Monday, March 31, 2008

May 6th Election

I have been closely following this year's race for Mayor and City Council. Several people have asked why I didn't toss my hat into the circle - obviously I have an oppinion or two about how things could be done better. Well, timing just didn't work out for me to attempt such a run this time. Instead I'm going to toss my support for a few of the candidates that I think will do the best.

I'm sure that some readers will find that one or more of these candidates are not their choice. However, I'm supporting them, and I've given them my word that I will do what I can with that support. So here are my reasons why these three are going to be my vote on May 6th.

Tom Tomzak - Because I like the idea of having a medical professional and experienced businessman as Mayor. I generally support the initiatives he has backed, as well as his vision for a future Fredericksburg. He has been open to suggestions, and openly engages the public to make sure that all sides are considered (note that I'm not saying he always makes everyone happy, but anyone in this position is going to have this problem).

At Large Council:
Kerry Devine - I've watched Vice-Mayor Devine tactfully ask questions in council meetings and work sessions to draw out useful details for making decisions. She is always very well prepared, as well as direct and to the point. I also feel that as a teacher, she brings a level of understanding the budget discussions that not only reminds the city of what they are paying for, but also means that the schools have a respect for the limited resources the city work with. Coming from a family of teachers, this emphasis rings home.

B-J Huff - Here is my wild-card candidate. B-J doesn't have the historical voting record to go on yet, but there will be six other people there to reign him in if he goes way off course. I believe that he will bring both new and refreshing ideas to council. He may swing big at times, but maybe a few will be hits that everyone can get behind. I believe his youth will be a benefit, something to mix it up at council. With his accounting background, his decisions should be anchored in reason and logic.

So there you have it, a doctor, a teacher and an accountant. Their backgrounds alone make for a pretty good group. There are many more reasons than I've listed here. The FLS editorial board interviewed the Mayorial candidates this week, and I'm sure you're going to hear more over the next few weeks about what each one did or is planning on doing.
As I get time, maybe I'll try to write an article on each one, letting you know what I like about each of these indivuals. I expect some people won't agree with me, and I look forward to their participation in this discussion. The other candidates both have their strengths, I just like these three better than the alternatives.

Arts Commission Public Meeting

We live in a small but growing city. What makes living in any city great? The closeness of having things to do. A descent music scene, vibrant cultural foods, are all part of the atmosphere. An active arts community normally thrives in city environments. These are all pieces of the draw to a city center.

On Wed, April 2nd, Vice-Mayor Devine (who is running for another term as an at-large council member), along with councilman Solley, are going to be at the library @ 7pm to talk about the art commission.

WHEN – Wednesday, April 2, 7:00PM
WHERE – Central Rappahannock Regional Library Theater
WHY – To discuss the expansion and revision of the Fredericksburg Arts Commission

Kalahari TIF public hearing

Come one, come all, speak your mind. The city has announced the next public hearing on the Kalahari proposal, and the use of Tax Increment Financing as the legal method for funding any incentives package.

I won't be there at this meeting, so I have to use this space as my platform. I only wish that Kalahari would lower their 10 floor hotel, I think it's going to be visible from the river. I would like them to couple that with building a parking deck to prevent paving acres and acres of beautiful land, and putting up tons of exterior lighting that wipes out what little night sky we have. That's all I ask.

Here are more of the meeting details.

Kalahari wants to come to Fredericksburg, but they need to get some loans from their banks or investors to the tune of about $220 Million. We've all heard about the credit crunch, and if you haven't, you may not be watching the stock market close enough (coming from an owner of Citigroup stock, ouch). Anyway, Kalahari wants to have as much assurance that they can pay back that money. They probably shopped around a little bit along the I-95 corridor, and decided on the Fredericksburg area - hey, we are 1/2 way between DC and Richmond. Well, the lock up the deal, the city and Kalahari went to the negotiating table, and hammered out a deal where a portion of the taxes Kalahari pays to the city will be returned over 20 years. There has been some angst about the 47% portion, but that still leaves 53% for the city. Not to mention that the city doesn't have to pay for all of the infrastructure to get the place up and running - good 'ol Silver Companies is doing that for us. The TIF is simply a way to write this into the city code so that no future government entity can renege on the contract.

Now people are going to come along and say a lot of things, like doesn't this mean we have to build another fire station - it was already in the plans, take a look at the comprehensive plan from several years back. What about police and fire? Nope, those departments have already spoken up about growth - yes they plan to grow, but they are planning that anyway.

Traffic problems? Actually more ballanced traffic, yes it may be heavier during the day around Central Park, but it's not really going to impact rush hour except maybe some Fridays. This will give VDOT more incentive to explore another exit ramp which will help everyone. And I still propose that we don't have a traffic problem per se, but that we have a stoplight problem.

So please read through the presentations that have been given by consultants, our own service departments, Kalahari, and council. You can draw on this data to formulate your own conclusions.

City Wide Spring Cleaning

The City of Fredericksburg has announced the dates and locations of city dumpsters for those of us that live in the city and would like to clean up large items around the house.

More info here:

Note that this is not the time to through out old paint and other hazardous material. That's on April 19th at the recycling center.

