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Sunday, March 31, 2013
Last week, plans for the old Blacksburg Middle School property were supposed to crystallize into a coherent, detailed proposal after years of fuzzy visions and fluctuating intentions.
After some last-minute fumbling, developer Fiddler’s Green Partners finally filed a rezoning application and development proposal on Wednesday for Blacksburg Town Council to consider.
But that milestone was overshadowed by growing uncertainties about the project’s future and finances.
First, developers provided Montgomery County supervisors a proposal with a caveat signaling that building sizes and uses and other details could change based on market conditions and tenant requests. While some flexibility is needed, loosey-goosey language understandably stokes town anxieties that the project will morph into a big box store instead of the desired mix of commercial and residential uses.
Next, the managing partner of the development company acknowledged that the $5.1 million contract negotiated with county officials for sale of the 20-acre site would likely be revisited.
Finally, developers demanded that the town and county agree to rebate half of all revenue from real estate, hotel and meals taxes generated by the project for 25 years.
A draft memorandum of understanding written by the company makes reference to a parking infrastructure but doesn’t specifically tie the tax concessions to capital improvements, merely stating that details would be worked out later in a performance agreement.
The developer’s attorney told reporter Mike Gangloff that the tax deal would require the town and county to give up $350,000 to $500,000 in annual revenues. That’s a far cry from the short-term tax incentives sometimes included in projects to further public amenities.
The timing is troubling. Financial decisions should have been solidified before the developer submitted its land-use plans. While zoning actions might require parties to revisit monetary commitments, the town hasn’t even begun to consider the proposal.
Town officials have made their reservations about the project clear. Now it’s time for county leaders to seriously consider hitting the reset button. Admittedly, that’s a difficult decision. The land has languished for a decade since the middle school was shuttered. But the events of the past week raise serious questions about whether meaningful progress is possible under the current deal.
County leaders, who control ownership of most of the land, never requested proposals, which would have given them the chance to consider competing options. Instead, they signed a contract with Fiddler’s Green to develop Midtown Village, a mix of offices, commercial space, town houses, apartments, open space, a restaurant and a parking deck. The development would be located on South Main Street at the gateway to Blacksburg’s downtown.
It’s up to supervisors to decide whether they continue wrestling with Fiddler’s Green or start over. Town council has no say in that matter, but it must approve zoning changes for a mixed-use project to proceed. In other words, council must take whatever proposal the county and developer shovel in its direction and attempt to shape it into a workable plan. That is likely to be a grueling process as Blacksburg officials attempt to scrub the proposal free of vague and conditional language and pound out proffers with enough specificity so that they can be enforced over many years.
The developer is not helping to build trust with either the county or town thus far. The company’s attorney told supervisors on Monday night that the rezoning application and development plan had been filed with the town. In fact, it had not, the lawyer admitted under questioning. The paperwork was filed Tuesday, but contained an error that required a do-over on Wednesday.
Nevertheless, supervisors appear determined to forge ahead on the deal with Fiddler’s Green. Chairman Jim Politis said in an interview Friday that he is concerned about the tax rebate provision’s impact on the county’s future budgets, but he said he views it as a starting point for negotiations, not a deal killer.
Supervisors have been too passive in their dealings with the company, responding to demands rather than asserting their own goals. To be sure, they have worked hard to get to this point. It took years to persuade the county school board to turn over the land for sale on a promise that the proceeds would be used to fund school construction and renovation projects.
The long struggle over the school property reflects the fact that Montgomery is a rapidly urbanizing county whose residents often have conflicting expectations about public services. In reality, though, all county residents and their town brethren have the same overarching goals. Everyone wants to make the highest and best use of a key piece of property that will help to guide the future prosperity of Blacksburg’s downtown while generating revenues for Montgomery’s vast school construction needs.
Under state law, the county has less flexibility than the town in its taxing powers, so the developer’s efforts to whittle down financial commitments should be of particular concern to supervisors.
In theory, the land could be sold under existing zoning for expansion of an adjacent housing subdivision, but that would be a missed opportunity for both the county and the town.
Town officials say that’s not their objective. They, too, want a high-density urban development that will generate growth and tax dollars, not an empty field.
But a field left empty for a little while longer is still preferable to a bungled project that both communities would regret for years to come.
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