Home Invaders 

Chesterfield County's future won't be determined by giant developers, but by smaller-pocket subdivisions lurking in the fields.

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Corrections: In earlier print and online versions, we incorrectly reported projected housing demand for Chesterfield County. According to a study by the Southern Environmental Law Center, and based on the U.S. Census data, the entire Richmond region is projected to need an additional 125,000 housing units by 2030. Also, we reported that the Roseland development in Chesterfield had been approved. The rezoning application has not been approved by the planning commission nor the Board of Supervisors.

Rick Brindle wants to die in this house. It's a spacious five-bedroom house with an in-ground pool and a two-car garage that doubles as an office (with a conference pool table).

It's surrounded by woods on more than 7 acres in southern Chesterfield County with a long, winding, asphalt driveway from Donegal Drive.

On a June afternoon, Brindle's wife, Dee, is unloading groceries from the car. A steady stream of teenagers, friends of the Brindles' three children, stop by for the pool where a boombox is blaring.

"We moved here to retire and die here," says Brindle, who relocated his family from Fayetteville, Ark., to the county in 1996. An e-commerce executive with Kraft Foods, he telecommutes from his garage. "We didn't move here to flip a house or anything like that," he says. "And I'm not a rabble-rouser."

But there's a threat clouding their bucolic lifestyle — a proposed 24-house subdivision nearby, just behind Pocahontas State Park. Brindle and his neighbors have been fighting the proposal for 10 months.

They don't like the development's density — essentially half-acre lots, compared with his 7 acres — and worry that if the Chesterfield County Board of Supervisors rezones the property at its June 27 meeting a gush of development will be unleashed around it. Brindle and his neighbors fear the small rezoning case could ultimately lead to 300 new homes, straining already over-traveled roads and overpopulated schools.

Still, what really goads Brindle is the process, which he views as tilted toward the development community. The county planning department recommended the rezoning knowing full well the impact on schools and roads, and the Planning Commission voted to send it to the Board of Supervisors for a final vote, despite having serious misgivings.

"I can't go to a dinner party, or a cocktail party, or even a Starbucks and the conversation not be about the crazy mismanagement of the county," Brindle says.

Residential imbalance
For the region's fastest growing county, a 53-acre proposal barely registers a blip on the development radar. Along state Route 288 on the county's western edge, for example, the recently proposed 1,400-acre Roseland project includes up to 5,140 houses, condos and apartments, not to mention another nearly 640-acre mixed-use residential commercial development called Watkins Centre just up the road at 288 at Midlothian Turnpike.

Roseland has been heralded by county leaders for incorporating "smart growth" principles that call for conserving green space and creating walkable communities by allowing more residential units per acre, and including a mix of retail shopping and offices all within a self-contained, interconnected street grid.

The county's future, though, will largely be determined on the smaller battlefields, such as the one taking place in the Brindles' backyard. Most of Chesterfield's residentially zoned, but yet undeveloped, properties are spread out. In fact, the county has so much residentially zoned land that if it were all built out tomorrow, it would amount to more than 43,000 new homes. Chesterfield has about 300,000 residents.

Long a bedroom community for much of the region, Chesterfield faces an imbalanced tax base. With higher ratio of residents to businesses, which bring in more tax revenue, the county is struggling to find the resources to pay for public services such as new schools and police.

As for roads, unlike the city of Richmond and Henrico County, which own and control their own secondary roads, Chesterfield doesn't. Not only does the county rely solely on the state for road maintenance and construction, officials say, it also lacks the legal right to consider a development's impact on local roads during the rezoning process.

All of this makes managing residential growth the county's great quagmire. And it's only going to get worse, says Trip Pollard, a senior attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center in Charlottesville.

Pollard, who's leading a new study on the county's growth patterns, says when factoring in current household sizes and projected population growth based on the 2000 U.S. Census, the Richmond region will grow by another 125,000 housing units — including single and multifamily dwellings — by 2030. Chesterfield will bear much of the burden for that demand.

"They have so much (residential housing) that has been approved, they've lost their ability to implement their vision on how they want to grow," Pollard says of Chesterfield. "That's not easy. I don't want to underestimate how difficult that can be."

Entangled planners
Chesterfield Planning Director Kirkland Turner says that with so much land already zoned for residential development years ago, his office lacks the tools to manage it effectively.

In the early 1990s, the county established a cash proffer system in an effort to minimize the impact of residential growth and generate more revenue to pay for public services. But in some ways it's backfired. A landowner who wants to rezone property from agricultural to residential, for instance, agrees to pay an additional fee per allowable housing unit before it's built. In effect, the program encourages landowners to apply for rezoning years before selling it to a developer - the proffer fees are set at the date of rezoning — in order to maximize profits as land and housing costs appreciate. For instance, in the early '90s, the proffer fee was just more than $2,000 per unit; today, it's $15,600 per unit.