Take furniture, tires, appliances, brush, scrap materials
(NO household trash, paint, or hazardous materials) to
centralized locations in the City:
• OLD WATER TREATMENT PLANT (1505 Kenmore Avenue)
• RECYCLING CENTER (1200 Belman Road)
• SHEPHERD STREET (905 Lafayette Blvd., behind 7-11)
• ALTOONA DRIVE (Sam Perry Fire House)
• BRAEHEAD WOODS (near Meade Ct)

Friday, March 28, 2008

Lights out Saturday Night 3/29

"Lights Out Globablly Saturday Night for Earth Hour" is about an event Sat night where citizens around the world are asked to turn out the lights for 1 hour starting at 8pm local time. More at I would suggest using this time to get outside and seeing some stars, something that I enjoyed on a regular basis as a kid. Check with Rappahannok Astronomy Association which is having one of their Star Parties at Caledon Natural Area.

I guess I'm feeling a little green this week - this is article #2 on earth events in the last 2 days. This one hits home a little bit though. Growing up in the country, looking up at the stars at night, sparked a lot of my interest in science and exploration - wondering how far the go, what other life might be out there, how old are all those balls of light? Reading about the universe in a textbook, or even seeing it in a museum just isn't the same. I hope that when I have children, there will still be places nearby that I can take them to sit there and ponder the questions of the universe.

Did FLS Typo REGION today?

This morning I opened the REGION section of the Free Lance Star to find a column not on region, but on the theories of the universe. In case you missed it, columnist Donnie Johnston had a column on the front of the region section titled "Holes in Big Bang Theory…". Did the editors forget to put the "LI" in REGION. This article would have been more relevant in a RELIGION section, or the Opinion section. Scientists do have evidence of movement of mass in the universe, and have measured their data and formulated a THEORY. This is why this is a THEORY, not a law. Could there be some entity (or multiple entities if that's what you believe) having a divine intervention here, sure, but what I do know, and what astronomers can show you, is that we're on something similar to a wave heading outward from some distant starting point/area.

Oh, and as for column's statement that an atomic explosion only releasing energy, we now know that in addition to energy, electrons, neutrons, quarks and other subatomic particles are all released, some of these being the necessary building blocks of matter.

At first I was offended, angry that they could somehow mix this in with regional NEWS. Then I thought about it, if we are never offended by what we read, then does our brain ever get the exercise it needs in formulating opinions. So thank you FLS, for a cerebral experience this morning, even if it wasn't regional.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Earth Day Events (25 days and counting)

InTheBurg is going to run a banner a the top of the blog for the next month with planned area Earth Day Events. I will try to keep an eye on the major Earth Day websites for locally promoted events. If your group wants special recognition, please contact me to have something posted on the blog. As I find out about events I will try to post them to the blog, as well as the banner.

4/19 Events:

Fredericksburg Area Earth Day @ Alum Spring Park.

City of Fredericksburg Recycling Center

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

C'ville Concerts Announced

I try to keep this blog on topic with Fredericksburg news, but I'm putting this here to show that what a college town almost exactly double the size of Fredericksburg can accomplish. I see hints that we're getting to this level of interest in community events and public space.

The Charlottesville Pavilion ( - an outdoor amphitheater that anchors their downtown main street area - just announced their summer concerts. For anyone interested, it's a short 1.5 hour or less drive to a unique experience of music, camaraderie, shopping and socializing. The free shows are funded through sponsorships and drink sales, with profits returned to the nonprofit organizations that help staff the events.

Paid Shows:
Two of a Kind 4/13
Feist 4/26
Switchfoot 4/27
Gary Allan 5/8
Emmylou Harris 6/23
Gladys Knight 6/28
Live From The Hook 7/26
Willie Nelson 7/29
Crosby, Stills and Nash 7/31
B.B. King 8/6

Free Concerts through July 4th:
Friday April, 18 Sons of Bill with Justin Jones opening!
Friday April, 25 Kings of Belmont & 6 Day Bender A very special co-bill!
Friday May, 02 Eli Cook
Friday May, 09 Trees on Fire & NeedToBreathe A very special co-bill!
Friday May, 16 Abbey Road with special guest In Technicolor opening the show
Friday May, 23 The Groove Train with Tim Be Told opening!
Friday May, 30 The Lee Boys
Friday June, 06 The original Charlottesville AllStars
Friday June, 13 Inner Rhythm with Heather Maxwell
Friday June, 27 Peyton Tochterman & High Society
Friday July, 04 The Chickenhead Blues Band

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

City Zoning ordinance sent back for more work

V for Victory! At least for now. They city council voted to send the proposed zoning ordinance - the I have repeatedly pointed out here as a bad idea - back to the planning commission. From comments around the city council, there were a number of issues, many on different sides, that council had with the overall proposal. One comment I heard several times was why weren't overlay districts pursued further?

So for the time being, I'm taking this off the hot topic list and moving it down in the blog. I'll keep an eye on the results and keep you updated as I hear more. Hopefully we'll move on to parking and other important planning issues.

Hot Topic: City Zoning
Part 3 - Home size/lot coverage zoning - 3/15
Part 2 - City Zoning Update - 2/19 working meeting
Part 1 - Does Out-Of-Scale equal "out of character"

zoning ordinance public hearing

In case anyone is interested in the text of my comments tonight against the proposed ordinance, here is the speach. I'm sure I mangled a few bits and pieces. I really hate reading a speach, but it was important that I got out everything I wanted in 5 minutes.

Mayor Tomzak, city council, members of the public, I am here tonight to speak about the city zoning ordinance revision for residential homes.

