‘This is about affordable housing’: Farmville council debates PUDs

Published 3:05 pm Wednesday, May 10, 2023

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It all comes down to affordable housing. People are less likely to move into an area or stay if they’ll be cost burdened to live there. That’s according to a Dec. 2022 study from the U.S. Census Bureau. The Census staff defines cost burdened as someone who has to pay more than 30% of their income for housing.

The problem for Farmville is that 22% of its current homeowners are cost burdened, according to that same Census study. The percentage jumps even higher when you start talking about renters. An estimated 44.8% of renters in the area fall under that label. Neither of those labels are beneficial when trying to attract new residents. That, town officials say, is why they’re pushing for a planned unit development ordinance (PUD).

Speaking at the Town Council work session on Wednesday, May 3, Farmville Mayor Brian Vincent spelled out why he supports this pretty clearly.

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“This is about affordable housing,” Vincent said. “Planned unit development is an ordinance, a zoning amendment we’re discussing because of the need for affordable housing. From 1960 to 1990, the median home price was equal to roughly two and a half years of your household income. In 2020, that had doubled. For the first time in U.S. history, young people are no longer better off economically than their parents were at the same age. An American born in 1940 had a 92% chance of doing better than his or her parents. A Millennial born in 1984 only has a 50% chance, so it’s going in the wrong direction.”


Vincent said the Farmville Town Council wants to do things differently than neighboring cities and counties. A majority of them had to either increase taxes or cut services in order to balance the budget.

“We are a town looking to increase revenue with tax base, instead of tax raises,” Vincent said. “We’re a town seeking smart growth, a town with lots of pieces in the right places and poised to do good work.”

To do that, Vincent argued, you need to bring in more residents. In fact, he said, that’s the key to most of what current residents are asking for as well. Repeatedly, in surveys, polls and speaking in public meetings, Farmville residents have said they want more restaurants, more shopping options and more grocery stores. The problem is the town doesn’t have enough people to make that a reality.

In their paper “How Underserved Areas Attract Grocery Stores”, media research firm Buxton conducted interviews with more than two dozen companies. Their report spells out that a grocery store company examines the population, visibility, the amount of traffic that goes by specific sites and local competition when considering a move into a new area. And Farmville’s population is declining. The numbers dropped from 8,216 in 2010 to 7,846 in 2020. That’s a 4.5% decline and something that gives a company pause.

The town’s new mission statement, which was adopted last month, calls for Farmville to “encourage diverse growth in our charming community”. Town staff members argue that the PUD ordinance will help do that.

“PUD might not be the answer,” Vincent said. “I don’t know. I’m not going to pretend to be the smartest person, because I am by far not, but I think we should have as many tools at our disposal as we need to get to our goals.”

Raising concerns

That doesn’t mean there haven’t been concerns about PUD. In fact, the Farmville planning commission had a number of them during their recent meeting. The same goes for public information sessions, where people asked a number of questions. Several have been concerned that if a developer wants to buy property in a neighborhood of single family homes, they would just be able to request a PUD and turn some of that space into apartments. Others don’t want to see their neighborhood reshaped and redeveloped for commercial use. To be clear, none of that would take place if a PUD is approved.

This isn’t like a “Advance to Go” card in Monopoly, where developers just have to file and it’s automatically approved.

“The way we’re suggesting it, someone would have to (request to) rezone a piece of property,” Farmville Town Manager Scott Davis said. “They would have to come and ask for a rezoning. So if you don’t want to rezone a piece into a PUD, you just say no.”

Basically, if a PUD is allowed, a developer could come in and propose something outside of the regular town rules that the planning commission and then the town council could look at. The town, meanwhile, can put in requirements, making developers set aside a certain amount of green space, or build a park. The developers would have to present a plan, hold public hearings and get approval from the commission and council before anything could move forward.

“In a traditional (application), unless they volunteer, we can’t make someone have a park, we can’t make someone have walking trails, we can’t make someone have X amount of green space,” Davis said. “Planned unit development is more building a community within this community.”

Affordable housing, PUDs trigger discussion

But more than concerns about where it could be used, residents have raised two more repeatedly, both in government meetings and public hearings. Why this and why now? Basically, what triggered this push to add a PUD ordinance. The answer, Davis said, has to do at least partially with the future of Longwood Village.

