Spotsylvania News

Jeff Branscome writes about Spotsylvania County.

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Patrick Mulhern has nerves of steel

Patrick Mulhern is a long-range planner for the county. He had a large role in the updates to the comprehensive plan. He’s also taking a few verbal lashings from residents and, recently, planning commissioners, for proposals that seem to fall from the sky, according to some planning commissioners.

A good example is last night’s Planning Commission meeting. First, Planning Department Director Wanda Parrish announced they were tabling discussion on a conservation subdivision ordinance. What’s that? Well, basically the proposal is to change subdivision layouts to preserve more open space. Spotsylvania County has options for cluster developments, but no one is really doing it here. Planning staff said the result with the current ordinance is a “checkerboard” layout.

“The same number of houses that could just as easily be accommodated onto a smaller portion of land is typically accommodated on a greater portion of land,” the staff report says.

Staff said a conservation subdivision ordinance could preserve land without affecting the number of units that could be built on the 9,000 development rights on 90,000 acre zoned rural residential and agricultural. The staff report goes into great detail, so read it if you want more information.

Now keep in mind, Parrish said staff wanted to table the work session because they’ve received a good number of comments from a community meeting they held last week. That didn’t stop planning commissioners from talking about it, though. Most of them don’t want it. 

“Where does all this come from?” asked Commissioner Robert Taylor, who said he canceled a meeting so that he could attend the PC meeting to oppose this ordinance proposal. He mentioned concerns about going from 40 percent open space to 70 percent open space for subdivisions.

Mulhern explained that much of this support for conservation comes from the new comprehensive plan, which is the county’s guide for growth.

“Who came up with this idea?” asked Commissioner James Strother.

“This is definitely going to limit growth and I know, in a way, that it is a goal, but you will limit revenue,” said Commissioner John Gustafson. He said the small- to medium-sized companies will never be able to afford projects like this. 

Where did the 70 percent open space come from, some commissioners wondered?

Mulhern said he went to an all-day workshop in Hanover and they touted an ordinance like this with four success stories. He painted a picture of large farms and historic areas largely preserved while the farmer was still able to reach his financial needs by selling off a smaller lot of land for higher density development.

“I respectfully disagree that the small builders are going to be left out,” Mulhern calmly said.

Nerves of steel.

Next, let me tell you what happened when he brought up tree preservation. Note: Mary Lee Carter likes the idea of Evergreens being one of every four trees in a development. They look nice in the winter. Note: Commissioner Cliff Vaughan likes the idea of tree preservation, and you could tell he felt uncomfortable saying it last night because he was by himself.

It’s not that the commissioners said they don’t like trees; it was just the plan presented is impracticable, they said. 

I came to work today and my phone had a few messages from people who wanted to chat with me about this tree preservation thing the county is throwing out there. Stay tuned. 

They also discussed Urban Development Areas, and that didn’t go over too well either. Strother asked for a list of every tax map parcel marked on the UDA map in salmon color so he can go to the courthouse and see who all of the owners are. I think that would take me two months at least in the courthouse. We’re talking thousands of acres. I’m just glad he’s doing the research for me!

John Gustafson, feel free to express your views here. I could tell you looked frustrated last night, even astonished? Were you astonished? 



  • gramps

    the county planning staff “blindsided” the county planning commission. Once in a while a little “blindside” can be good thing. It helps keep folks on their toes.

  • dantelvock

    Gramps, I’m the only one who gets blindsided around here. :)

  • caroldarby

    I was “totally impressed” with Mulhern last night. I think he makes a lot of sense on these issues. He is a “long range” planner and someone needs to plan that way. John (or someone) commented about Patrick also working in the private sector. I don’t know how he has time for all this, community meetings, etc. but I say he thinks fast on his feet and is an asset to the county. I did not understand WHY Strothers needed to know WHO the landowners were in the salmon colored properties.

  • southwest

    I was disappointed to hear several Planning Commission members make the comment that some of the actions being proposed by the planning staff will restrict growth and there-by have a negative cost effect on the county. Someone needs to remind some of the Planning Commission members of the cost associated to all taxpayers if such growth control measures aren’t implemented. Maybe now is a good time for Spotsylvania County to take advantage of the growth slowdown and take time to catch our breath. Proper long range planning will only benefit all of us in the future.