Let me start off with the city’s own analysis. I take offense to the very first paragraph, which I believe sent staff down an unwise path. It states: In 1950 home sizes averaged 983 sq ft, compared to roughly 2200sq ft in yr 2000. Back in 1950, that was probably the largest size home most families could afford. This was a time when one parent was the wage earner, when salaries were a fraction of today, and when many single people couldn’t afford their own home. Today, homeowners have a much more diverse background, with more revenue sources, and with expectations of modern conveniences unavailable in 1950. Today modern homes are built to a safety code and efficiency standards that were unheard of back then. So to compare today’s market to the one in 1950 is simply a cleaver bit of spin.

Onto the specifics, I believe that in all successful negotiations, a little give and take is necessary. Unfortunately, here, the city has given nothing, and instead is proposing to take & take.

This ordinance takes away the ability to expand out. At the same time it’s taking away the alternative to build up.

Secondly, the city staff is proposing taking more in taxes this year, while also proposing taking away these zoning rights. What happens next year when the appraisers calculate the land only portion of our appraisals? I will argue that they need to lower the land value, simply because next year I cannot built the same home I can build today, and with less than a years sales data, they will have a hard time arguing against that justification.

Skipped this paragraph for time: Finally, the KISS principal, you know, Keep-It-Simple, has not been applied here. The old ordinance had alternative setbacks based on neighbors to the left and right. The new one has a vague reference to facing blockface. What happens when across the street is a different zoning – it doesn’t say? How about where it specifically states that coverage restrictions don’t apply to the front porch, yet how does that apply to homes like those on Lafayette or maybe Winchester? Homes where the 1st floor porch is open, but the second floor overhangs the porch. If this counts against lot coverage, then forget seeing any new homes with this beautiful architectural style because once you penalize someone for it, they will surely finish the porch area entirely.

I guess I just don’t see how this aids in maintaining “Character”. I also don’t see how the city can waste so much time and money on attempting to fix something people find visually offensive. Has the city proven any harm has come to this group? If so, why didn’t they use the existing laws for overlay districts to resolve their issues? Instead, I have written to council and posted on my website the social and economic consequences of this ordinance. Here are dozen groups that could show economic or other harm from the new ordinance:
- expanding families
- lower income owners with limited legal resources
- owners of small lots
- owners of 40.5’ lots
- contractors who will loose work
- their employees who will loose hours of labor
- investors
- new owners wanting their dream home
- Unfair to those responsible for processing special use permits
- Unfair to resident who believes this is would have prevented any large home examples
- Unfair to people who enjoy looking at revitalized neighborhoods
- Most importantly it’s unfair to taxpayers

Skipped this paragraph: Council has promoted commercial diversity, how about applying those same diversity standards to residential outside the historic district?

Looking at the city's own examples, 2 houses just need to lower the average roof height 2 feet, one house needs to remove 170sq ft. Lets look specifically at the house on Payne St that many people bring up in this discussion. This change will mean they take out the 1st level garage, probably replacing it with a detached 2 car garage, which doesn't count against lot coverage, resulting in more runoff, which causes harm to the surrounding area. Is that what we want?

I also did my own research, using nearby small cities that people can relate to. Of Lynchburg, Roanoke and the very historic Charlottesville, only one dictates lot coverage, and it is much more than 30 or 40%. All three of these cities continue to use the industry standard of 35’ height.

So I’m asking for my incentive package, and it doesn’t cost the city a thing, simply leave my zoning alone, and allow me to continue to hold the same rights tomorrow that I did today.

Airline Travel Tips

Today Yahoo travel has a good start for air travel tips "20 Tips from Air-Travel Insiders". I fly about once a month, so let me add a few more insights, and some local tips.

  1. From Fredericksburg, it's just as quick to get to Richmond International as any of the DC airports. It's 11 miles further than Reagan-National, however, if you're coming home on an afternoon you'll enjoy the Northbound commute on I-95 much more. With the additions of AirTran and Jetblue in recent years, fares have become much more affordable.
  2. Speaking of Richmond, if you fly on Sunday afternoon, or any evening flight, you can breeze right through security. The last two flights it was just me and 5 TSA agents at security. They are a lot friendlier when it's quiet like this, however, you will probably get your bag scanned closely since there isn't anything else to do.
  3. Roll-on luggage may be small enough to be considered a carry-on, however, it will not fit down the isle, so pick it up by the handle and give the isle seats a break on all the bumping.
  4. Always get in the line security without the family with children. It never fails that earings, belt buckles, pocket change, or something else will send several of them back through the metal detector.
  5. It bears mention here, although you'll be told it 3 or 4 more times, don't bring your full shampoo, toothpaste, liquid gel, etc. in your carry on. After several years of this, I see someone's items being tossed about every 2 trips through the airport.
  6. Always double check your seating 24 hours and again the morning of your flight. There are almost always better seats open.
  7. On seating, check for some insight on what the best seats are. I prefer closer to the front, window (to avoid all the bumping in the isle), or even middle if it's the difference between the front of the plane vs after exit row.
  8. When parking your car, use your cell phone camera to get a photo of the parking space. Invaluable info after a few days away.
  9. When your flight gets cancelled (notice I said 'when', if you haven't had this happen yet, you will), don't freak out, there isn't anything you can do that will bring the flight back. Calmly call the airline # and get rebooked - they seem to be much quicker on the phone than the agents at the desk.
  10. Keep your fingers crossed that the pilot has the safety set on his gun.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Spring @ Roxbury Farm & Garden

Last weekend I had the fortunate excuse to visit an anchor of Fredericksburg gardening history. Roxbury Farm and Garden Center on Lafayette (map). We had one of four arborvitae die off at the end of last summer in the dry conditions. I wanted to replace this with a similarly sized tree, along with adding some new mulch to the front yard. 20 bags of mulch, one tree, and two flats of pansies later and I was ready to go.