"Because of this cash proffer system, they are banking the zoning for five, 10, 15 years down the road," Turner says. "Clearly, Chesterfield County over the years has been a fantastic place to raise a family and raise your kids. And because of that we have a tendency to zone urban sprawl."

Once the land is rezoned, it's difficult for the county to implement restrictions on the development, Turner says: "From the public's perspective, frankly, there is not a lot that can be done with the tools that the state has given us."

The county has found some success by offering developers incentives to implement "smart growth" principles. For example, the county can reduce out-of-pocket cash proffers in exchange for the developer building a new school or fire station within the subdivision. And by putting more housing on fewer acres, the county has an easier time managing the effects on roads and schools, and there are cost savings in supplying public services — such as water and sewer — to residents in a more compact area.

Turner says the Roseland development is case in point. He sees that project as a "tremendous" step forward. "That developer has really given the county a lot more control," he says. "I'd much rather see one 1,600-acre rezoning case than I would 50 smaller zoning cases. We can't coordinate those 50 zoning cases."

Debating "smart growth"
Indeed, applying smart growth principles to smaller, piecemeal, rezoning cases is more problematic. To Brindle, there's nothing "smart" about the 53-acre proposal, which in essence encourages more housing in a smaller area, immediately funneling more cars onto the roads and more kids into nearby schools.

It all started in early September, when Brindle noticed state traffic counters on Qualla Road. A few days later, the other shoe fell. "One day we noticed that rezoning signs popped up in our neighborhood," Brindle says. So he called his planning commissioner, Wayne Bass, who informed him of the 53-acre rezoning case.

It seemed minor enough, until Brindle and his neighbors discovered the property was attached to another 247 acres of farmland that had been rezoned residential back in the 1980s. The smaller case, in fact, made the additional acreage accessible to Spring Run Road, making the area susceptible to a much larger future development.

Brindle says he isn't against growth, but wants smart, managed growth. But to him and his neighbors that doesn't mean "higher-density" development. He has a PowerPoint presentation on his laptop, complete with zoning maps and traffic-count statistics and school trailer statistics to make his point.

Planning Commissioner Bass agrees.

"Smart growth is being proactive and being sure that if you are going to bring any development in, you have the ability to handle it," Bass says. "We've got the problem now where we've overtaxed our roads, especially in the Matoaca district (where Brindle resides). Schools are overcrowded more in the Matoaca area and the Clover Hill area than they are in any other part of the county. Then you have to think about the environmental issues. The majority own septic tanks and they don't have public sewers.

"When they say smart growth, I don't think they aren't reading out of the same book that I read."

And that's precisely the problem. In practice, smart-growth principles often break down in suburban and exurban neighborhoods. While Brindle makes a powerful case for more informed, better-managed growth, in effect he and his neighbors are arguing for good old-fashioned suburban sprawl: fewer homes on larger lots.

"There is a lot of confusion about density, but it's so key to genuine smart growth," says Adele MacLean, coordinator for the Partnership for Smarter Growth in Richmond. "Far out, it doesn't make sense. It ought to be along transportation lines so that we are not building in a wasteful way."

Of course, it's important not to overlook another key element of the smart-growth movement, MacLean says. Its principles were originally meant to target more urbanized areas, and not rural communities such as Brindle's.

"Smart growth is going to mean different things in different parts of the region. It's not applying an urban tool where a rural or suburban tool is more appropriate," says John Grier, a residential developer with Trammell Crow and outgoing chairman of the Richmond District Council for the Urban Land Institute. "This whole smart-growth discussion needs to step back and get away from tactics and strategies and tools to the higher level discussion of what should the community really be."

That's exactly what Brindle and his neighbors are clamoring for. It's high time to take another look at the county's overall comprehensive plan, Brindle says.

Doing so, Pollard says, would enable the county to legally address the large swaths of residentially rezoned areas of the county that are currently vexing planners and residents. "The county needs a broader overhaul of the vision of how they want to grow and develop," he says.

It's a process that may be just beginning. The county is poised for a leadership overhaul in the coming months with longtime County Administrator Lane Ramsey retiring and two key members of the board of supervisors — including the Matoaca District's Renny Humphrey — not seeking re-election in November.

Meanwhile, the 53-acre rezoning case has inspired Brindle and his neighbors to align their homeowners' association, Donegal Glen, with six others to form an alliance representing more than 11,000 county residents to collectively combat "mismanaged growth."

So far, the newly formed Chesterfield Coalition of Homeowner Association Presidents includes Brandermill, Foxcroft, FoxFire, Hampton Park, Brandy Oaks, Rocky Run and Donegal Glen.

"Our sole purpose is to shepherd or be the stewards of smart growth," Brindle says. "There is no party affiliation. The only agenda: We've got to take our county back." S

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