The author, the former Comprehensive Planning Coordinator in Virginia Beach, argues that preserving the Virginia Beach Agricultural Reserve Program within the proposed operating budget and capital improvement plan is consistent with the city’s Comprehensive Plan.
BY JERYL ROSE PHILLIPS
VIRGINIA BEACH — I felt emboldened to write this after reading the excellent letter written by a colleague of mine, Barbara Duke, which appeared in the Friday, March 30, edition of The Independent News. We worked closely together as planners on the 2016 update of Virginia Beach’s Comprehensive Plan, It’s Our Future – A Choice City, and other city plans. We also served together on a city manager’s working group to address sea level rise and recurrent flooding.
I am writing to you in support of preservation of the city’s agricultural reserve program, or ARP, because doing so is consistent with the city’s long-range land use policies for the “Rural Area” in the Comprehensive Plan and the Virginia Beach Outdoors Plan, which Ms. Duke authored. So are addressing the city’s backlog of drainage maintenance needs and the need to plan for adaptation for sea level rise and recurrent flooding.
So that everyone can be as informed as possible about this, it is necessary to offer some context for why Virginia Beach’s Comprehensive Plan is important for City Council to use as it deliberates the budget proposed by City Manager Dave Hansen.
The Comprehensive Plan
The local comprehensive plan is a long-range planning policy document that looks into the future over the next 20 years to ensure that we have sound policies in place for our city’s sustainability — fiscally, environmentally and socially.
As the city’s former comprehensive planning coordinator, I worked with a multi-departmental team across many disciplines to review the city’s award-winning 2010 Comprehensive Plan for a recommended update in 2016. The team included representatives from city departments including budget, finance, the city manager’s office, the strategic growth areas office, agriculture, economic development, parks & recreation, public works and public utilities, along with others.
The plan’s policies pertaining to both the ARP and sea level rise/recurrent flooding, along with its planned land use map, are all co-dependent and needed to achieve the city’s desired outcomes over the long term.
The Code of Virginia requires that all local governments adopt a comprehensive plan. It is important to understand the state code also obligates the a Capital Improvement Plan, or CIP, be prepared and revised annually “based on the comprehensive plan of the locality for a period not to exceed the ensuing five years.”
These two important growth management tools — the comprehensive plan, which is required to be reviewed and updated in five-year intervals, and the CIP, also a five-year plan — were intended by the General Assembly to work together and be mutually supportive. I informed both the city’s planning director and the budget director of this as the FY17-22 CIP was being prepared.
The critical need for local planning is why the Code of Virginia also enables local governments, should they choose, to have the CIP prepared by the local planning commission and recommended to the local governing body for adoption. Although Virginia Beach does not do this, other progressive localities with rural areas with which Virginia Beach often benchmarks itself do. These include Fairfax County and Albemarle County.
In fact, both of those localities have a very lengthy, very coordinated and very public CIP preparation, review and adoption process. They also ensure that their CIPs are consistent with their adopted comprehensive plans. Representatives from both of these localities provided example language and processes at a training that Ms. Duke and I attended in 2015, hosted by Virginia Tech Extension’s Land Use Education Program. That program is a partnership of Virginia Tech’s Center for Public Administration and Policy and Virginia Cooperative Extension.
The reason for consistency is simple. The comprehensive plan sets forth the direction and timing of future infrastructure improvements and development in the locality. The CIP is one of several tools used to implement the comprehensive plan, along with the operating budget and development ordinances, such as the city’s zoning, subdivision and floodplain ordinances. Other plans and programs, such as the city Outdoors Plan and the ARP, are also key tools for implementing the comprehensive plan.
This is why I found it necessary to include a new final chapter in the comprehensive plan about how it should be implemented. It all begins with the policies that are adopted in the comprehensive plan. Everything else should flow from there in a logical manner.
The Code of Virginia does not require that all land use decisions made by the local governing body be consistent with the comprehensive plan, but the Code does give the local comprehensive plan “legal standing.” On the other hand, budgeting in the CIP for drainage and flooding throughout the city must, by law, be consistent with the comprehensive plan. That is to say, the CIP must be consistent with the city’s policy to also maintain the ARP.
If City Council chooses to eliminate the ARP, then the Comprehensive Plan must first be amended to remove that policy. Plan amendments require public hearings before both the Virginia Beach Planning Commission and City Council. To be clear: I am not advocating the end to the ARP.
For a year and a half from June 2014 through December 2015, the Planning Commission and city staff reviewed the previous trends that have affected our city and influenced our existing policies to best inform the preparation of the last comprehensive plan update. We also looked at current and emerging trends.
Planning for adaptation for sea level rise and recurrent flooding throughout the city, north and south, was at the top of that list of trends and needs. Maintaining the ARP to help ensure the continued vitality of the city’s agricultural economy was also at the top of the list of things the rural community valued and needed. When the plan was adopted, Mr. Hansen was its champion, enthusiastically referring to its new policies addressing sea level rise as why the Dewberry study needed to be completed in a timely manner.
Then-Planning Commission Chairperson Dave Redmond, and his successor, Jeff Hodgson, both placed great importance on the comprehensive plan review and update, understanding its role as the city’s roadmap or blueprint for the future.
With that direction, the Planning Commission and staff reviewed each chapter of the 2010 plan in great detail to determine whether or not the existing city policies affecting land use were still valid several years later or if they needed to be updated to set the course for the next 20 years.
