Proffer law ‘changes conversation’

Published 5:33 pm Saturday, March 26, 2016

Area officials are still working to determine what impact a new law reshaping the proffer system will have on their work.

Senate Bill 549, which goes into effect July 1, says localities cannot request or accept “unreasonable” proffers from residential developers or deny rezoning applications for residential developments because of an applicant’s failure to submit an “unreasonable” proffer.

In Suffolk, residential developers often put forward cash proffers for school construction based on the estimated number of school children who will eventually live in the new development. Other proffers can include paying for utility and traffic improvements necessitated by the development, as well as offering certain kinds of building materials and types of construction.

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But the way Deputy City Manager Scott Mills reads the bill, things such as design elements and building materials will not be topics of conversation in the future.

“It seems that it limits any possibility of discussing that or any possibility of accepting those types of proffers,” Mills said.

While he said the bill doesn’t seem to affect cash proffers for schools and the like, the city is not allowed to require proffers anyway.

“Proffers are voluntary,” he said. “I don’t think we’ve ever told anybody, ‘If you don’t proffer, your application will be denied.’”

The bill could stifle even the casual mention of topics such as building materials.

“This language suggests if you even have a discussion about something, they could deem that to mean they were denied because they didn’t proffer a certain condition,” Mills said.

Cooperation with neighbors also could be squashed with the bill.

If neighbors are concerned about something, the developer “may voluntarily proffer something to address that concern, but I don’t know that this legislation allows them do to that or allows us to discuss that,” Mills said.

Two members of the Suffolk Planning Commission said the law doesn’t appear to change anything.

“To me, that’s the way it’s always been,” Commissioner Ronnie Rountree said. “I don’t have any problem with what the General Assembly has said. I think for the most part, we have followed that guideline.”

Chairman Howard Benton also said planners have always been careful.

“We have to be very discreet in what we require or expect of developers,” he said. “Good developers are just as knowledgeable and probably even more savvy than we are as city officials.”

Mayor Linda T. Johnson said she spoke on the bill during a General Assembly hearing, because she was concerned it might affect the city’s ability to get help from developers for off-site improvements necessitated by their developments.

“The way the bill reads to me is that our staff cannot recommend or have some of the conversations we may have had in the past,” she said. “If we mentioned it or talked about it, it will be seen as we asked for that. This may change the conversation as to how we are able to have discussions of that nature.”

Johnson also commented on the vagueness of the law.

“What’s unreasonable, is the question,” she said.

Local legislators were somewhat split on the bill. In the House of Delegates, Rick Morris, Lionell Spruill and Matthew James voted for it, while Chris Jones voted against it.

In the Senate, John Cosgrove, Louise Lucas, John Miller and Thomas Norment all voted for the House substitute, although Norment voted against it the first time it was in the Senate.

Norment said his experience on the James City County Board of Supervisors informed his vote. He served on the board from 1987 to 1991.

“That was during the most intense rezoning and residential development period, I think, in the history of James City County,” he said. “There were discussions between the planning commission, the planning department, the board of supervisors, as it related to incentives or encouragements from developers to obtain a rezoning for residential development.”

That experience gave him a more local-centric view, he said.

“Because of my background, I have great sensitivity that local government ought to have autonomous decision-making ability on their land use decisions,” he said. “If in fact they feel it appropriate to enter into negotiations with a developer that is addressing long-term fiscal impacts not just on that development, but on all of their citizens, we in the General Assembly should not be limiting or taking away those negotiating tools from local government.”

Ultimately, Norment said, “I think this legislation went too far in handcuffing the planning and the localities.”