Percolate, ruminate, speculate

Do you remember your mother’s old coffee percolator? In those foggy, half-asleep mornings laying in bed, the smell of coffee coming from the kitchen was the bugle that told you it was time to get your butt out of the sack before the light switch clicked, the blankwet was pulled back and you were thrusted into the chill of the morning.

As I made it to the kitchen table trying to rub the last bit of sleep from the corners of my eyes, the percolator popped its rhythmic anthem. I lived in a developing neighborhood so many risings would be accompanied by the sound of heavy equipment starting. You could say that my neighborhood was percolating as well. We lived on the edge of suburbia, not quite the bustling burbs of today but a quiet transitioning. While my friends and I could jump on a bus and head downtown for music lessons or to pick out our school clothes, the barbed wire fence on our rear property line kept Mr. Shultz’s dairy cattle out of our yard. Later in life, after I had put college behind me, my infatuation with building things got the better of me and I began my first career as a builder/developer.

In my neck of the woods, every development was required to have sidewalks, which encouraged walking and allowed easy access to a vibrant public transportation system, even at the far reaches of the region’s bedroom communities.

When local citizens were working on Chester’s comprehensive plan about six years ago, area residents thought it very important to include sidewalks on any new development, especially commercial. A month or so ago as I was tooling up Iron Bridge Road I was passing Iron Mill and noticed that the developer had not included a sidewalk completely across the front of the property. I was disappointed that the tenets of the plan were not being adhered to, after all, as it has been pointed out, it is only a guiding document. But low and behold a week or so later the developer began working on the rest of the pedestrian way. It is now about 3/10ths of a mile long and one day could be made contiguous with other sidewalks running along Route 10 like a dashed line.

But here’s the rub. While developers are required to proffer in sidewalks as part of their developments, what good for the goose is not necessarily good for the gander. Last year the state highway department proposed replacing the bridge over the railroad tracks on Jefferson Davis Highway near the Defense Supply Center Richmond (DSCR). Partly in preparation for the eventuality of an additional track for high-speed rail but also just because the bridge is old, decaying and narrow.

But unlike the comp plan’s recommendation that developers include sidewalks in their projects, there was no sidewalk included on the state project. At an open house during the winter, the preponderance of comments collected has to do with adding sidewalks. There are neighborhoods along that stretch of highway whose residents don’t own cars and walk the road there regularly.

During a public hearing a few months ago, Chesterfield’s Board of Supervisors offered their support by way of a resolution. The excuse for not including a sidewalk was that it would cost too much money – $2 million. But I believe that number was inflated so the sidewalks wouldn’t have to be built. Come on, $2 million for a bridge sidewalk, less than a tenth-of-a-mile long?

Developers, in many cases, are forced to do what Chesterfield County and the state won’t do or ignore altogether. I know that developers are not the most loved in this county, although they have provided the opportunity for most of us to live here, but sometimes they get the short end of the stick too. If a developer had to build a bridge over a railroad track or a creek or any place else, you can bet he would have to include a sidewalk. He might be reluctant, but pressure from citizens, who put pressure on their elected officials, would force him to concede.

It seems to be a lopsided arrangement, and it runs deeper. Last week, the housing inventory was released for the region, and the verdict is that inventories are tightening, especially for homes on the lower end of the cost curve. But the lack of a sliding scale for proffers doesn’t allow builder to refill the lower cost inventory. Soon the foreclosures will be depleted and we will find ourselves in a position in which starter homes will not exist in Chesterfield. If done properly a sliding scale for proffers would allow a builder to pay a lesser proffer (currently $18,966 per unit) for homes which would have a smaller sales price and a higher proffer for the McMansions or higher quality custom homes.

It’s unpopular to side with developers on some issues in this county because the cost to the county for school and other public facilities still outstrips the proffers paid. But we bought houses here because we either have roots here or just like the area. Why shouldn’t our children enjoy the same privilege?

Think about how sometimes even the boogieman gets a bum rap. Let that percolate for a while and get back to me.  

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