Prices were comparable to other stores and nurseries, the biggest difference was the ample help both inside and out. I would bet their labor to customer ratio is one of the best in the region. And where else can you still purchase seed in bulk. I laughed as an adult walked by shaking a bag like a maraca. A place where it feels like being a kid again. I remember buying things this way as a kid, and was happy to relive some of that experience. I can't wait to go back.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

ODU Basketball

Shameless plug for my alma mater-

For anyone paying attention, ODU Women are winning in the first round of the NCAA, yet ESPN2 isn't showing the game. I guess #5 doesn't rate like #8vs9. It will be fun to watch an ODU vs. UVA game (assuming UVA wins at 9:30 tonight). That would setup 2 ODU vs. UVA games this week. The men's teams are both in the CBI tournament and will play Monday night, and the women would play on Tuesday night.


Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Autochalk, love it/hate it

Ok, now that I've got your attention. For those of you that haven't seen this vehicle, it's a computer equipped SUV with a bunch of digital cameras. It drives around town recording who's parked where, then on a second sweep more than 2 hours later, it records who has been parked longer than the 2 hour time limit. A few days later the owner of record gets a letter in the mail. The first time, you only get a warning, and a letter reminding you that you can't park more than 2 hours Monday-Saturday, and it also puts info in there about where longer term parking lots and the garage are located. I of course am writing this with some first hand knowledge of this warning procedure (thanks for not sending tickets right away).

I'm writing this post because of the relative beating this tool takes, especially considering it's relatively inexpensive costs.

Lets go back to the beginning. Autochalk was purchased with money left over in a fund for transportation projects (think gas tax) that wasn't fully expended. They city spent part of that money (100k) on Autochalk, and the rest went into revitalizing the train station. The train station got a much needed coat of paint and some other minor repairs (thank you from a regular traveler on VRE). In the city council meeting minutes from that decisions, there were a few other options tossed around for the 100k, my least favorite was red light cameras. From attending the council meetings regularly, I can tell you that there are regular requests from residents around the college to help with the parking situation there, or from businesses downtown looking for help freeing up customer parking in a limited parking environment.

One poster went back to the January council meeting where a four month audit of the program stats was presented. Basically Autochalk alone, for four months, raised $10,030 (article in FLS). The article in the FLS also reflects other poster's comments that there are many intangible (and subjective) improvements such as reducing violations, more open spots, better enforcement in other areas, etc. You can read those for yourself, I want to echo what was posted as far as revenue, and what is backed up by data from the police chief at city council.

In that same four months that autochalk was measured, written parking tickets were up in two other closely watched (and complained about) neighborhoods. College Heights and the train station. In four months, Police Chief Nye reported that his department wrote 553 tickets in college heights. There were almost none written in 2006, so he did not give a difference. During those same four months, there were 172 more tickets written in the train station area than there were in the same months of 2006.

I went back to the council agenda, pulled up Nye's report on the overall ticket revenue for those four months. Of all the hand written tickets, I calculated an average ticket value of $24.80 (some tickets were as much as $100, others were just warnings).

$24.80 x 725 = $17980 (hand written revenue)

So looking at the increase in revenue from tickets from four months of 2006 to the same in 2007 gives us $17980+$10030 = $28,010. If ticket revenue is linear, x3=$84,030 more than last year. We must assume that part of this revenue had to cover the salary and benefits of the parking officer driving Autochalk - no robot vehicles yet - and that the SUV required more gas than whatever parking vehicle we used before. According to, an experienced patrol officer making the median salary would be between $39k and $56k, a midpoint salary of $47.5k. I'm counting the 100k as sunk cost, which it should be since we didn't borrow the money. Alternatively, you can figure that city could have paid off borrowed funds in 5-8 years.
Update 3/20: The police dept did not hire a new patrol officer, rather they used an existing officer to operate Autochalk. I had figured this cost as a worst case, but now I have data that allows me to remove this conservative calculation. It was also pointed out that the first month of AC was almost all warnings, so if/when we see full year revenue, the full year should really be the first 13 months of operation. This makes the payback even better, not to mention the problems resolved through it's use. Matt Kelly points out in a comment to this post several items that this solution has addressed in the city.

Before anyone else points this out, this calculation isn't clear on exactly which tickets were written by the extra 1/2 of a parking officer being funded this year by UMW. The city must pay the other 1/2 person (unless you want only legs or only torso), so this is really all part of a parking solution that includes the officers AND autochalk, with a total annual revenue estimate of $84k. Still justifies council's "pays for itself" justification even with conservative expense estimates. Also, as stated before, much nicer investment than the alternative red-light cameras one other council member was proposing.

I'm putting this out on the blog as hope that the city police will present full year results of all parking activity when they get all of the data. Then city council can make sound decisions if they are correctly funding activities that alleviate complaints from citizens and businesses. Parking has been a priority, and will probably remain a priority.

Finally, let me give my suggestions for the next rounds of bonus transportation funding.

