Part 2 of 3: Foothills Forum and the Rappahannock News look back on 2020 with a focus on COVID-19 as well as several key issues – schools, broadband and cellular, business, housing -- we have reported on throughout the year.
New land-use project, comp plan amendments put the spotlight on development
By Sara Schonhardt and Rachel Needham for Foothills Forum
Housing and development were in the spotlight in 2020 as the pandemic boosted demand for country real estate and sparked debate about whether more must be done to ensure there are affordable places to live in Rappahannock.
In addition, the Board of Supervisors signed off on updates to the comprehensive plan for the first time since 2004. The amended plan includes updated maps of the county’s impaired streams and scenic rivers; revised descriptions of current subdivision and zoning ordinances; a wireless broadband communications plan; a section on renewable energy; and expands upon the need for affordable housing, particularly for seniors and the disabled.
The board set aside the proposed boundary maps delineating each of the county’s five villages, approving the plan without them. Though the maps were suggested to protect Rappahannock from unwelcome sprawl, village residents expressed concern that they might instead encourage growth. Though some county officials said that without the maps the plan may be insufficiently prescriptive, there was nevertheless general agreement that the adoption of the 2020 plan was a remarkable achievement.
The big news on housing came near the end of the year with the announcement of Black Kettle Commons, a proposed mixed-use development that skirts the Town of Washington and could include affordable housing units, a community center, a new site for the Food Pantry and office spaces.
During an informational session at December’s Washington Town Hall meeting, Betsy Dietel, who helped found the nonprofit Rappahannock Communities, said they are discussing between 10 and 20 rental housing units for elderly residents and young families.
To proceed, the project will need approval for an adjustment of the boundary line between Rappahannock County and the Town of Washington that would bring the site completely into the town. The adjustment would allow Black Kettle Commons to connect to the town’s sewer and water facility and comply with its planned use development zoning. Fund manager and investor Charles T. “Chuck” Akre, who owns the property and lives at Mount Prospect in Washington, says this would provide more flexibility in how they design and use the land.
The project team – which includes a civil engineer, landscape architect and land use lawyer – is clear that if they’re able to move forward, nothing aside from the agreement to house the Food Pantry is concrete. They’re calling for input from the community as they develop the various components and have launched a website where people can submit comments or questions.
“We want to do nothing on this project except that which the community would both enjoy and need,” said Akre, who is prepared to make a substantial investment in the site’s development.
“This is our gift to Rappahannock County and the Town of Washington,” he added.
Assistance to cover basic housing costs has been among the needs of those in the county hit financially by the pandemic.
Berni Olson, community coordinator at the Benevolent Fund, which provides emergency financial aid to Rappahannock families, said her organization disbursed $10,000 more than it did in 2019 to help cover rent and mortgage payments and $17,000 more than the previous year for electricity bills.
People Inc. of Virginia said that between July and December it provided nearly $36,000 in assistance to the 13 Rappahannock County residents who qualified for its rent and mortgage relief program.
During a housing webinar in early November co-hosted by the Rappahannock News and Foothills Forum, Olson offered some possible solutions to affordability challenges, such as shared or co-living arrangements, and a shift away from a not-in-my-backyard attitude to affordable housing.
Hampton district supervisor Keir Whitson also jumped into the housing discussion in 2020 with a few policy suggestions that could increase the number of affordable options, such as a review of the family subdivision ordinance and incentives to large landowners for fixing up and renting small auxiliary units on their properties.
“I want to find something that we can actually do, that’s on a scale that we can actually manage,” Whitson said. The supervisor has plans to start a discussion with colleagues on the county board in 2021.
One thing that may inform those talks is a regional housing study by the Rappahannock Rapidan Regional Commission (RRRC) which could be finalized in February.
The study (a working draft of which is available online, includes a zoning ordinance review and strategies each locality can consider to meet its housing needs, as well as a housing demand analysis, which found that of the five counties RRRC serves, Rappahannock has the lowest rate of owner-occupied housing (55.5%) and the highest rate of seasonally vacant housing (14.5%), meaning less opportunity for year-round home ownership and rentals.
The study indicates that there is a need for additional and more diverse housing in the region, RRRC’s Executive Director Patrick Mauney said, though he cautioned against applying a precise number to that finding.
“That’s where it really comes down to each locality – in this case counties and towns – looking at what makes sense from their own existing infrastructure availability as well as the context and what might fit,” Mauney said.
