Mar 25 • 20M

March 25, 2022: Council discusses how to fund Stribling Avenue sidewalk, further discuss potential tax increases for 2022

Two long segments today on the fiscal and physical future of Charlottesville

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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 March has arrived and it’s also the twelfth such day of the year. One question is how many more are left in 2022? Is it worth the research it would take to bring you that piece of information? Or would it be better to proceed with another installment of Charlottesville Community Engagement? One fact I can say with some confidence is that I’m Sean Tubbs, your stenographic host.

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 On today’s program:

  • Council holds first reading on a rezoning for 170 units in Fry’s Spring but approval will hinge on finding funding for sidewalk improvements 

  • Charlottesville City Council weighs in further on tax rates and the budget 

Today’s first 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 station’s 85th anniversary on April 1! Consider a donation at wtju.net/donate.

City Manager Rogers to negotiate with Southern Development on Stribling sidewalk agreement 

As Charlottesville contemplates a more dense future with more people, how can today’s elected officials ensure the infrastructure is in place before new homes are built? 

The fate of Southern Development’s request to rezone undeveloped land in the Fry’s Spring neighborhood depends on if Charlottesville Council is satisfied sidewalks will be built on Stribling Avenue. 

“At 12 acres, this is one of the largest undeveloped properties within the city,” said City Planner Matt Aflele. 

Southern Development’s plan is to build 170 residential units in a mix of single-family attached, townhomes, and multifamily buildings at a density of 15 dwelling units per acre. 

The Planning Commission has voted unanimously to recommend a rezoning and a critical slopes waiver, but only if funds were placed in the capital improvement program for a sidewalk on Stribling Avenue. Southern Development had agreed to loan the city $2.9 million to cover the cost. This would be paid back in the form of real estate tax rebates until the amount is paid off. 

Existing conditions on Stribling Avenue

At Council’s first reading of the matter on Monday, Interim City Manager Michael C. Rogers said he did not recommend proceeding with the sidewalk for many reasons. For one, the city would need to issue additional bonds and it’s already at capacity. 

For another, Rogers said if the city is going to enter into public-private partnerships for infrastructure, there need to be rules first. 

“The city does not have in place a policy infrastructure for these kinds of arrangements,” Rogers said. “So that it’s clear to everyone up front and that’s something that we will work on. But at this time there are too many unknown variables.” 

However, staff does recommend the rezoning. 

“After a lot of considerations we do think that 170 new housing units in that location would be a benefit to the city, and the fact that 26 affordable housing units would be added would be beneficial to our affordable housing program as well.” 

Rogers said the city would have to find a way to pay for the sidewalk if the development was to move forward. 

“So we would have to go back to the CIP, include this project, find the money for it, and make it happen,” Rogers said. 

Jason Halbert is co-president of the Fry's Spring Neighborhood Association. They’ve been working on this issue since the idea of the rezoning emerged.

"We as a board never said no, NIMBY, we didn't take that position," Halbert said. "We took a position to try to advance what we have always been trying to advance, which is improved safety on Stribling Avenue and the intersection of Stribling and Jefferson Park Avenue.” 

Halbert said the development should not occur without infrastructure. He thanked interim Michael C. Rogers for his announcement earlier in the meeting that the process for the capital improvement program would be overhauled. 

"If we want to work with developers to get more density in the city and really do this new  zoning ordinance in a proper way, the city's CIP and the infrastructure has to keep pace," Halbert said. "If it can't keep pace you're going to create serious problems on city streets, city intersections, and you're going to have more and more consternation from neighborhoods."

City resident Ben Heller asked for the city to ask for $2.9 million in cash from Southern Development rather than the loan. He pointed out the company paid $2 million for the 11 acres of undeveloped land in June 2021. 

"With 170 houses there that's only $12,000 per development entitlement," Heller said. "In general you are talking about $120,000 per development entitlement in that neighborhood. You could ask the developer for $3 million and they would still be getting a bargain in terms of the price per development entitlement." 