  1. I'd like to see emergency services detectors on every stoplight from the interstate, RT1, RT2 & RT3 going to the hospital. Speeding ambulances through our congested streets is going to be important to the life those on board, and I hate seeing people having to get out of the way at lights that haven't turned.
  2. If that is too expensive and costly, the other thing I'd like to see is to have the traffic engineer regularly re-time the lights down the major arteries. I routinely get stopped at almost every light on Princess Anne, Amelia, and the lights on Rt3 on both sides of the interstate.
On these two suggestions, there are many days where I feel that we don't have a traffic problem, instead we have a stoplight problem.

So as you can see here, even though Autochalk may look funny, and that ticket in the mail can be maddening, it seems to be a financially sound decision, and anecdotal evidence from residents, business owners and the parking officers indicates that it's helping. I guess we could have just put meters up on all the spots, which would make parking in the garage look great. FYI, back in 2005 USA Today and parking expert Donald Shoup had this article on the costs of providing free parking. I would say the situation we have with Autochalk is pretty good match to what the city has said they want for parking.

Twitter Explained

For those following the twitter experiment on, or for those that want to know more about this useful tool and why in the world someone would want to twitter - here is the best explanation - "Twitter in Plain English" - I've seen so far.

Thanks to Cali Lewis and the podcast for pointing this one out so that I can explain to family and friends how twitter applies to life.

Monday, March 17, 2008

VRE (or any DC commuter) Travel Bag

Ok, so I realized that after years of commuting on VRE, that I have a pretty complete checklist that is required for commuting. Here is my survival bag for commuting to DC.

  • Backpack, with laptop storage - it's entirely too slow to wheel a computer bag down the sidewalks
  • Tote umbrella - I go with the tote because it folds up small enough to fit in a side pocket of the backpack and be out of the way. Not the biggest umbrella, but it has saved me a number of times when I left in the morning to a clear sky.
  • Ipod - or any other MP3 player to tune out
  • Noise cancelling headphones - a must when your neighbors are chatting away or the guy playing video games isn't using headphones (a great alternative is now high end earbuds that keep out exterior sounds and likewise keep your music in the ear)
  • Reading material - the smaller paperbacks work best for me because they fit in the backpack easiest, or a magazine or two.
  • Gloves (and skull cap or earmuffs) - Some just say layers, but for me it's ears and fingers that get cold. The temp in rail cars isn't the most fine tuned thing, so be prepared to survive a chilly ride
  • Good shoes - I wear my dress shoes, some people leave those at the office and wear sneakers.
  • Metro pass - you never know when you're going to have to transfer early from VRE to Metro if something bad happens on the tracks ahead, having a metro card with a few dollars on it really help speed up the transition if they haven't opened the metro option.
  • Speaking of passes, get a clip and carrier from one of the "meet the management" events. Something to clip your VRE pass to your shirt so you don't forget it (I also keep a metro card in there just in case)
  • Gum - a must for delays or when you have Garlic at lunch
  • Chapstick, Eyedrops, Allergy Meds, hand lotion - Ok, these snuck into my bag due to other airline travel, but I found that it's nice to have a fix for dry eyes/lips/hands. Get the smallest size you can find (hotel size lotion is perfect). I even keep these in the quart bag for easy airport security.
  • Cheap sunglasses - I say cheap because these stay folded in the backpack most of the time and inevitably will get scratched, bent, etc. I have a $7 pair from CVS. Also useful when you forget sunglasses on travel and you have to drive the rental.
  • Blackberry - how else do you get the emails on delays and write blog posts? Actually there are several ways (see VRE website for notifications), I just prefer the 'berry.

Everything goes in the backpack. Pick a backpack with multiple pockets as it is much easier to organize. This is now the same backpack I travel with, because I know where everything is located.

City Finance Comparisons

In a comment on Question Everything in response to the city budget discusssions, there is an interesting link to a Richmond Times database of city/county spending ( Granted, this is previous yr data, but it helps to be able to compare localities.

I point this out, because I like to compare Fredericksburg to Charlottesville - another historic town/college town that is dealing with growth. Charlottesville is almost exactly double the size of Fredericksburg in sq miles, population, revenue, taxes. About the only ratio that isn't close to equal is the amount spent health & wellness (8% vs. 14% c'ville). I would bet you could attribute the differences in education, police, public works to the fact that even though we're smaller than Charlottesville, we probably have certain fixed costs or non-linear expenses that create a few percentage points differences.

As we look ahead a few years at the growth required (courts complex), and the potential for some new revenue sources (tourism campus), it's helpful to have another city close by that appears to have been through many of these challenges. There are a number of other VA cities we can also look at - I just happened to have lived in Charlottesville for a number of years and so it makes it an easy target for my comparisons. Now I feel somewhat more justified in making those references.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Home size/lot coverage zoning

Ok folks, this is the third and final post (Parts 1 and 2) related to the upcoming zoning ordinance change that results in downzoning most residential single family homes in the city of Fredericksburg. In ten days, on March 25, there is supposed to be a public hearing on the matter. I highly recommend anyone owning a residential property to come out and here how you are going to be affected. You will no longer be able to build the same size addition as before, if you found yourself in a situation to rebuilt, you are going to be more restricted after this ordinance than before.

Ok, so enough with the sky if falling talk. In my last post I promised to give one reason why this ordinance may be good. Previously I had pointed out that the harm in building a large modern home is generally being opposed as a visual abomination. I found it hard to imagine the city has spent so much time and effort trying to fix something because people don't like the way something looks. That these neighbors would have a hard time trying to prove harm from "large homes" nearby in their neighborhood.