  • Fredtastic

    But I do know that the conservation subdivision ordinance has been kicked around for many years – dating back to the previous Planning Director Ric Goss. I don’t know how this ordinance is worded but I don’t think its designed to limit growth – just change the way its built. Done correctly it can reduce infrastructure costs (less roads and utilities) and increase open space for aesthetic and environmental benefits. But maybe there is something else in there that the PC is picking up on.

  • johnfgustafson

    At least six of the seven Planning Commissioners are first motivated by compassion, and second by the conservative Virginian principle of property rights and individual liberites. We all have jobs that put us in direct contact every day with the many people who are financially in deep trouble and desperate because of our slowdown in home construction and renovation. These poor people are begging to us that intrusive government policies, like we heard Wednesday night, be eliminated, or at least delivered back to the more liberal states like Maryland. Spotsylvania County is not PG County. If you and your spouse work in the private sector, I’m sure you are really hurting right now. This is a very personal issue with tens of thousands of folks in our county.

  • dantelvock

    Keep the debate going, folks. I laid out the entire ordinance and plan from the staff reports so try and read them.

    John, tell Mary Lee Carter, as chairwoman of the PC, to comment on here as to why she is against it. Get Mr. Strother to comment, too. All of these plans start with you guys, right? But the supervisors make the final decision.

  • johnfgustafson

    Patrick is a true professional and gentleman. This has been obvious in every single dealing I have had with him. Patrick and I are just on opposite sides of the world philosophically when it comes to the role of government in general, and land-use matters specifically. From my observations and discussions, six of the seven Planning Commissioners think the same way. Part of it is due to Patrick being in the public sector and the rest of us are in the private sector, but most is due to deep rooted beliefs. I have many friends who think just like Patrick, and they are still good friends. Personal views never cause harm until they are legally imposed on others who don’t subscribe to them. Our state and our county have a long tradition of conservatism, limited government, and property rights.

  • lgross

    I agree with the assessment of Mr. Mulhern.

    and agree – there is a bit of a philosophical
    divide between the role of planning and the role
    of government when it comes to land-use.

    But we do know this – there are so bad ways to
    go about it – we know this from our own

    and we also know that if we just step back and
    let development occur – that it will incur
    significant infrastructure deficits unless we work
    to make it pay for itself.

    “property rights” IMHO does not mean that the
    “other” property owners pay higher taxes to
    provide infrastructure for new development.

    The folks who pay taxes have “property rights”
    also – in other words – and they also vote.

    I know this – a philosophy that believes that
    “planning” – fundamentally is intrusive is –
    incorrect IMHO.

  • gramps

    “Our state and our county have a long tradition of conservatism, limited government, and property rights.” The last time I peeked at what is going on in Washington, I saw a gov that was hell bent on changing that tradition. And our GA and local pols are “waitng” for their share of the largess.

  • lgross

    “limited government” does not mean let
    development “happen” and let the taxpayers
    pick up the infrastructure consequences either.

    The Planning Commission appears to me to be
    reluctant to “plan” for fear of treading on
    “property rights”.

    I’d like to see them understand and
    acknowledge that development that “happens”
    instead of being planned – costs those who do
    not benefit from development.

    It costs everyone in a number of ways –
    overcrowded roads and schools, lowered quality
    of life and higher taxes.

    The PC has a responsibility to ALL property
    owners in Spotsylvania not just those who want to
    develop property.

  • dobreshunka

    So the joke that is Lee’s Park, is that a 30% land use? If so, 30% is a disgrace, and this guy defending it shold be run out of Spotsy on a rail.

    Can anyone convince me that 30% land use is not going to line the pockets of five to 10 people like the old boys who have driven Spotsy into its current state of failure? This lining of the pockets of certain people (and we all know who they are) will be paid for by all the other taxpayers of Spotsylvania?

    Who profitied off of Lee’s Park and who will be paying for that mess for decades?