Dominion Resources wants its riverfront lot below Oregon Hill rezoned, and residents of Oregon Hill are up in arms. They should be: They're right.
I teach critical thinking and find the Richmond Times-Dispatch an invaluable resource. Good reasoning is learned by diagnosing bad, and every morning a T-D editorial brings a new howler for my students' delectation. In my current favorite ("On the James," Aug. 1), the T-D likens the Dominion case to one in which the Smiths (read: Oregon Hillers) have a cottage across the street from the beach, and the Joneses (read: Dominion) own the empty beachfront lot across the way. If the Joneses build and spoil the Smiths' view, says the T-D, the Smiths have no standing to complain.
Rights trump interests. The Joneses' right to build defeats the Smiths' interest in keeping their view, as the T-D puts it. True if the Joneses have that right. But on a proper analogy, they don't. Fix the analogy: Suppose that the Joneses' vacant lot is zoned to prohibit building, so that they lack the legal right to build. They apply for rezoning. Do the Smiths have standing to oppose the application? Sure they do, along with everyone else in the jurisdiction.
People base their plans on zoning and the quality of life it affords. The conservative principle of legal stability says that plans shouldn't be upset lightly by changes in law. This principle gives government the obligation to not change the law without compelling reason. It gives citizens a corresponding right against the government. It gives Dominion the burden of making a compelling case for rezoning.
The way for Dominion to meet this burden is to show that rezoning would best serve the city's interests. (Appealing to Dominion's interest alone would miss the point of zoning.) Thus the nub of the matter is this: Is there a compelling case that rezoning will best serve Richmond?
Dominion bought its property with M-1 zoning. It wants rezoning to B-4, which unlike M-1 would allow buildings of unlimited height over most of the property.
Dominion plans a development that would generate temporary construction jobs. Some jobs would go to city residents, providing a real benefit. Score one for rezoning.
Temp work aside, however, Dominion has offered no good reason for thinking that its planned development would bring the city any significant gain of jobs, revenues or residents. (Council: "resident" means "voter.") It has, however, given me more examples for my class.
Dominion claims it would add tens of millions of dollars to the city's "salary base." An impressive claim and a meaningless one. Dominion admits that almost all its workers live outside the city and won't relocate. Boss and Worker drive from their county homes into Richmond, where Boss hands Worker his salary; then they both drive home, where Worker spends his salary. Boss has "boosted the city's salary base." What has the city received? Traffic and ozone.
Dominion's proposed development would bring extra traffic, to the tune of 900 new daily commuters. (Dominion's planned parking deck would even rob the city of its favorite source of revenue parking tickets.)
Dominion's representatives said at an Oregon Hill meeting that its workers would patronize local lunch spots. Questions later arose about lunchtime traffic. The response? Don't worry: Dominion will build a company cafeteria and discourage workers from leaving the campus for lunch. Hmmm.
Company reps suggested a tax windfall for the city. But wouldn't the city's tax abatement program exempt Dominion from taxes for 15 years? Well, Dominion replied, it might not qualify for tax abatement, so the city might reap some taxes. If Dominion's case rests on prospective tax payments, shouldn't we be sure that they're forthcoming?
Dominion's planned addition to the existing parking deck would destroy the spectacular view from a city park. It would degrade the view from Woodland Heights, the Lee Bridge, Hollywood Cemetery, Belle Isle and the river itself. The uglification of the area would make Richmond less appealing to prospective residents, businesses and tourists that might bring real benefit to the city. B-4 zoning would sabotage the goals and vision for downtown articulated in the city's master plan. Temp work passes, but ugly goes on and on.
Dominion's duplicity hasn't helped its case. It's not just the guff about traffic, restaurants, taxes and salary base. Dominion's minions apologized that planning for the site was in its infancy, so hulking parking deck aside they just hadn't a clue about what was coming. Then architectural drawings of massive brick-and-glass towers were found on Dominion's website. Oops. Those drawings "should not have been posted," Dominion says. No kidding! (Note to Dominion webmaster: bad career move.)
Dominion insists the drawings are mere flights of fancy. But if Dominion really lacks concrete plans for the site, what grounds its specific claim of 750 construction jobs? What builder can estimate the size of the crew needed for a job without having a clue what the job is? Something stinks. Either Dominion is lying about its lack of concrete plans or else it is fabricating the number of temporary jobs it will create.
Dominion's duplicity shouldn't sink its petition, but it should make us wary. Distrust, and verify!
If Dominion gets its high-rises, the honchos on the top floors will have all to themselves a spectacular view that now belongs to all Richmonders. Acknowledge the obvious: It's the view they're after. Blame them for lying but not for trying. Who wouldn't want that view? Only 2-year-olds, however, think that wanting confers entitlement.
Council should rezone only if rezoning serves the city. Facts suggest otherwise. Richmonders have a right to reasonable stability in zoning. Dominion's executives (note to Dominion shareholders: executives) have an interest in a splendid view. Rights trump interests.
Eugene Mills is an associate professor of philosophy at Virginia Commonwealth University.
Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.