Here it is: Included in this ordinance is a restriction on lot coverage. Depending on the width (not depth) of the lot, you may be able to cover either 40% (for lots under 40 feet) or 30% (for those over 40 feet wide). This might - and I say that with some reservation - be supported by an argument for reducing runoff during storms. The more you cover a lot, the less ability the ground has to assorb water runoff during a storm. As more water is forced onto the roadway an into the storm drains, the more susceptable the area is to flooding. Houses can help abate this by landscape design. In extreem cases cisterns can capture water from gutters that can then be distributed later for irrigation and watering after the storm has passed. I stated that I have some reservation to using this as an argument for the changes, because the ordinance does not have any limits on other structures or driveways, which all affect total land coverage. At the same time the ordinance reduces coverage, also reduces height. If you can't build out, then the only other way to go is up.

So in a year when budgets are tight, when we need to have people interested in the city, when every building is an opportunity to hire local labor and put investment back into the city, this ordinance change is the wrong plan. I believe that our current system of measuring height and setbacks is completely adequate for a city where space is limited. I believe that the changes being proposed don't fix "character" as originally requested by the council. I believe that if residents want to have control of the houses down the street, they should put it to a vote for the entire neighborhood to create an overlay district. I personally enjoy the fact that my neighborhood is not in an associtation, that I'm not having to go to the ARB for every change I make. I enjoy living in a vibrant city that still has new homes being built.

At a time when businesses are getting a lot of attention, don't the citizens deserve the opportunity to invest in their own property to the degree that we could when we purchased our property. The final thing that really gripes me about this change, is that it's being voted on by council, not by the citizens that affect them. There has been no ballot initiative that says the majority of residents and owners either agree or disagree.

Please take the time to read the announcement on the city website when it is released, and take a look at my three articles here. There are also links in the previous posts to items in the FLS. Before you make a decision one way or the other, take a time to look at the facts, and what this will do to the city, then come speak up at the public hearing.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Fredericksburg lot at VRE filled

Ok, why is it that seemingly random days the Fredericksburg lot at the train station is full? I was able to snag one of the three remaining spots this morning before my train. Normally there are a dozen or more spots when I arrive. Why would it be packed on a Thursday? Was there congestion early on 95? I understand when the weather is bad, or at the biginning/end of the fiscal year when gov workers usually can't get travel approved. This happens several times a month now, so maybe more people are taking the train!
At first thought, this would seem random, but that doesn't seem to make sense. Most people that ride the train have a pattern - same parking area, same car, same seat - so there must be something changing the patterns several days out of the month.
At worst, it just means driving around the corner to the garage for a few $. Take my advice, don't park on the street. That sign that says permit parking only doesn't mean your f'burg city sticker - or you'll be making a donation to our police department.
Glad to see more people riding the train. Most people that know me know that I advocate for mass transit that makes sense - and I'm a huge believer in commuter rail along I-95.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

St Patrick's celebrations 3/16

We saw the sign up for the St. Patrick's day parade on Caroline St at 5pm on Sunday 3/16. Blue&Grey Brewing is also doing their parade/music event in Spotsy on 3/16 Saturday 3/15 [thanks to David for correcting my inability to read the correct date - now maybe I can make both!]. Any suggestions on which one to go to (both maybe)?

Twit'ing City Council Meeting

[Updated 3/11 9:50pm]
So what did visitors think of the twitter traffic from the city council meeting (you can find more at from TFR)? My thumbs are only mildly bruised from the typing (oh how I longed for a full keyboard and wifi connection). It was fun. Folks, keep in mind the twitter traffic is a bit more oppinionated since it's live, not researched and refined, and may show some immediate gut reaction.

Based on an idea from the Head Fred over at TFR, I'm going to attempt to twitter the city council meeting tomorrow night. Now I know that you can pick up the meeting on the Fredericksburg channel, but wouldn't you rather just have me kill my thumbs trying to get the word out in 140 character entries? Actually, this is somewhat of a science experiment to see how this works on the blog.

So if you're following me real time tomorrow, drop me a line so that I can get some feedback on how things went.

So follow along either in the left column of or follow directly at

The Scars of a Campaign

[Updates from the campaigns in the comments]

[3/10 update to image - drove by today and noticing something missing, also noticed a change in tax records at the end of last year, so I'm trying to find out if it's the same owner that had previously given permission for campaign signs.]

[3/11 update - The property owner just called to say that the tenants have her authority to either grant or deny campaigns the use of the yard]

What would you do if you had to cut the grass over these holes left from moving one of the campaign signs? What if you looked out of your window each morning and saw the backs of large campaign signs? Who would you complain to? Well, those were the questions I was asked by a renter at 1500 William St while looking at the two campaign signs for Mayor.

Long after the campaigns are over, these residents will still have the responsibilty for cutting the grass over the various holes left in the yard. They routinely have to pick up the blown over yard signs.

On this day, there were three empty wire frames from previous campaigns, three vacant post holes, and probably five holes holding up the current cammpaign signs. Not to mention, before I arrived, there was a campaign sign sprawled in the middle of their yard, along with an empty beer bottle (not related to the campaign). The long term responsibility for this area of the yard lies on the residents, and at least one is not too happy with the campaigns.

