Feb 25 • 20M

February 25, 2022: House subcommittee kills school sales-tax bills; Heat island data available the same week Council hears about declining tree canopy

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Sean Tubbs
Regular updates of what's happening in local and regional government in and around Charlottesville, Virginia from an award-winning journalist with nearly thirty years of experience.
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The final Friday of February is here, and March is just in front of us. In all of the next 115 days going forward, there will be more hours of light than dark and the first signs of emerging vegetation are popping out. The best thing to do is to focus on each and every day and Charlottesville Community Engagement seeks to capture as much of the journey as possible. I’m your host, Sean Tubbs.  

On today’s program:
  • No additional localities in Virginia will be able to hold a sales tax referendum this year to help pay for public school infrastructure

  • Charlottesville releases the results of a citizen-science campaign to map the urban heat island 

  • And the Charlottesville Tree Commission details the decline in the city’s tree canopy 

Shout-out to the Piedmont Master Gardeners

The first shout-out today goes to the Piedmont Master Gardeners to announce their 2022 Spring Lecture Series featuring leading experts on sustainable landscaping, indigenous gardening wisdom and small fruit production at home. For all four Thursdays in March, you can buy a virtual ticket for these informative events.

  • On March 3, acclaimed garden designer and photographer C. Colston Burrell will discuss Beauty, Integrity and Resilience: Can A Garden Have Everything?

  • On March 10, Renée Gokey and Christine Price-Abelow of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian will discuss: The Three Sisters: Indigenous Origins and Best Growing Practices.

For the rest of the sessions and to purchase tickets, visit piedmontmastergardens.org/events.

Urban Heat island data available

Staff working on climate action issues in Charlottesville have published the results of a survey conducted last summer to map out temperature and humidity levels across the city. 

“How urban environments and neighborhoods are built affects the amount of heat absorbed and retained, which can increase or reduce the impact of extreme heat events,” reads a page on the city’s climate protection website. “Increases in extreme heat are one of the top projected impacts Charlottesville will experience from climate change.”

Areas with more concrete and less tree cover retain the heat from the previous day and the survey sought to document how this manifests in temperature differentials across the city’s neighborhoods. Thirteen volunteers took 34,401 measurements across the city on August 24, 2021, walking seven routes.

The map shows a clear difference between neighborhoods on either side of West Main Street which are much hotter than those such as Fifeville which have a much greater tree cover. 

You can learn more about the project on the city’s Climate Action website.

Neighborhoods with less tree cover are significantly hotter than those more. Read the report prepared by CAPA Strategies to learn how the measurements were made. 
Council briefed on declining tree canopy

There are other data sources that the city uses to assess its environmental health. 

“About every five years we get a consultant to do what’s called a ‘leaf on aerial’ shot from a satellite and do an analysis of our overall tree canopy,” said Chris Gensic, the city’s parks planner. 

The Parks and Recreation Department has been measuring the tree canopy since 2004 when it was around 50 percent but the number has been dropping and was measured at 40 percent in 2018, the last year for which data is available. 

“Not only is it a continuous decline from that level that we see at 50 percent in 2004, but in fact the canopy is declining at an accelerating rate,” said Brian Menard, a past chair of the Tree Commission. 

Menard said another report will be done soon and he fears the decline will be even worse. 

The updated Comprehensive Plan has a goal of to “contribute to the creation, protection, and expansion of robust urban forests.” Menard said the latest data shows that the city is not meeting that goal. He urged Council to keep this in mind as the zoning code is rewritten. 

Have you read the new Comprehensive Plan? Take a look! 

Chair Peggy Van Yahres said the Commission has four goals in mind. 

“One is to increase the requirements for new trees, strengthen and enforce tree protection, establish consequences for public tree damage,” Van Yahres said. “We can also refine the site plan application and review.” 

The Tree Commission wants a seat at the table for site plans to point out the ecological damage of removing mature trees. 

Van Yahres said the Tree Commission is helping with a program called ReLeaf Cville to help rebuild the canopy, and one of the ideas is to raise money to plant more trees on private property. 

“We believe that trees save lives so our mission is to protect the health and well-being, particularly of our low canopy neighborhoods from the heat effects of climate change,” Van Yahres. 

The ReLeaf effort will focus at first on the 10th and Page neighborhood, which has a tree canopy of 18 percent. 

Menard said the city government needs to plan 200 trees a year on its property and that requires funding. The Tree Commission has asked for $100,000 in the next capital budget. 

Vice Mayor Juandiego Wade said he felt the presentation was compelling. 

