Monday evening was the last public input session for the first part of James City County’s ordinance update process.
Planning commissioners heard comments from the public and members of the business and development community, as well as comments from the slow-growth group, J4C. Input focused on how to keep from repeating mistakes that have recently made headlines along with suggestions on mixed-use and residential and rural lands districts.
Former planning commissioner Debbie Kratter touched on many of the county’s previous hot-button issues when she made her suggestions on ordinance revisions.
Though she didn’t directly mention former planning commissioner Chris Henderson who resigned his position after development interest in the Courthouse Commons project was made public, Kratter’s suggestions did imply a reference to issues surrounding his resignation.
She suggested the county control communication between applicants and planning commissioners, remove the appearance of influence by the development community on board and commission decisions, clarify the nature of business or political interests that would require recusal of board or commission members, and control those who have financial interests from improper communication with decision makers.
Kratter also recommended the county prohibit developer control over a home owners association after a certain point, and that residents’ interests were considered along with developer interests, a request that likely reflected issues Kingsmill residents are currently having with their developer-controlled board which have recently ended up in court.
She also asked that a time limit be placed on certain application approvals so decisions appropriate for one period in the county aren’t applicable to the distant future. Residents of Seasons Trace recently grappled with this issue when supervisors allowed a townhome development to be built under a master plan approved in the 1970s.
Finally, Kratter said she thought it was important that a property owner who wants to sell land doesn’t have more rights than a neighbor who doesn’t want to sell.
Commercial and Mixed Use Districts
Kratter echoed comments made by both residents and members of the business community in previous meetings that the county’s mixed use ordinance is too broad and needs clarification. She argued that it’s very easy to abuse the policy to create a development that is heavy on residential units and light on commercial or retail space.
She also said any changes to plans in a mixed use area should need a special use permit.
An attorney at Kaufman and Canoles, a law group that generally represents businesses, said community concerns he heard at various public hearings for his clients boiled down to citizens wanting to more clearly understand what a development would look like and what impact it had on their lives.
Aside from offering more clarity in its ordinances, he suggested the county offer incentives to developers to make revitalization of defunct commercial space more appealing.
Williamsburg Area Association of Realtors member Susan Gaston agreed that redevelopment of old commercial property was a good idea, and that it would help mitigate environmental impacts on pristine land.
Residential and Cluster Overlay Districts
Gaston also said her organization feels it is important to organize development around specific corridors and direct growth, which a Transfer of Development Rights (TDR) program (moving development rights from rural lands to targeted areas) would help achieve.
She echoed her organization’s previous plea (and that of the Greater Williamsburg Chamber and Tourism Allinace) for ordinances promoting workforce housing, which WAAR would be glad to help the county develop.
Rural Lands Districts
Linda Rice, a member of the J4Cs, said it was important for the county to establish how much rural land is actually out there and to quantify the value of the land before crafting ordinances to preserve it.
She said the J4C estimate on rural land acreage based on an earlier staff number was around 14,400 acres, though the J4C’s recommend doing an inventory to get an exact number.
While the J4C could support TDR as a tool for conserving rural land, the group feels it’s very important to get the receiving areas (those areas getting the extra development density) right in order for the program to be a success.
Also, the county has limited staff in its economic development office now, and Rice cautioned the county to make sure it has enough staff to handle a TDR program.
As far as preserving rural land goes, J4C wants to know what happened to the $14 million in borrowing capacity the county still has to purchase development rights and land in the county, according to Rice. She says the group understands the current budget limitations on financing more debt, but that they want to know what kept the county from using the funds in previous years.
One way to preserve rural lands, according to the J4C, is to promote agribusiness. Rice argued the county should offer incentives for this sort of business.
Finally, Rice suggested lowering the density in rural lands significantly – from one unit per three acres to one unit per 12 acres, at a minimum.
A rural land owner who later spoke at the meeting said this number appalled her. Echoing other rural land owners, the speaker said her land was her family’s investment for the future, and limiting development would significantly diminish what the land would be worth.
Monday’s meeting was the final public input session before the ordinance rewrite process gets underway, but the public can still offer comments on the county’s website here.