Here’s where Henrico’s ongoing comprehensive plan update process stands - The Henrico Citizen (2024)

Here’s where Henrico’s ongoing comprehensive plan update process stands - The Henrico Citizen (1)

A view of the James River in the Varina District, which contains more undeveloped land than any of Henrico’s other magisterial districts.

A process that began in earnest in early 2021 to update Henrico County’s Comprehensive Plan – a visionary document designed to outline goals and aspiration of the community – is progressing, though much work still remains before its anticipated adoption by the Henrico Board of Supervisors, which could occur sometime late next year.

The updated plan, deemed Henrico NEXT, aims to envision how the county could look in 2045. It will build upon the 2026 Comprehensive Plan, which was finalized in 2009.

Henrico planners are completing the second phase of their five-phase process (a portion that includes analyses of transportation options and the recreation and parks system, as well as a demand assessment and community survey, among other elements), while simultaneously beginning portions of phases three and four (during which key elements of the new plan will be formulated). The process has been delayed several times since its outset – first by the COVID-19 pandemic, and then by turnover on the board of supervisors in last November’s election (the anticipation of which prompted the previous board to push the pause button).

The plan typically includes a number of components, including:

• a land use plan (which suggests what type of zoning might be best in the future for every parcel of land in the county);
• analysis of the county’s natural resources, as well as recreation and parks sites and open space needs;
• analysis of transportation, public facilities and utilities needs;
• identification of special focus areas (sites that officials believe require special consideration for one reason or another);
• a recommendation of implementation of proposed enhancements.

The new plan also will, for the first time, include a separate Bike and Trails plan, outlining the vision for an enhanced network of trails, bike lanes, shared-use paths and pedestrian paths countywide.

This week, in an attempt to elicit more public input, planning staffers reopened a 2022 online community visioning exercise that asks respondents about their aspirations for the county and invites their observations about its strengths, weaknesses, challenges and opportunities. The original survey attracted 670 responses; those who completed it in 2022 do not need to take it again, planners said.

Here’s where Henrico’s ongoing comprehensive plan update process stands - The Henrico Citizen (2)

Henrico planners are completing the second phase of the five-phase “Henrico NEXT” comprehensive plan update process and beginning work on the third and fourth phases. This now-outdated timeline shows the components associated with each phase, though the completion of the process (once anticipated this summer) now is likely about a year or so away. County officials will publish a new timeline soon. (Courtesy Henrico County)

* * *

Planners also have begun crafting a draft “vision and goals” outline for the plan, based in large part upon the public input they’ve already received, and they will present those elements to the public during five identical community listening sessions this summer (one in each of the county’s five magisterial districts).

Those meetings will be held at schools, libraries or recreation centers, Henrico Planning Director Joe Emerson told the board of supervisors during a June 25 work session, and will offer attendees the chance to use smartphones, tablets or provided paper forms to weigh in on the information presented. The same information will be posted to the Henrico NEXT website for those who aren’t able to attend any of the meetings.

“What people will be reacting to [at the meetings] is what folks have already have told us,” said Henrico County Planner IV Rosemary Deemer, who is helping lead the process.

The overarching question posed to attendees, Deemer said, will be “What do you think of the vision?”

In recent communications with county officials, a small number of environmental supporters in the county (most affiliated with the Henrico Conservation Action Network) have been vocal about the process, suggesting that the county should have been more proactive in seeking the opinion of its citizens. Several expressed confusion about the timeline for the plan posted to the Henrico NEXT website (which until last week showed a planned summer 2024 adoption date), wondering whether the arrival of that timeframe meant that additional promised opportunities for public input had been scrapped.

During a board of supervisors work session June 25 and a subsequent interview with the Citizen, Emerson and Deemer acknowledged that timeline was outdated and said that the process is not nearly as far along as it once was expected to be by this time. Citizens, they said, will have a number of additional chances to weigh in on the plan during the final three phases and before it is adopted.

“We have some people that have now become interested in the process that maybe weren’t aware of it at that time and some people that feel like maybe we need to get out there and take a little more public input; we think we need to as well,” Emerson told the Citizen, adding that reopening the community visioning survey (which will remain open until sometime next month) would be a start.

Three Chopt District Supervisor Misty Whitehead noted that the city of Richmond’s recently comprehensive plan update process attracted detailed input from about 2% of the city’s population – higher than Henrico’s, which is less than 1% currently – and said that the county should aim for the same level of response. She asked whether officials could utilize Clarion Associates LLC, the consulting firm it is paying about $1.3 million to assist with the process, for assistance with outreach.