“I can only imagine what it’s going to be when they recalculate or redo it again because the storm in the beginning of January just took down a whole bunch of trees,” Wade said. “And if not the whole tree, certainly a lot of the branches so I think this is very valuable.” 

Read the State of the Forest report for more details on the declining tree canopy (download)

The presentation included a note that several mature trees would be removed at Friendship Court. Councilor Michael Payne responded that those decisions were approved by residents who live there. 

“It’s been a very intense resident-led process to design the specific types of units, their locations, and through that resident-led process and the priorities they chose in terms of the types of housing, number of units and locations of those units,” Payne said. “That’s where the project is.” 

Another request the Tree Commission has is to further increase setbacks for buildings and to eliminate the possibility of building right up to the property line. Mayor Lloyd Snook pointed out a tension. 

“We were told in part of the affordable housing debate that one of the things that is getting in the way of more affordable housing is bigger setback requirements,” Snook said. “But of course when you have set back requirements you have room for trees. At least part of the discussion we were having last year about all of this, and I kept saying ‘don’t worry, we’ll solve this when we get around to rewriting the zoning ordinance which is under but part of what we need to do I guess is make sure that we have some better way of recognizing the balance of what we’re trying to strike.” 

James Freas, the director of Neighborhood Development Services, said he hoped the zoning update will bring more flexible to help achieve a balance. 

“All of these things come with trade-offs and I know that will be part of the conversation as we go forward with the zoning ordinance rewrite,” Freas said. 

The Cville Plans Together Steering Committee will meet on March 2 at 5 p.m. Register to attend the virtual meeting here

Second shout-out goes to WTJU 

Algorithms know how to put songs and artists together based on genre or beats per minute. But only people can make connections that engage your mind and warm your heart. The music on WTJU 91.1 FM is chosen by dozens and dozens of volunteer hosts -- music lovers like you who live right here in the Charlottesville area. Listener donations keep WTJU alive and thriving. In this era of algorithm-driven everything, go against the grain. Support freeform community radio on WTJU and get ready for the Rock coming up in April. Consider a donation at wtju.net/donate.

House Finance Subcommittee kills all three school sales-tax bills

Charlottesville’s plan to invest dozens of millions in public schools conclusively lost one financing source this morning. A subcommittee of the House Finance Committee voted to lay three bills on the table that would have allowed localities to decide if they wanted to raise the sales tax to finance school construction. 

Under current law, localities have to ask permission from the General Assembly to hold a referendum in which community members would decide whether to levy the tax. For the past two years, the Democrats held a majority and legislation passed that put the question on the ballot in Danville and Pittsylvania County. Danville approved a one percent sales tax increase with a 60 percent margin, but Pittsylvania voters rejected the tax on a 33 vote margin. 

The Republicans picked up seven House of Delegates in that same election, giving them a 52-48 advantage. House Finance Subcommittee #3 has seven members, four of whom are Republicans. 

The panel this morning first dealt with SB37 which would add the Isle of Wight County to the list of localities that could hold a sales tax referendum. Senator Tommy Norment (R-3) was the chief patron and he told the Committee that Isle of Wight had a clear plan for how they would spend the revenue. He asked the Committee to allow for a pragmatic solution. 

“I came out of local government and in trying to balance my perspectives sometimes between local government and state government, I reflect,” Norment said. “In this instance, the Board of Supervisors in Isle of Wight unanimously supported it. They cultivated support by working through the Chamber [of Commerce] and the Board of Supervisors and there has not been any outcry of objection within the business community about this.” 

Norment said if Isle of Wight was not granted this avenue for revenue, there would be a 4.5 cent increase on the county’s property tax rate. However, he said he did not support legislation that would grant every locality the ability to hold such a referendum automatically because not all of them might have plans in place. 

“I am adamantly and unequivocally unsupportive of the statewide bill,” Norment said. 

William McCarty is chair of the Isle of Wight Board of Supervisors and said that body has not raised the property tax rate for six years. 

“The bill before you actually allows the citizens to choose by vote how to pay for school infrastructure in the future,” McCarty said. “The one percent in this bill is outlined for that very thing.” 

However, that bill was “laid on the table” which is a parliamentary way of saying it was defeated. 

The vote was four to three, with Delegate Bobby Orrock (R-54) explaining his opposition. 

“Philosophically I don’t like bifurcating sales tax,” Orrock said. “And to the point of what we have before us I will tell you with my inlaws living in Pittsylvania County, if they have a major purchase to make they don’t make it in Pittsylvania County, they go to Campbell because that one percent differential in sales tax if its a major purchase does make a difference in their shopping pattern.” 