This amount of Planning Commission involvement in the plan update was somewhat unprecedented — yet welcomed — by me as the project coordinator. It was also very time-consuming. The planning commission met monthly over several months to offer input on each chapter.
The Rural Area
By far, the chapter that undertook the longest review and involved many drafts was Chapter 5, entitled “Rural Area.” This was not because the rural area and its existing policies were no longer deemed relevant. Rather, to the contrary, this area’s policies were viewed as extremely important and perhaps even moreso today for a different reason— helping the city adapt to sea level rise and recurrent flooding.
Mr. Hodgson felt it so important that we get this chapter of the plan right that he appointed a committee of several commissioners to work with staff on its drafting. City Councilmember Barbara Henley and Planning Commissioner Karen Beardslee-Kwasny, both of whom represent the Princess Anne District, and Commissioner Dee Oliver took an active interest in this work.
Several members of Virginia Beach’s farming community were invited by this committee to provide important, first-hand input that reflected, in some cases, several generations’ worth of farming experience and wisdom. Some of these same farmers have also written letters to the editor of The Independent News about the ARP.
The draft update of the chapter dealing with rural communities reiterates the importance of maintaining the city’s policy to administer and fund the very successful, 25-year old ARP into the foreseeable future for all its benefits so ably enumerated by previous letter writers.
It also stressed the important inherent function that the rural area lands serve to absorb floodwaters when necessary. It noted that adjacent and down-stream rural lands were being negatively impacted by improperly-designed drainage plans for lands being developed to the north in the Transition Area between suburban and rural areas of Virginia Beach.
Furthermore, the new draft stated that the rural area serves as part of a comprehensive system of land uses and land use policies. More specifically, the Rural Area complements the city’s adopted policies to develop the northern part of the city above the Green Line at suburban and urban residential and commercial use densities.
These areas — Rural, Suburban, Urban (SGA) and Transition Area — necessarily work together to create the desired environment that the citizens of Virginia Beach and previous City Councils have said is important to maintain the city’s character, vitality and highest quality of life. Mrs. Henley, with her unique perspective as both a farmer and a student of urban planning, understands how the land use policies of the city work together. She spoke often and eloquently of this during our review process.
Once the “Rural Area” chapter was updated in draft form, Mrs. Henley arranged for the Virginia Beach Open Space Advisory Committee and the Virginia Beach Agricultural Advisory Committee to be briefed and offer their input. Both committees expressed overwhelming support for the recommended draft chapter. All in all, it was a very well-informed, transparent drafting process.
Concurrently, work continued on the rest of the comprehensive plan’s other eight chapters until January 2016. The draft plan was vetted around the city through several public meetings to receive public feedback and recommendations, including one hosted by the Creeds Ruritan Club.
Modifications were made to the draft plan to reflect the public input received. The final draft was submitted to the Planning Commission in April 2016 and was unanimously recommended for approval to the City Council. The City Council voted to adopt the comprehensive plan in May 2016, with one dissenting vote, City Councilmember John Moss, who holds an at-large seat.
The Plan & Its Implications
The 2016 Comprehensive Plan adopted by the Virginia Beach City Council is an outstanding plan that represents the will of the council and citizens of Virginia Beach to provide a sound directive of land use policies to guide the city for the next 20 years. It is intended to be used by city staff, planning commissioners and the City Council when both discretionary and by-right review and approval of land use applications are required.
Sometimes, however, the Comprehensive Plan’s policies are forgotten when they should inform their recommendations and decisions. Oftentimes, this policy document takes a backseat to the city’s development ordinances because the latter are regulatory or because there is a lack of understanding of the Comprehensive Plan’s legal standing.
I want both City Council and our citizens to be aware that the Comprehensive Plan and the Virginia Beach Outdoors Plan both acknowledge and discuss the effects of rising waters through documentation of past water levels and projected increases.
Both also contain discussion that address why maintaining the ARP is important to the agricultural vitality of the rural area and the economic vitality of the city as a whole.
The Independent News reported on March 30 that “agriculture made an estimated $124.6 million economic impact in Virginia Beach in 2016.” Trying to implement through CIP preparation one set of policies in the comprehensive plan — “maintain the economic vitality of the Rural Area” and “maintain the Agricultural Reserve Program” — should not be held hostage by implementing another policy — “address sea level rise and recurrent flooding.” We need to figure out how to address both sets of city priorities without doing unnecessary harm to one or the other.
Preserving the economic vitality of rural area by continuing to fund the ARP, even if at a temporarily reduced budgeted amount, is one of many tools we have in our growth management toolbox to comprehensively address the challenges we face with funding draining maintenance issues and planning for adaptation to address rising waters over time.
Eliminating the ARP altogether within the proposed operating budget and CIP is clearly inconsistent with the Virginia Beach Comprehensive Plan.
Surely, we can find a way to reach a compromise on this that serves all of our citizens and sustains the various types of communities we know and love in Virginia Beach that make us so unique as a city— rural, suburban, urban, bayfront, and oceanfront.
After all, as the plan tells us, it’s our future.
The author was the City of Virginia Beach Comprehensive Planning Coordinator in the Department of Planning & Community Development from August 2010 through October 2016. She was responsible for preparing and maintaining the city’s Comprehensive Plan, including all area plan amendments. She has worked as a regional planner and local government planner in the Hampton Roads region since 1991 and is a member of the American Planning Association and its professional institute, the American Institute of Certified Planners (AICP).
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