In July 2022, the Richmond-based Better Housing Coalition started discussions about buying and reimaging the existing eight buildings and ninety-six housing units on the property in a first phase. Then they would develop an estimated 10 acres in a second phase. All of this is located behind Sheetz, just off of Clark Street in Farmville.

For what the Better Housing Coalition is proposing, they could build the first phase without any help. But Davis and Vincent said the second proposed phase might need more flexible zoning.

“Part of my job and staff’s job, when someone wants to develop in the town of Farmville, is for us to work with them and see how and if we can make that a realization,” Davis said. “So the elephant in the room is correct. Better Housing Coalition (BHC) needs something for the second phase. There’s no doubt about that.”

Davis said BHC asked him and the former director of community development if there was a way to reduce parking requirements, to reduce lot size requirements.

“And the discussion did start by saying, yeah those are questions and topics of a planned unit development type ordinance,” Davis said. “So did the idea originate from conversations with a developer on how do we help you develop in the town of Farmville? The answer’s yes. The answer’s also yes that I will do that for any developer that wants to do a business or that wants to do a housing project in Farmville. Did it make us think of other properties who could benefit? The answer to that is also yes.”

Who gets the property?

But BHC isn’t even guaranteed the land. There’s a second bidder, a group that says they don’t need a PUD ordinance to move forward. The Farmville Affordable Housing Alliance (FAHA) has made an offer to buy Longwood Village as well. Speaking to the planning commission during their April 20 meeting, FAHA managing member Jake Romaine wanted to make it clear they didn’t request or need the PUD.

“We do not need this type of ordinance in order for us to proceed with our project,” Romaine told the commission. “That’s the main thing we would like to put out. (We’re) very motivated already to do the right thing for the town.”

And so, while BHC may have triggered the idea, Vincent added, it’s not the driving focus.

“We are not making a decision based on one business coming to us,” Vincent said. “That may spur the conversation, but we’re basing it on a collective of information, we’re thinking of what is in the best interest of the town and then we’re making that decision. And when we think about the best interests of the town, it should extend past our generation, into the ones that follow.”

Questions about affordable housing and PUDs

During the work session, no council member came out against the PUD plan. However, they all said Farmville will have to be careful with what they put together.

“This opens up a great tool, a great resource that could be used for good, could be used for not so good,” said council member Adam Yoelin. “But it’s up to us to make the decision whether we let that happen or not. There are several areas in town where I could think a PUD could work really, really well, where we’ve got an existing housing situation.”

Yoelin was concerned, however, about the message a PUD sends to developers.

“In a way, it says well they’ll work with us no matter what,” Yoelin added. “We can do whatever we want to and they’ll change the laws and the rules. I just hope If we go forward with this process, we do a lot of diligence, answer all the questions.”

He also echoed a request made by planning commission member Rhett Weiss last month for an economic study. That would mean, before any PUD is approved, the town would look at impact to roads, schools, water and sewer needs, among others.

Council member Daniel Dwyer agreed that additional housing is needed, but he wants the town to be careful what it signs off on.

“Yes, there are quite a few empty houses that were renovated for student use, unfortunately the supply of these properties is significantly higher than the current demand. I feel we do need additional housing,” Dwyer said. “I agree with the general thought that townhouses and condos would be a great addition to our town. I also feel there is a shortage for decent, affordable housing and rentals for lower income families.”

However, Dwyer said, those changes need to be amenable to current residents. People shouldn’t be afraid that suddenly their neighborhood is going to shift into something unrecognizable.

‘A long process’

The biggest thing, council member Thomas Pairet said, is that Farmville needs to slow down a bit. Before anyone gets worked up, he said, everyone needs to realize there’s still a lot of work left before even a rough draft of this idea comes up.

“Before we go getting fired up, we need to have a lot of homework, we need to have a lot of questions answered, we need to do a lot of research,” Pairet said. “I have seen us in the past have a knee jerk reaction and have to come back and redo again because we acted too quickly. I want due diligence done, I want a lot of research because I think this thing is very complicated.”

Vincent agreed, saying he understood the hesitation and concern, both from council members and residents.

“I think that process moves as quickly as we want it to,” Vincent said. “That planned unit development is in its infancy in the planning commission. This is going to be a long process.”