Council discussion

Vice Mayor Juandiego Wade worked for many years as a transportation planner for Albemarle County and is familiar with the road because this area is within in the jurisdictions of a joint planning study known as Southern Area B

“We had some projects on the county end of this and it was a real gnarly, gnarly road there and i think it prevented some of the county projects from getting done in that area,” Wade said. 

Wade said the city has to find a way to build the sidewalk.

Councilor Brian Pinkston said he could not vote for the rezoning until there was a plan in place to guarantee the sidewalks would be built. 

“I see why the notion of trying to fund this with a loan was a great idea, kind of a hail mary sort of thing, but I can see why it’s very difficult and problematic on the policy side and the debt management side and not having the policies and procedures in place to govern that,” Pinkston said. 

Another issue is lack of funding to upgrade the intersection of Stribling and Jefferson Park Avenue Extended to handle left-hand turns. That concerned Mayor Lloyd Snook as much if not more than the sidewalk. 

“That kind of improvement is never going to be made unless we’ve got a project like this,” Snook said. “Now to me the question therefore is how do we end up not having to hold the bag?” 

Snook said he was skeptical the city would be able to find the money in the capital improvement program. He said it would be his first preference for Rogers to continue to work on the loan to resolve outstanding questions. 

Charlie Armstrong of Southern Development said his company has looked at many options over the past few years, including developing the property by-right. 

“And that is 46 or so large single family lots, some of them approaching an acre in size,” Armstrong said. “They would be beautiful but affordable for very view.” 

A rezoning to R-2 would yield 64 units. 

Armstrong said the agreement was not so much of a loan but a tax increment financing structure. 

“It’s another odd version of a loan where we provide the funds and then we provide the funds again to pay ourselves back,” Armstrong said “Those tax revenues from the project don’t exist right now. The project would create them.” 

Armstrong said he would be willing to work with the city to move forward on the agreement, but needs to know if there is Council support for the rezoning. Rogers said he would set up a conversation with Armstrong but suggested Council hold first reading on the matter. They did so, and the matter will come back to Council at their next meeting on April 4. 

Second shout-out goes to Camp Albemarle

Today’s second subscriber-supported public service announcement goes out to Camp Albemarle, which has for sixty years been a “wholesome rural, rustic and restful site for youth activities, church groups, civic events and occasional private programs.”

Located on 14 acres on the banks of the Moorman’s River near Free Union, Camp Albemarle continues as a legacy of being a Civilian Conservation Corps project that sought to promote the importance of rural activities. Camp Albemarle seeks support for a plan to winterize the Hamner Lodge, a structure built in 1941 by the CCC and used by every 4th and 5th grade student in Charlottesville and Albemarle for the study of ecology for over 20 years. If this campaign is successful, Camp Albemarle could operate year-round. Consider your support by visiting http://campalbemarleva.org/donate.

Council weighs in on budget, real estate tax rate

Charlottesville City Council held a community forum last night on the recommended budget for FY23. They had held a public hearing on Monday, but their own conversation at that time was somewhat limited. Staff asked Councilors to offer their perspective. (watch the budget forum)

Interim City Manager Michael C. Rogers has recommended a two cent increase on the real estate tax rate with the approximately $1.84 million in revenue going to a fund dedicated to paying for renovation of Buford Middle School. 

Staff also presented Council with three other scenarios for higher tax rates for how to cover the costs of the $75 million the School Board wants for the project. 

“It seems our decision points are raising taxes by eight to ten cents, real estate taxes,” said City Councilor Michael Payne. “Going quickly in with $75 million for the reconfiguration plan. And I think if we do that we need to acknowledge that the trade-offs that all of those things not in our budget that are not going to get funded unless we have an extremely large unexpected surplus or we raise taxes above even ten cents.”

Some of the things not in the budget include a contribution to Piedmont Housing Alliance for their project to build 50 units on the grounds of the Park Street Christian Church. Another is funding for the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center to cover their rent. Another is an additional $3 million for Charlottesville Area Transit to increase the system to 30-minute headways. 

