated several reasons for this.

Williams called into question Shust’s statement that the project complies with the comprehensive plan, going through the staff report and pointing out several instances where it said the project didn’t meet all requirements.

He talked at length about issues regarding traffic, including not wanting to wave access management standards, the road proffers benefiting the developer more than the county, and the impact on levels of service. He said that VDOT currently grades Page Road’s level of service as an F in certain morning, but when the full project is built out with the RCUT in place, the road will still be rated as an F but have more people.

Shust replied that was looking at “one specific item in a vacuum instead of looking at the whole intersection in its function.”

Williams also reiterated arguments he has made before about the county’s finite water resources and planning for the future for smart growth and how best to use the water the county is allocated.

Nordvig talked about the cost of resources residential development would bring to the county versus how much it costs and said agriculture and commercial projects are much less of a drain on a locality.

He discussed the comprehensive plan and major changes he said were made at the last minute to the Future Land Use Map that would allow the Ellis Farm Development and others to be made. He pointed out he and Williams voted against it. He also reiterated statements that he has made in the past that the residents are the supervisors’ bosses and it is their job to vote the way the people want.

Tucker did not address any of his comments to the details of the Ellis Farm Development. He instead addressed negative comments made in the audience that night and in anonymous calls to his home. He talked about his unwillingness to say how he is going to vote for a project – this one or any other – before he has heard all of the information and feels truly informed. He also challenged anyone who suggests any of the board members are on the take to prove it and said “you insult me by that comment.”

Melton commended Tucker for his comments and said “we can disagree, but we do not have to be a community that attacks people on social meeting or in public or laughs at people when they have a difference of opinion.”

Melton discussed how the comprehensive plan was drafted to focus growth areas in Powhatan so that about 95 percent of the county could remain rural.

He made the point that Powhatan currently has about 300 storefront businesses, and it would take about 1,900 more to use the county’s water capacity. The county is supplementing the water system to the tune of $2.2 million each year and flushes thousands of gallons of water every day, so having more hookups to it would help offset the existing cost to Powhatan taxpayers, he said.

In speaking with VDOT representatives, he said he learned that the agency is leaning toward alternative solutions like RCUTs instead of four-way intersections, regardless of it being at Page Road or anywhere else along Route 60.

“RCUTs will be done in this county in the future, so just like traffic circles, I guess we are going to have to figure out how to use those. But I see in a rural jurisdiction that an RCUT is a good way to move traffic,” he said, adding VDOT’s job is to move traffic safely and efficiently, not stop it.

Public comments

In a public hearing that lasted just over an hour and a half, 32 people spoke against the development and six people spoke for it.

Within that time, one of the key moments that showed the predominant tone of the packed auditorium came with the second speaker, Michael Thompson. While many valid reasons for opposition would be brought up, he said, he wanted to make the point that it wasn’t up to the applicant to decide whether this project was the “wrong place, wrong time”; that was a decision for the residents of the county.

“The deeper issue is that you are our elected representatives. And irrespective of what the applicant states, what the math says, what any of this says, none of it matters. The only thing that matters is anybody sitting out here right now and what their thoughts and concerns are. Voting any way other than what their concerns are and what their wishes are would be an abdication of duties,” Thompson said.

He then asked any Powhatan residents who were opposed to the project to stand. A majority of those in the 315-seat auditorium, which was nearly full, did stand at that point, but not everyone.

With 32 speakers in opposition to the project, their combined reasons for not wanting the development were many and varied: concerns about the county’s water supply and letting residential developments deplete allocations intended for commercial development; previous residential customers not being allowed to hook up to the county water; the project is not in full compliance with the comprehensive plan; no cash proffers offered to offset cost of services; increasing the burden on traffic; concerns about traffic incidents with the RCUT; target shooting on existing properties a danger if children trespass; the already hazardous conditions of driving Page Road being magnified by more residents, and increased traffic heading up to Route 711.

Other issues raised included: trying an existing RCUT and finding it huge and complicated; the strain on school enrollment after redistricting was recently necessary for capacity; burden on the county’s resources; location on county line makes retail dollars likely to go to Chesterfield; moved to Powhatan to escape denser populations; maintaining rural character to let Powhatan be a “rural jewel in a center of metropolitan Richmond spread of humanity”; numerous residential development projects underway right now in Chesterfield County; the planning commission voted unanimously to recommend denial of the project; the development will cost the county too much money in resources; a request to provide real affordable housing; lack of information provided by the developer over the course of the project; no commitment to the commercial development; the project doesn’t meet the county’s access management standards, and preferring a stoplight instead of an RCUT.

Those who spoke in support of the project also covered a variety of topics: wanting more affordable housing available for young people and those wanting to downsize; the opportunity to be part of change in a positive way and control growth; the RCUT was recommended by VDOT and is the likely solution the agency will suggest along Route 60 moving forward; young people can’t move back to county because large lot houses are too expenses; Powhatan needs rooftops to attract businesses; East West Communities produces quality developments; preferring a subdivision as a neighbor to commercial development; eastern Powhatan residents do shop in Powhatan; and not wanting Powhatan to be driven to the point it has to accept a business people don’t want for revenue.

Laura McFarland may be reached at Lmcfarland@powhatantoday.com.

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