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Powhatan Board sees rocky start to comp plan review but settles in for discussion
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Powhatan Board sees rocky start to comp plan review but settles in for discussion

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POWHATAN – The Powhatan County Board of Supervisors briefly got off to a rocky start on the first of four scheduled workshops to begin the process of looking at the county’s long-range comprehensive plan but gradually settled down into a calmer rhythm.

The board met for its first workshop of the year focused only on the comprehensive plan update on Wednesday, June 9. It has more workshops planned for 3 p.m. on June 16, 23, and 30 in the Village Building, with more possible if they have further work to do.

The current comprehensive plan was adopted on June 24, 2019, after nearly three years of review by the planning commission and board of supervisors. In August 2020, the current board of supervisors decided to update the plan and charged the planning commission with starting the reviewing process. They did that and adopted a recommended update at their meeting on April 6.

The first few minutes of the supervisors’ discussion on that updated document were intense as Bill Cox, who represents District 4, seemed to be squared off against other board members about how much work there was to be done.

The planning commission in its review had chosen to focus most of its attention on the plan’s chapters dealing with Transportation and Land Use and Community Character, with particular emphasis on the Countywide Future Land Use Map.

However, Cox said large portions of the first seven chapters were problematic and needed to be rewritten. But while Cox said he was ready to “tear it apart,” board chair Karin Carmack, District 5, disagreed and said she was not sure the rest of the board felt the need to go through and discuss the document line by line.

“I think you are being a little dramatic. I think we can get through it without rewriting the whole thing,” she said initially.

At the center of this initial disagreement is the role the supervisors see the comprehensive plan playing in county planning and decision making. They even got in a heated debate over what to call it, with most fine to describe it as a “guide” that they use to make their decisions and Cox arguing it is a plan and a vision for how they want the county to grow and people only call it a guide when they don’t want to follow it.

However, once the board began going through the document and addressing problems that different supervisors had with terminology, content, language, or how issues were addressed, the workshop ran much more smoothly. The board members covered a wide variety of topics, some of which they agreed on and some of which didn’t. Some of the topics they addressed included:

* Rural character – At different points in the workshop, what kind of community Powhatan is and wants to be were central themes. That became evident early on when Cox and David Williams, District 1, who arrived a little late, pointed out independently of each other that a key theme of the plan needed to be changed in the draft from “Maintain Character” to “Maintain Rural Character.” The word rural speaks to the visual character they want to achieve in the county, Cox argued.

* Level of services – There were a few discussions about levels of service and how to communicate clearly that Powhatan does not have all of the amenities of an urban or suburban community without sounding negative or forgetting to celebrate the strives the county has made in improving those services.

* Impact of surrounding localities – A key point of discussion dealt with focusing on how Powhatan residents want their county to grow while dealing with the pressures to grow and develop as Chesterfield develops westward toward Powhatan. The board discussed whether to acknowledge that as they state what they want Powhatan to be regardless of those pressures.

* Visions and goals – At a few points the plan has the visions and goals from the previous board of supervisors. The current board has adopted a new strategic plan and said they wanted the results of that discussion and planning to be put into the comprehensive plan draft instead.

* Economic development – The board members debated the type of efforts they want the county to make in the area of economic development and what types of businesses they are trying to attract or deter. Cox presented some language he said was aimed at the two main points of economic development – jobs and revenue – but Carmack and Mike Byerly, District 3, both shared concerns that it would telegraph to small businesses that they are not welcome. Williams suggested doing research on other localities on not only their successes but their failures so Powhatan can better navigate how to avoid them.

Part of the discussion also included updating the board’s objective to increase businesses to help the residential-to-commercial tax burden ratio, which is currently at about 92% residential and 8% commercial. The board said they wanted to change an objective goal in the draft from a 70-30 ratio to a more realistic 85-15 ratio.

Williams also said the board needs to be proactive and not reactive about economic development or it will keep ending up with decisions that are a detriment to the county. He and Byerly pointed out how much everything can be impacted by unforeseen circumstances, such as COVID and how it has changed the landscape of shopping from in-person retail to more of a focus on online sales or the need for office space when so many people are working from home. Williams said the board cannot be tone deaf to where circumstances are taking the market and set realistic, data-based plans and goals accordingly.

* Role of agriculture – As agriculture is not a big moneymaker for the county, its importance in different parts of the plan was questioned a few times.

* Housing – Housing was brought up several times during the meeting, both in the context of what type of housing the board members want to emphasize and whether to approach the discussion about housing type or desired residential densities.

In particular, Cox said repeatedly that he wanted more emphasis in the document that Powhatan primarily is focused on having single-family dwelling units.

The board also discussed how much influence they can actually have on residential growth in the county since so much of the growth outside of the growth nodes can be done by-right.

Laura McFarland may be reached at Lmcfarland@powhatantoday.com.

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