City Councilor Brian Pinkston said he was not sure he could support a steep increase in the real estate tax rate because he thought it may push more people to leave the city. 

“I get these phone calls from folks whose housing has appreciated by ten, eleven, twelve, fifteen percent, their housing assessments,” Pinkston said. “And it is hard to put on top of that a real estate tax on top of that.” 

However, Pinkston said he could support a two cent increase in FY23 while an attempt is made to reduce the cost of the Buford renovation. 

Pinkston said all increases in the real estate tax should go to debt service for school reconfiguration. 

Krisy Hammill, senior budget analyst for the city of Charlottesville, offered this clarification. 

“There’s $2.5 million in the CIP in FY23 that is my understanding would complete the design and require no tax increase,” Hammill said. 

Vice Mayor Juandiego Wade served sixteen years on the School Board, where reconfiguration has been sought for many years. The School Board voted in October 2010 on a plan to build a single middle school to serve 6th through 8th grades, with fifth graders returning to elementary schools. The project has not yet advanced as a capital project. 

“Each time we have been putting it off so I will definitely be in the camp that we need to start on this now because one of the big issues is the inflation costs,” Wade said. “So I think that we were looking at some of the options and alternatives that we looked at on Monday, we’re in a rock’s throw of working this out and I think that we will as a community and a Council.”

Wade said Council will have to make some tough decisions. 

‘Many of the emails we receive say they want us to do it all, but we can’t!” Wade said. “We’re going to have to make some difficult decisions and that’s why they place us here.” 

Councilor Sena Magill said design of Buford would still continue during the next year and that the draft budget doesn’t show floating the bonds for Buford until Fiscal Year 2024. But she understood why some might be skeptical of the fate of dedicated funds in the Capital Improvement Program. 

“As we found with West Main Street, even if it’s in the CIP doesn’t mean it’s going to stay,”  Magill said. “West Main had been allocated out and we as a new Council took it out.” 

In all, previous Councils accumulated $18 million in capital funds for West Main that only existed on paper. The bonds are authorized but not yet sold, and the last Council agreed to transfer them to the Buford project. 

Magill said she would support a higher tax rate than two cents as presented to Council on Monday. 

From page 30 of the recommended budget (download)

Councilor Brian Pinkston said he wanted to consider a drop in the personal property tax to reduce the burden to those who will be hit with higher than expected bills.

“My original inclination with that is that this is a windfall for us but [Commissioner of Revenue Todd] Divers has made some good points is that it will be an affordability issue for many people,” Pinkston said. 

Divers has suggested that continuing to charge $4.20 per $100 of assessed value would yield an additional $2 million and that a rate of $3.22 per $100 would be an equalized rate that would bring in the current year’s revenue. Pinkston suggested somewhere in the $3.75 range. That would yield approximately $1 million.

Councilor Snook said that $1 million coupled with $1.2 million from a half-percentage increase in the meals tax would yield additional revenue that could be used to pay for other initiatives.

“I think at some point we need to agree on what purposes we’d like to try to fund and then we can try to fit the taxes to meet those expenditures,” Snook said. 

Wade said he wanted the city to do what it can to keep the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center in place.

“Whether it’s a combination of working with them for fundraising and the city assisting because I know when I was on the School Board the programs that they provided was invaluable and what they can do no one else can do, the way they bring the community together to have those courageous conversations,” Wade said. “They’re there to do that.” 

Councilors appeared to be willing to support a request to fully fund the Public Housing Association of Residents’ request of $41,000. The draft budget only recommended $21,035. 

Rogers said the conversation at the community budget forum was useful. 

“We will work the budget staff and the departments heads in the city to address what you have identified as priorities of sincere interest,” Rogers said.  

However, Rogers reminded the Council to be mindful of what the city could afford. He suggested they review the three scenarios presented by Hammill on Monday. 

“And there are some hard choices,” Rogers said. “Whether to raise taxes or not, and if so, do it all at once, or have a phased approach?” 

The next step in the budget process is a work session on the Capital Improvement Program on March 31 beginning at 6 p.m. (meeting info)

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