Virginia state code does require affordable housing to be included in each county’s comprehensive plan.
And while Rappahannock’s newly adopted plan recognizes the need for affordable housing for county residents — especially for the elderly and disabled — the plan does not define the word “affordable.”
Christine Smith, chair of the Board of Supervisors, said that she and her colleagues will likely revisit the subject when the RRRC releases its housing study, something the county’s Planning Commission may consider, too.
“The primary goal, now that the comprehensive plan was updated, should be a comprehensive review and update of the zoning and subdivision ordinances,” said County Administrator Garrey Curry.
He also noted that village area maps that consider and identify development issues and goals for village areas “could lead to a partial future land use map.”
In the coming months, RRRC will begin compiling a list of groups working on housing repairs. The group is also considering creating a database of housing developments and units that could meet the needs identified in its demand analysis.
For Rappahannock some of those options may be just across the border, with Clevenger’s Village development in north Culpeper County still moving forward.
Current project developer Saadeh Financial LLC said it has contracted with Lennar Corporation as the main builder and Richmond American Homes and has been going through the county and state approval process since submitting plans last February for the first portion of the commercial village center, which will include 115 residential lots and is expected to have a pharmacy, bank, grocery store and other retail.
Patrick Mauney, Executive Director, Rappahannock Rapidan Regional Commission
Where is the discussion on housing currently? “For me, the discussion [in Rappahannock] is not dissimilar to the discussion going on elsewhere, it’s just the scale and the scope of what the solutions might be.”
Christine Smith, Rappahannock County Supervisor
Where do we go from here? “I think having good open and honest communication between the Planning Commission and the Board is a very healthy relationship as we move on and try to complete that additional work on the comprehensive plan.”
Berni Olson, Community Coordinator, Benevolent Fund
What gives her hope? “I’m really glad I live in this community that has an abundance of generosity, of people that can provide assistance to people who weren’t able to pay their rent or pay their car payment or make their electric bill. That is really a good thing.”
By the numbers
$35,993.83, amount given out to help with housing costs for 13 individuals in Rappahannock who qualified for assistance through People Inc.
Part 1: Intro and Business
Part 2: Housing and Budget
Part 3: Broadband and Schools
The budget calamity that wasn’t brings year-end sigh of relief
By Tim Carrington for Foothills Forum
County budget-keepers are breathing an end-of-year sigh of relief that the financial quicksand they feared last spring didn’t materialize — at least not yet.
Last March, a meticulously prepared county budget collided with the shock force of a global pandemic that would derail the world economy, reset the national political calculus and, by year’s end, take the lives of more than 300,000 Americans.
Rappahannock County formally entered a State of Emergency and planners ratcheted back their assumptions about tax revenues derived from tourism and trade. Anxieties ran high as county officials read national predictions of general economic ruin. They fretted that tax in-flows wouldn’t fund the $26 million budget they had just embraced for the fiscal year beginning in July. The gloom scenario pictured populations in extended lockdown and innkeepers, restaurants and shops withering away, along with the tax revenues they generated. Even property taxes, the single largest contributor to local revenue, could falter as residents’ livelihoods were getting hammered.
“It’s fair to say there was great apprehension about what was coming,” said County Administrator Garrey Curry following a review of the first five months of the fiscal year that began in July. “A lot of that apprehension has been lifted — but not all of it.”
The big surprise was the robust influx of sales taxes and meals and lodging levies due to COVID pandemic responses policymakers hadn’t anticipated. Two trends made the difference: First, short-term rental operations filled up with city dwellers who decided to sit out the shutdown season in the county; second, home-owning weekenders shifted to full-time from part-time. Safely ensconced in the county, both groups started buying online and enjoying take-out and outdoor dining. Consequently, sales taxes started to flow and meals and lodging taxes revved up.
Meanwhile, a number of farmers welcomed new customers seeking to avoid supermarkets in favor of farm stores and outdoor markets. The Inn at Little Washington, whose meals and lodging taxes are critical to the Town of Washington, was filling its rooms one weekend after another, while mannequins provided esprit de corps in its socially-distanced dining areas.
Another factor was a double infusion of federal pandemic-relief money allocated through the CARES Act. Adding up to nearly $1.3 million, the funds helped Rappahannock’s schools and many of its businesses and agencies weather the crisis.
Foothills Forum is an independent, community-supported nonprofit tackling the need for in-depth research and reporting on Rappahannock County issues.
