By David Holtzman – The Central Virginian Staff Writer
Rewriting the county’s comprehensive plan will take at least a year, county staff say, including a public outreach effort scheduled to begin later this month.
The plan outlines the need for new homes, stores, jobs and schools and where they should be located in the county in the coming decades. It is also a tool to protect historic and environmental resources, and to show where roads and water and sewer services should be improved.
Staff intend to produce a new plan, slimmer than the current five-chapter document, that outlines how the county will address these issues. The final product will be the result of many months of combing through citizen input and staff assessments of future county priorities.
The last time the plan received a thorough revision was 2001, when Louisa’s population was 25,000. There are now about 35,000 residents, and the number of businesses and vehicles on local roads has grown apace.
Residents and other community members will be invited to meetings in seven locations around the county (see schedule on page two), where they will be encouraged to suggest changes to the plan’s language. Each meeting is scheduled to last 90 minutes.
In addition, from July 25, the date of the first community meeting, until the last meeting on Sept. 5, people will be able to post comments about the plan on a portal linked to the county website.
Jeff Ferrel, assistant county administrator, told the county’s board of supervisors and planning commission at a joint meeting on June 14 that a better comprehensive plan is needed to make sure that as growth continues, infrastructure also expands to support it.
“You need to allow the county to provide services to balance that development over a long period of time,” he said. “As things are being developed in an area to bring revenue in, you provide infrastructure in that same area, hopefully at the same pace, so revenue and costs go up together. That takes an incredible amount of planning.”
In addition to the comprehensive plan, county staff will work over the next year to prepare water and sewer, economic development, financial and public service planning documents. These will fill in the details of the plan, supporting the bold goal and objective statements in the plan itself.
Staff of each county department will also be asked to prepare projections of what their needs will be in the coming years. The plan horizon is the next 20 years, Ferrel said.
“In the next 20 years, we may need a new middle school,” Ferrel said, as an example of a future cost staff may present. “The thing we don’t talk about is the cost of all the stuff that keeps that school going on an annual basis,” such as school buses or lighting. The school building itself may cost $15 million, plus $8 million annually to operate.
When they walk into the community meetings, residents will be handed comment cards and paper copies of the nine goals and various objectives in the plan. For example, the first goal in the 2001 plan is to preserve the county’s rural character, and the first two objectives to meet that goal are to designate growth areas and rural areas.
The county has nine distinct growth areas now, including Zion Crossroads, Lake Anna, the areas around the towns of Louisa, Mineral and Gordonsville, Gum Spring, Ferncliff, Shannon Hill and Boswell’s Tavern. The growth areas’ borders have not changed since 2001, except for a small addition to the Lake Anna area in 2012.
During the economic boom of the 2000s, prior to the Great Recession, new subdivisions popped up all across the county’s rural areas. Most included lot sizes of as little as 1.5 acres, as allowed by county ordinance. While subdivision numbers have slowed since then, Ferrel said the minimum lot size is something county officials may want to think about as they plan for future development.
The current plan also has some strategies included as potential means to reach each objective. The plan’s second goal, maintaining a healthy, diverse economy, includes the objective of seeking clean industry. One strategy is to develop a marketing plan to attract diverse jobs.
Meeting participants will be handed green, yellow and red stickers they can place alongside the posted goals and objectives. In this case, green means good, yellow is lukewarm, and red means do something different.
Ferrel said the county will advertise the community meetings in local media, but will also post signs at the refuse and recycle centers, since those are locations many residents go to frequently.
Andrew Williams, chief operating officer of The Berkley Group, a planning consulting firm that advises towns and counties throughout Virginia, said it can be difficult to draw broad interest in a comprehensive plan process.
“You can have as many forums as you want, but unless there’s a hot issue, a lot of times people don’t show up,” he said. “[You have] to cast a wide net throughout the county and have different types of forums for different audiences, and not rush through it.”
He suggested outreach at festivals, reaching out to church groups and others that are active in the community. His group often starts the process by sending out a survey to pique people’s interest, then organizes forums.
Robert Gardner, who directs the Louisa County Community Development Department, said it will take at least a year to complete work on the plan. Gathering ideas from residents at the community meetings is just the first step.
“It may take longer than a year, depending on staff’s workload, because we’re not working with consultants,” Gardner said.
He added that even when the plan is nearly done, the work will just be beginning.
“Implementation is as critical as the plan itself,” he said. “If you can’t implement the plan, then everyone will know we have a plan but no one will actually read it.”
The idea behind producing a slimmer document to replace the current comprehensive plan is to make it more accessible, without taking away the vision and key goals that serve as the basis for the county’s development.
“We’re looking for ways to make it more digestable to the average reader, and make it more meaningful,” Gardner said.