According to City ordinance, the city manager may approve (for a fee) a temporary informational sign in a public space. It was unclear if this is the method by which these two campaign signs were erected. It was unclear if these were placed in the public right-of-way. A short google search also indicates that Hanover County points out that VDOT may have to issue a temporary sign permit for a sign over 2x2ft installed in VDOT right-of-way. Further reports indicate this is indeed on private property, governed purely by city code ordinances and ownership consent.

Regardless of the law, politeness would dictate that the campaigns should at least be repairing the scars left from their post hole digging campaigners.

Local bloggers get press

Both TFR and this blog got press today on the front page of the spotsy&city extra at the FLS!

And on the City Beat blog here.

A huge thanks to author Emily and photographer Scott!

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Fri Night In The Burg w/The Culprits

Last night we went with friends to see The Culprits play at The Colonial Tavern (Home of the Irish Brigade). What a great combination of classic rock, blues and a hint of country. They debuted a new track with the assistance of Emily who added a beautiful female voice to the normal 5. Then they played a second new release. What a great night to be out in the rain, having a good time with friends, seeing who else braved the storm to see little live music.

Who is B-J Huff?

TFR uncovered a little background about him here. He seems to be the first to have a campaign in full swing (witness by the campaign cards, Huff for Council stickers and full website - be sure to click on about and issues on the left column).

This morning I had the opportunity to meet City Council candidate B-J Huff. We were both riding VRE north. He was an I-95 commuter for 10 months before switching to VRE.

Lets get over the obvious stuff first. B-J, as he prefers to be called, is 22 years old. He is quick to point out that he isn't like most 22 yr olds, with several years of work experience in a variety of companies already under his belt. Completing college at UMW in 3 yrs, while also holding down an internship gave him experience even before graduation.

B-J rents on Caroline St, and enjoys walking downtown. He stated that he is happy to see the efforts underway to enhance the downtown area. He relayed to me that he would like to see more done to help current business owners that are interested in improvements, not just bring in new outside businesses. I asked B-J if being a renter would affect his votes on real estate taxes. This is when he said something that really surprised me. In addition to being someone who is weighing options for purchase vs. rent here in the city, he has had a family member close family friend that was forced to sell a home due to continuously increasing property taxes.

On the Huff for City Council flyer, the top issue addressed is building a 21st century education system. B-J has a parent and a sister that are both teachers. A little digging on his expectations revealed a well thought out position - that the city not only needs to make entry level positions competitive with surrounding markets, but to also ensure that we can retain higher-step top quality experienced teachers.

According to Emily Battle at the FLS, he has campaigned for Wittman, Howell and Stuart. Several of these politicians are now backing B-J and are even helping with his campaign. This gives a considerable amount of credibility to a candidate that does not yet have a voting record.

When talking with B-J, you get a sense of the energy and enthusiasm that this candidate has for the position. Looking back at what he has done in the past, I don't think the time commitment will be an issue at all. He closely represents a portion of the voters that routinely commute to NoVA. B-J made a point that in his work environment he would rather try not to divide people, and instead give ideas. I have often made a point to city council that data driven decisions is the only way to do business, and I can see a lot of that in B-J.

I will admit that I have a little more background and research to do on the other candidates before making my decision on the election, but it was refreshing to see someone bring this kind of energy to a discussion. B-J would definitely bring some diversity to City Council.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Kalahari Changes coming?

Emily Battle posted on her blog at the FLS that the city is pursuing an ordinance change to implement a TIF (tax increment financing) district as a mechanism by which to supply the incentives to Kalahari.

Story Here:

I posted on Matt Kelly's blog, hoping that we'll get at least one counselor's opinion on the changes. I'm a bit surprised that this is coming out this late in the game, and it does seem to me to be a game changer. There is no question that other localities have used TIFs to get developers to create certain businesses, however, it was my understanding that everything we wanted to do for Kalahari was possible under the existing city zoning and tourist zones. I wonder what the catch was? In trying to find if VA has any legal template for a TIF (vague if any), I did stumble on this 1988 VA attorney general opinion on the legality of TIFs. Seems that everything I can find about TIFs is that they use revenue generated from taxes over the original base tax revenue - where the development increases taxes from $1 to $3, the tax increment is $2. This $2 is then used to pay back bonds or to pay for incremental infrastructure improvements in the TIF. Hopefully council will quickly release some information about whether the full increment has to stay in the TIF zone, or can be used by the rest of the city (services, schools, etc). Also, what is the footprint of the TIF zone, just the 48 acres of Kalahari land, or is it bigger? If it's bigger, then how are the incentives structured - does Kalahari get up to 50% of it's taxes if the entire zone sees a benchmark tax increment met, or just the Kalahari property?

Wow, I thought the city had done a pretty good job of answering questions on the existing proposal (although it wasn't complete). I hope that they can do as good of job explaining this new ordinance and specifically how it's going to be structured for this specific deal. Unfortunately this is going to delay getting started on a project that is probably very dependent on meeting certain dates.

Parking & Traffic, Charlottesville's Recent Developments

Just to our South and West, Charlottesville is tackling two big issues that hit pretty close to home. The city is trying to come up with traffic by-pass alternatives that mostly involve Albemarle County (which isn't always receptive to the proposals, and have their own development plans). They are also trying to address downtown parking issues.

