Monthly Archive for January, 2010

City, County Property Assessments Decline

Assessments are in for Charlottesville and for Albemarle, Rachana Dixit and Brandon Shulleeta report for the Daily Progress, and the trend is strongly downward.

For the first time since 1976, there’s been a decline in Charlottesville home values—a 2.19% drop—plus a 0.34% drop in commercial property values. That adds up to a $175k drop in city revenue, assuming a stable tax rate, which isn’t bad. Last year, home values went up 1% in the city, despite the national trend.

Albemarle home values dropped by 4%, while commercial properties dropped by 0.64%—basically the same ratio that the city saw. That’s not as bad as the county planned. With the current property tax rate at 74.2¢ per $100 of assessed value (that is, a 0.742% tax on property value), they’d have to take the rate up to 76.6¢ to keep revenue stable. Given the opposition to a tax increase among the Republican majority on the board—they support keeping the rate at the current rate—that’s going to mean a a 3.2% decrease in spending based on that income.

Gary O’Connell Leaving the City for ACSA

City Manager Gary O’Connell is leaving to run the Albemarle County Service Authority, Hawes Spencer writes for The Hook. The most powerful man in city government, O’Connell will remain in his position through April before leaving, after nearly fifteen years on the job (and fourteen before that as assistant city manager). As Spencer explains, his new position will strike some as ironic, given that his work on the water supply plan as city manager has not been universally lauded, to put it gently. Because Charlottesville has a “strong city manager” form of government—which is to say that the city is run by a professional, rather than an elected mayor—the process by which the new city manager is hired is going to be an important one, the effects of which will be much more important than who the mayor is.

The DIA Boondoggle

In the latest C-Ville Weekly, Will Goldsmith has a brilliant fisking of the whole Defense Intelligence Agency debacle that I just can’t recommend highly enough. It’s only January, and I’m pretty sure this is going to be the best piece of local investigative journalism in 2010. Business leaders (Leonard Sandridge, The Daily Progress editorial board, and the Chamber of Commerce chief among them) have been crowing about how the 828 employees that DIA will bring here will mean bajillions of homes sold, new jobs galore, flush county coffers, and a puppy for each and every one of us. It’ll be The Biggest Thing Ever™ for Charlottesville!

Except not. The jobs that they’re advertising for are so crazily specialized—and require a top-secret clearance—that neither you nor me or anybody we know are qualified for them. And the real estate benefits are nothing to write home about—new homes aren’t being built for these folks, since the market already has a glut of existing homes waiting to be sold, so there’s not likely to be any increase in property tax revenue. But even if there was, what of it? As Dennis Rooker explains in the article, a $300k house brings in $2.2k in property taxes. Educating just one kid from that house will run the county $8k. Don’t worry, though, that household can make it up in sales taxes. As long as they spend $580k/year in Albemarle stores. (Here’s hoping they don’t have two kids. Or use the roads, parks, police, fire, or rescue services.)

So who is this good for? Why are we doing this? Well, one names comes up over and over again: Wendell Wood. You’ll recall that this whole deal only went forward because Wendell Wood said that it simply had to happen, for super-secret national security reasons that he couldn’t divulge but, trust him, if Albemarle didn’t give him a rezoning of the land around the parcel he was going to sell to DIA, then DIA was totally going to take their ball and go home. So they turned his worthless land into a goldmine, by taking his rural land adjacent to the property and making it a part of the growth area. When those 828 employees want to buy some lunch, get some groceries, or perhaps rent an apartment real nearby, where are they gonna go? Why, to the buildings that Wood will construct next door on his newly-buildable land. And, lucky thing for Wood, he also owns another 958 acres adjacent to those two parcels, also zoned rural. And, luckier still, the new Board of Supervisors is just raring to expand the growth area and, damnedest thing, they want to do it by declaring Wood’s rural land to be part of the growth area, and with the wave of their magic wand, turn his near-worthless land into a small fortune. Not your land. Not my land. Wendell Wood’s land.

The word for this is “boondoggle.” That’s what we’re in the midst of here, watching unfold in slow motion. What I’ve written here is a slapdash summation of Goldsmith’s article. Really, just go read it.

Body “Likely” Morgan Harrington

In a press conference this evening, Virginia State Police announced the discovery of remains presumed to be those of Morgan Harrington, missing since October. A farmer out inspecting his fences near Red Hill (just off 29S) discovered her remains this morning, which were identified by clothing and hair. An autopsy is necessary to authenticate the identity and to determine the cause of death. Because of the circumstances of her disappearance and the odd location where her remains were found, police are treating this as a likely homicide.

This will inevitably draw comparisons to the 1996 murder of Alicia Showalter Reynolds, the 25-year-old who disappeared while driving to Charlottesville from Culpeper on 29. Her body was found in a field in Culpeper County nine weeks later; the elapsed time and the heavy rain had rendered the crime scene devoid of clues, perhaps as in the current case. Nobody was ever convicted of Reynolds’ murder, although a 2007 investigation by the Frederickburg Free Lance-Star makes a compelling case that the now-deceased Richard Evonitz did it; he’s also believed to have killed Sofia Silva and the Lisk sisters.

Wendell Woods’ 15k Ft. Mansion on Carter’s Mountain

Because not enough people are wishing ill upon him, developer Wendell Wood has clear cut a big chunk of Carter’s Mountain, where he’s building a 15,554 square foot mansion, Dave McNair writes for The Hook. Including unfinished space and outdoor living space, the whole thing comes to 30,000 feet—and the huge swath of trees that he’s taken out for 360° views means that the enormous structure is visible from all around. You can’t miss it while driving down 29 South, where it sits atop the mountain, interrupting the ridge line. (See The Hook’s photos.) Despite repeated efforts to get the Board of Supervisors to prohibit mountaintop construction—largely at the behest of wealthy local conservative Fred Scott (as in Stadium)—the ordinance has never passed, so such construction is entirely legal, if reprehensible.

I am halfway through the process of building my own house perched on a mountain—although it’s less than 5% of the size of Woods, and kept off of the main ridge—and I’ve become very familiar with the steps that are necessary to keep a mountainside house from becoming an eyesore. Woods isn’t just not taking those steps, but he appears to be actively doing anything that he can to make his site visible far and wide. If that’s the case, all he’s got to do is paint it a garish color, which no doubt is forthcoming. Building a house in this manner is a bit like renting a billboard to suggest to children that they try heroin—while perfectly legal, anybody who would do such a thing is a jackass.



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