Next up was Charlottesville’s specific request for a referendum in the form of SB298 which passed the Senate on a 28 to 12 vote. Senator Creigh Deeds (D-25) is the bill’s patron, which would help finance a proposal to renovate Buford Middle School to add 6th grade as the first step in a major reconfiguration. 

“Unlike a lot of localities, there’s a lot of retail in Charlottesville and they expect to generate $12 million a year which will more than service the debt they need to get the work done,” Deeds said. 

Subcommittee Chair Kathy Byron (R-22) acknowledged that there is a need to address Virginia’s growing school needs, but she could not support this kind of a tax increase, especially when Governor Glenn Youngkin wants to return $4.5 billion in tax payments back to taxpayers. 

“We’re going to have to look at other ways to help localities and to be able to determine how we can do this in a manner that’s beneficial,” Byron said. “We’re trying to return extra dollars at a time that people really need it and it just seems counterproductive to turn around and ask for more.” 

Senator Deeds called the measure “self-help” and said it should be up to local voters to decide whether to raise the sales tax to pay for public school improvements. 

“This is an issue we’ve been talking about the whole time I’ve been here, more than 30 years,” Deeds said. “We’ve got a dribs and drabs approach and we’ve not moved the ball significantly further in all that time.” 

Senator Creigh Deeds testifies in favor of his bill to allow Charlottesville to hold a referendum on a sales tax increase

Byron said it was a matter of political differences. 

“You represent an area and they may be in agreement with you,” Byron said. “I represent an area that sends us here to vote to hold back on taxes and they don’t want us to become where we have to put everything in a referendum back to them again. That’s what they elected us to do.”

Delegate Sally Hudson (D-57) is a member of the subcommittee and she pled with her Republican colleagues to support the bill in part because a Virginia study group recommended this approach. (recommendations adopted December 1, 2021)

“We do have a [Commission on School Construction and Modernization] and this tool was unanimously approved on a bipartisan basis by that commission so I don’t think we can argue that this was understudied,” Hudson said. “We know that we need many tools in the toolbox and this is one of them.” 

Both Vice Mayor Juandiego Wade and Mayor Lloyd Snook spoke in favor of the bill as well. 

“Charlottesville desperately needs the authority to pay for a $75 million improvement to Buford Middle School,” Wade said. 

Charlottesville has advertised a tax rate increase of ten cents per $100 to help cover the costs of a growing capital budget. 

“If we were forced to finance this school project through other taxes it will make it impossible in the next decade for us for example to buy a new fire truck or improve police and jail facilities or redevelop public housing,” Snook said. 

Motions to lay on the table are not debatable, and the Charlottesville bill also went down on a 4 to 3 vote despite the testimony.

The final bill was SB472 from Senator Jennifer McClellan (D-9). It would have allowed all localities to proceed with a sales tax referendum. McClellan chaired the Commission on School Construction on Modernization. 

“Forty-one percent of school divisions are at or above enrollment capacity for their current building and twenty-nine percent are nearing capacity,” McClellan said. “Over fifty percent of the schools in Virginia are 50 years or older and that number is growing.” 

Justin Pope has two daughters at Prince Edward Elementary School, which he said is in dire conditions. 

“Our community has had a lot of disagreements but we have consensus, our Board of Supervisors has consensus that this approach to fixing our schools is what we need to do, or at least put to our voters,” Pope said. 

Pope said the alternative was a very steep increase in the property tax rate because real estate assessments are low in Prince Edward. His daughter Eliza also testified in favor of the bill. 

“Yesterday I counted seven buckets in the gym and saw many more leaks around the school,” Eliza Pope said. “I am also aware that there are two classes in the second grade building which cannot be used because of leaks and mold.” 

Byron pointed out that a similar House bill from Delegate Hudson had already been through the committee and it was time to move on. 

After the vote, Hudson addressed Eliza Pope and said this was an example of how government works. 

“You might rightly wonder what happened here today because you came and you shared your story and you did such a good job,” Hudson said. “And a handful of grown-ups who are leaving right now despite  hearing no opposition from any of the other people that we serve chose to vote against that so you might wonder…”

Delegate Byron interrupted Hudson.

“Young people, we think it’s very important that people come and have their voice heard and I want you to note that these Delegates who have to leave have to go see Senators over there who may vote for or against their bill too based on what they think that bill might be. This is how government works. I do support school construction but I just have a different way to get there and I promise Senator McClellan that we’re going to continue those discussions and Senator Norment as well in regards to different ways that we can get funding for our schools.”

Charlottesville’s FY23 will be introduced to City Council on March 7.