Some of the best quotes I've seen from a city counselor is from Charlottesville's Ms. Edwards on thinking outside the traditional when the traditional doesn't make sense (from The Hook):

While the Councilors agreed to send a letter to the consultant, Lewis Grimm of PBS&J, urging a “return to the drawing board,” the two freshmen on Council saw what one of them, Holly Edwards, termed a “window of opportunity to start looking at and thinking about alternative forms of transportation.”
Edwards proposed getting “creative” and “radical” about extracting people from their cars. “Instead of leveraging a few dollars for roads,” said Edwards, “[we should be] leveraging dollars for alternative transportation.”
“I couldn't agree more with the comments expressed by Ms. Edwards,” said Mayor Norris. “The next major investment in our region should not be another huge swath of very expensive asphalt. Let’s use this as an opportunity to leverage the kind of investment that Ms. Edwards describes and figure out how to get people off the highway.”

The Hook also ran a front page story this week on parking in the city of Charlottesville. Author Dave McNair writes that the city and UVA have a combined 11 garages, with more in works by both the college and private developers. The two primary garages serving downtown are referenced, and noted that their architecture was designed such that they appear to be buildings in the landscape. I would have to say that our own Sophia St. garage is much the same in this sense. The article also talks about drivers reluctance to use garages (C'ville starts charging when you enter, unlike Fredericksburg where the first 2 hours are free), and unrealistic expectations related to on street parking. Unlike Fredericksburg, Charlottesville does not have any parking on their closed main street pedestrian mall. Rather, they are bounded by 2 garages and a slew of lots both public and private.

The article includes the following quote from author/parking guru David Shoup:
As Yale economist and parking issue guru Donald Shoup points out in his book, The High Cost of Free Parking, studies show that driving around looking for free or low-cost curb spots accounts for about 30 percent of the traffic congestion in downtown areas. Indeed, virtually all day long, drivers on the Mall are doing what Stroh calls the "the two-hour shuffle."
..."Drivers often compare parking at the curb to parking in a garage and decide that the price of garage parking is too high," Shoup wrote in a New York Times op-ed piece last year. "But the truth is that the price of curb parking is too low. Underpriced curb spaces are like rent-controlled apartments: hard to find, and-- once you do-- crazy to give up. This increases the time costs (and
therefore the congestion and pollution costs) of cruising."

Sound familiar (except autochalk helps with the 2-hour shuffle)? I would encourage anyone interested in parking to read the full article. It includes a lot of history, cultural stigmas, and future designs that range from radical all the way to classic that would fit into any historic neighborhood.
Now, how can we convince Kalahari that the right answer to lots of pavement is a single parking garage? Or could a developer make a descent return on investment by building a deck or two downtown? I wonder if we could find a private developer to build the deck for the new court building instead of using city bonds? Actually, I'm pretty certain some of these thoughts are also being considered by our city employees - but I toss them out here for comment.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Local Earth Day & Tree Sale info released

Several items appeared on the City website today. First off the local earth day events have been announced. You can find more information about the celebration scheduled for the April 19th event at Alum Spring Park here.

In addition to the celebration, the city is will be holding one of it's spring hazardous waste recycling days on the 19th. More info available on City recycling here.

Finally, the Tri-County/City Soil and Water conservation district is having their annual native seedling sale. Pre-Orders need to be in by March 28th for pickup on April 5th. Order forms and website.

If the weather didn't give it away this week, this must mean spring is almost here.

Monday, March 3, 2008

Scorecard for the week

I was able to get away with my wonderful wife for a week to do some skiing and lets see if I got everything that happened this week:

1) working session held so that the public could hear about all of the known Kalahari benefits and costs across the city

2) city heard from the public about a house in the historic city that put on siding without getting ARB approval. (funny, I thought that was in the zoning ordinance, not building code, so I would have to agree with the comment at the public meeting. I love having a DVR.)

3) VA Partners Bank asked for approval to get a few waivers from the city zoning ordinances. Most critical was parking, which brought up an interesting statement that the business would NOT pay for garage parking for employees. (Isn't this a lot like giving incentives if the city doesn't require the bank to pay for offset parking?) Thankfully the mayor sent it back for more discussion. Also sounded like the Bank needs to hold it's own talk with nearby residents.

4) The ALE HOUSE incentives were approved, again the city is refunding future tax income, not giving them a freebie handout (except for some upfront reimbursement for improvements).

5) Seems like a few spears are being tossed setting up for election year politics.

6) Oh yes, another park is in works. If the city can complete the former cossey water treatment plant park along with the new riverfront park, it will create a nice collection of public areas. (Doesn't this mean they shouldn't be spending so much time on the oversized housing ordinance since we will have these great public backyards?)

7) Cobblestone Square is now going to be appartments? Is this even legal based on the original site plan approval (I don't know anything about this one, I have not done the research to see what the city approved back-in-the-day)

8) City continues to fund some much needed capital equipment. Did anyone else notice that the $300k for computer equipment was for outright purchases? Don't most businesses now do a 2.5 or 3 yr lease to help spread replacement costs out over the equipment lifespan? Is everyone in the government doing everything they can to save money instead of going with the business-as-usual.

WOW! And it was only the last week of Feb - I thought things were supposed to be quiet in the winter months. Just wait, we're almost into budget season.

Buying the Executive Building

There was a brief discussion during the council meeting about the refurbishment costs to the city for the Executive Building. Mr. Wilson stood up and stated he would gladly buy it back for what the city paid for the building. In the interest of diversifying the downtown ownership, I too would gladly buy the building off of the city at this incredible value. If nothing else, I think they should just turn it over to me, that would save them 1.3M in next years budget.

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