Emerson and Deemer told supervisors that they were open to trying various methods of outreach but said that to date, they have received some level of input from more than 10,000 respondents to surveys, interactive online maps and other outreach efforts.

“I just want to emphasize that there have been many, many people involved,” Emerson said.

* * *

The most significant input so far has come from those who responded to a survey sent to 5,000 citizens (1,000 in each of the five magisterial districts) between late 2021 and early 2022.

Emerson and Deemer provided results from that survey – for which officials sought to involve not only homeowners but also a significant number of renters in the county, as a nod to their increasing numbers – to the board at last month’s meeting.

Nearly a quarter of those surveyed responded, providing input about a wide range of topics – from why they chose to live in Henrico to what they value most about the county, what improvements they’d like to see made and what challenges they consider the most pressing.

Survey respondents generally expressed strong support for the county, with a majority of respondents from all five districts indicating that they overall quality of life was very good or excellent. Respondents from the Varina District – which contains more undeveloped land than any other magisterial district in the county – were the most critical, with about 6.2% saying their quality of life was poor or not good and 17% saying it has gotten worse or slightly worse in recent years.

“I knew people were happy to live here, but when I went back and added those ‘good,’ ‘great’ and ‘superior’ [ratings] as far as the quality of life, and the number came to 97%, I was like, ‘Wow!’” Deemer told the Citizen. “That number to me was really extremely high.”

Respondents said they most valued the county’s parks, recreation and natural environment (44%) and appreciated it as a great place to raise a family (32%). When asked which community planning topic should be a priority for Henrico, respondents named protecting environmental quality (53%), preserving open space (51%) and providing bicycle and pedestrian amenities (48%) as their top three choices.

Nearly half said they wanted future growth to occur in already-developed areas, through redevelopment and infill projects, which Emerson told the board is a key focus of the plan.

“Most of the future land use designations will not change – they will continue to reflect existing zoning and development patterns across the county,” he said. “There will be some changes, I don’t want to be misleading, but a lot of the development patterns are already set. The focus of the 2045 plan, as we’ve said many times, will be on redevelopment and infill while mitigating impacts of new development to accommodate growth.”

Survey respondents indicated that improving drainage issues in older neighborhoods, repurposing vacant nonresidential buildings and dealing more aggressively with neglected properties were the most critical issues county officials should address. They also urged officials to devote resources to public schools, fire and rescue, road maintenance and construction, and water and sewer, rating those four services at the top of their list. The lowest-ranking priority for respondents: public transportation.

Asked to describe the county’s biggest challenges, respondents named dependence upon vehicles (26%), overpopulation and construction (20%) and accessibility, equity and affordable housing (15%).

Traffic congestion (mentioned by nearly 67% of respondents) and pedestrian safety (just more than 50%) ranked as the top two transportation-related concerns for respondents. About 55% said they’d like to be able to walk more, and 38% said they’d like to bike more within the county.

* * *

In the coming months, county planners will complete several background reports (a market assessment, housing assessment and housing study, as well as a summary trends report), adding to a list of several others they’ve already published as part of the process.

They’ll also complete a recreation and parks needs assessment and host the five listening sessions this summer. An updated timeline for the completion of the plan and its ultimate adoption by the board of supervisors is likely to be posted online this summer, Emerson said.

The final version of the plan will include a more robust section about Henrico’s recreation and parks system than did previous iteration, Deemer said.

And, said Emerson, “we’ll be mentioning probably public transportation more than we did in the past. Some of the environmental features of the plan will probably be more robust.”

Future presentations to the planning commission and board of supervisors will include updates on the completed reports, allowing an opportunity for feedback from members who could suggest or direct additional focus areas, Emerson said. All reports will be posted on the Henrico NEXT website as they are introduced formally, with opportunities for citizens to provide more input along the way.

“We need to make sure that there isn’t just one or two groups moving the process along,” Deemer said. “We want to hear from everybody. . . I think in the next several months, there will be a lot of opportunities for people to participate.”

* * *

For details about future opportunities to provide input about the 2045 Comprehensive Plan, sign up for the Henrico NEXT email newsletter here.

Here’s where Henrico’s ongoing comprehensive plan update process stands - The Henrico Citizen (2024)
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