The discussion about cash proffers in Chesterfield County continues.
Six months after cutting its proffer fees in half – and putting those payments toward road improvements specifically – an influx of requests from developers wanting to reduce their payments is testing staff resources and prompting a second look at the county’s revised policy.
Since the start of this year, the county planning commission and board of supervisors have faced considerably lengthier agendas filled each session with requests from developers to amend previously approved proffers – payments required by the county to offset impacts of residential development on public infrastructure.
Supervisors changed the county’s policy last September to restrict such payments to transportation infrastructure improvements, and to reduce the required amount from $18,966 to $9,400 per dwelling unit – the first such reduction the county had made in 25 years.
Since then, requests from developers have been making their way through the application process, appearing on the county agendas and in many cases requiring deferrals to future meetings – adding to the workloads of county staff and board members and contributing to a backlog of development requests, be them proffer amendments or new requests for zoning changes or conditional use permits.
“We’ve got over 100 cases pending,” said Kirk Turner, the county’s planning director. “Some of those are cash proffer cases, and then we’ve got other folks that are out there just trying to do business and have cases that aren’t residential-related at all, but they’re just caught up in this backlog, unfortunately.
“We’re doing our best to keep everybody on the schedule that they filed,” he said. “Obviously when you have this many cases in the system, it creates a strain.”
The latest planning commission agenda totaled nearly 30 requests that were scheduled for public hearing, 19 of those involving cash proffer amendments. More than half of those total requests – 18 – were deferred to a later meeting.
County supervisors this month heard a total of 15 requests, seven involving cash proffers. Of those seven, three were approved and four were deferred.
Turner said the deferrals have typically involved cases where more discussion with a developer is needed regarding impacts on public infrastructure, depending on the project and the location within the county. Others have been due to misunderstandings over which cases can be applied to the new policy, he said.
“I think there’s been some confusion on the part of the development community early on,” Turner said. “They felt like, with the change to the cash proffer policy, they could bring in a case to amend (previously approved) cash proffers and only address the road impacts, and that’s simply not the case as we’re seeing the board and the planning commission work through these cases.”
Where the new policy would apply to requests made since September, Turner said developers seeking changes to previously approved proffers are in some cases requesting reductions to those payments without addressing the impacts those payments would have helped offset.
“They’re seeking to remove the payment, but they haven’t addressed those impacts,” he said. “I think that’s why you’re seeing a lot of these cases being deferred: there’s still concern about the impacts to other facilities and how we address those impacts.”
When the policy was changed, county administrators said impacts to other infrastructure such as schools and libraries could be covered by funding sources other than proffers, allowing the payments from developers to be restricted to road improvements. Deputy County Administrator William Dupler said that remains the case, but he said the cases reviewed thus far have revealed some issues that may warrant revising the policy, which supervisors have asked staff to do at their next meeting in April.
“Every case that goes before the planning commission and the board of supervisors, the more knowledge we all have about how things are going, and that provides guidance to the policy,” Dupler said. “You might see some revisions based on that.”
Dupler declined to say what revisions are being considered. Turner said an issue that will likely be addressed is a mention in the policy about credits a developer could receive to reduce a proffer amount in exchange for certain quality enhancements to a project, such as building materials or reductions in density.
“I think everybody realized that in application, that just doesn’t make sense,” Turner said. “You shouldn’t be able to get a reduction in your road improvements just because you’re offering hardiplank siding instead of vinyl siding.”
Turner said that portion of the policy is slated to be removed.
Developers seeking amendments to proffers have often done so by offering some improvement to make up for it, such as building requested roads themselves or reducing project density. George Emerson, whose development firm The Emerson Cos. has had two proffer reduction cases approved – one new, one existing – said such give-and-take is helping to shape the county’s policy.
“We basically elected to improve the roads ourselves, rather than pay the cash proffer,” Emerson said. “I think the county is better served when the development community can do the roadwork itself, and I think it’s good that the county’s allowing that to happen.
“It feels to me it’s leveling out, as far as understanding where they are and what they need to do,” Emerson said. “I think when the board adopts their final policy in April, everybody will have a real good idea of where they are and what they’re doing. It feels to me like it’s doing what it’s supposed to do.”
Andrew Condlin, a development attorney with Roth Jackson who has represented two approved requests, attributed those approvals to offers made to balance out the reduction in proffer amounts. In one case, he said the number of units was slightly reduced and a commitment was made to do the required off-site road improvements prior to the project’s dwellings receiving certificates of occupancy.
“I think that’s all they’re looking for: something to provide for a quality that they otherwise didn’t have, whether that’s decreased density, quality proffers or a commitment for when improvements would be made,” Condlin said, adding that the main confusion he’s seen has been in the credit-for-quality clause that Turner said would be removed when the policy is revised next month.
“The confusion was more on the credit you would get for actually doing the construction versus paying the cash proffer, and to what extent would that study go and what was being required by the developer,” Condlin said.
Andrew Clark, government affairs director for the Home Building Association of Richmond, said such issues are to be expected with a change in policy that was the first of its kind for the county in a quarter century.
“This was the first time in nearly 26 years that the county adopted significant reforms to its cash proffer policy, and so inevitably, there is going to be a transition period for both the county staff and the development industry,” Clark said.
“The end goal has always been to spur economic development and find ways to reduce confusion and administrative burden during the zoning process, and we are continuing to work with the county to make sure we accomplish that goal.”
Added Dupler, the county’s deputy administrator for community involvement: “I just think it’s a work in progress. Folks filed their applications, and we’re working through them together at the same time the applicant is, and I think we’re learning along the way what makes for a better case.
“The number of cases being deferred compared to the number being approved is small,” he said. “The last board meeting approved 10 cases and deferred four. I think it’s just a matter of working out the details.”