The group has an agreement with Rappahannock Media, owner of the Rappahannock News, to present this series and other award-winning reporting projects. More at foothills-forum.org.
Had the county’s revenue streams dried up as feared, policymakers would have been forced to make painful cutbacks, since raising taxes on residents during an economic downturn would be a nonstarter. Practicing scrupulous expenditure management, the county fenced off some monies in contingency status, meaning the funds could only be spent once it was clear that the supporting revenues were actually coming in. Supervisors say the added review forced a useful level of discipline.
The Commonwealth of Virginia, which contributes significantly to the schools and an array of other programs, was another source of uncertainty. Whipsawed by added expenses and lost revenue from COVID, Virginia at one point “unallotted” $143,000 of previously committed support for Rappahannock County. But over time the changes got smoothed out and critical injections of state support came through.
Tax figures covering the period of July through November explain the current sense of confidence. The county budget envisioned $10.7 million from property taxes, and as of Nov. 30 it took in $7.5 million. December is the deadline month when many residents pay these taxes, so the numbers will likely rise by New Year’s Day. The budget anticipated $507,813 from sales taxes, and on Nov. 30 the county had taken in $323,455, with seven months left in the fiscal year. Meals and lodging taxes, budgeted to bring in $243,750, had generated $136,504 through November.
The Rappahannock County Public Schools represent the largest single spending category, and the aspect of county life most affected by the pandemic. New schedules, travel patterns, precautionary infrastructures, teaching methods, outreach and nutrition all went into effect last spring, upending spending plans. The budget adopted in May had envisioned school spending of $12.9 million, including state and federal support, but an updated budget sets the likely outlays at $13.9 million. However, infusions from the federal CARES Act, plus state assistance and grants, will mostly cover the outlays occasioned by the pandemic and will likely save the county from an unanticipated bite out of general revenues.
Winter will take some of the glow away. Though vaccines are coming, COVID cases are multiplying in Virginia, and doctors are urging stay-at-home precautions. And while glorious fall weekends brought droves of “leaf peepers” and hikers to the Shenandoah National Park, winter walks are less inviting. Restaurant picnic tables, even those flanked by gas heaters, are emptying.
“There are many, many unknowns right now,“ said Curry, adding that these will continue as the second half of the fiscal year plays out.
One question mark involves further federal pandemic relief. Anticipating some additional federal help, Supervisor Keir Whitson (Hampton District) said he has “this nagging feeling that we need to get more money into the hands of people that need it.”
A pressing special case is the Fire & Rescue budget. This critical service rests on a separate levy which is inching higher to address added costs brought on by the recruitment of paid emergency medical workers and firefighters to replace volunteers who are retiring. COVID worsened the pressures because some volunteer drivers stepped back until infection risks abated. Now the Fire & Rescue Association is working on issues of longer-term sustainability, to be discussed with the Board of Supervisors early in 2021.
Meanwhile, as the county monitors in-flows and out-flows for the current fiscal year, it is readying a budget for the next one beginning July 2021. While anticipating lower stress levels than in the current fiscal year, Whitson said the supervisors “still will be cautious.”
Garrey Curry, County Administrator
His biggest concern: “My biggest concern for the budget as it relates to the pandemic is no different than any other time and that is concern for unforeseen reductions in revenue or increases in expenditures. We do a pretty good job of planning for anticipated conditions and even known unknowns, but truly unforeseen conditions (unknown unknowns) are always concerning. In December of 2019 nobody had any idea of what 2020 would bring. We were fortunate that the situation became apparent during the budget development process allowing our locality to plan for the pandemic as a known unknown.”
What makes him hopeful: "Fiscal year 2021 revenue received to date is encouraging. Real estate and personal property tax revenue appears to be following historical collection rate norms, and sales tax and meals and lodging tax revenue has exceeded the reduced revenue forecast included in the adopted budget. This foundation for fiscal year 2021 revenue largely removes the risk of catastrophic revenue collapse, significantly reducing the risk to the community. With that said, we still have a long way to go to meet our budgeted revenue forecast.”
By the numbers
$10.7 million, the amount the county envisioned from property taxes for the fiscal year ending next June; $7.5 million had already collected through November. It also budgeted to receive $507,813 from sales taxes and had already taken in $323,455 through November. And it was more than half way toward its target of bringing in $243,750 in meals and lodging taxes with seven months left in the fiscal year.