NEWS- Growth issues: Surveys clash on county satisfaction

"There was strong dissatisfaction with the government's ability to prepare infrastructure," says Charlottesville Tomorrow's executive director Brian Wheeler.

Not surprising: Albemarle's registered voters want to protect the county's rural areas. Surprising: Fewer than half of those surveyed by a local group are satisfied with the government's efforts to do so, in sharp contrast to a county survey that showed a more satisfied citizenry.

Nonpartisan development watchdog and information conduit Charlottesville Tomorrow released the results of a $51,000 public opinion research project July 30 that surveyed 1,000 registered voters and conducted four focus groups.

"There was strong dissatisfaction with the government's ability to prepare infrastructure," says Charlottesville Tomorrow's executive director Brian Wheeler. Nor do respondents believe government is responsive to voter concerns, Wheeler says.

Another big surprise from the survey of the mostly 50-plus-year-old, highly educated, and well-heeled respondents: 78 percent not only support land use policies like phasing or time-based zoning, but they know what the heck those are.

A mere 32.8 percent of respondents think local government is doing a good job making sure infrastructure is in place to support new development, and only 42 percent think developers pay their fair share for infrastructure. And despite the plethora of public hearings on almost every issue, 60 percent of the surveyed don't think the government pays enough attention to them. And while citizens squawked loudly about the latest round of property reassessments and the inevitable higher taxes, 56 percent of Charlottesville Tomorrow's respondents would support a modest tax increase earmarked for transportation– as long as it wasn't tacked on to property taxes.

Local Republican Paul Wright is skeptical about Charlottesville Tomorrow's nonpartisanship and the timing of the survey in a year when three Board of Supervisors seats are up for grabs.

"They claim they're nonpartisan, but I don't recognize a single local Republican on their board. I recognize a number of Democrats," says Wright, who is involved in several local Republican races.

He wonders about the lack of survey questions about property rights and "Should we compensate people for taking their property rights?"

Wheeler points to a survey question that says property owners should be able to do what they like with their property, regardless of the impact on neighbors, with which only 34 percent agreed. "Any question about how we use the land or zone is all about property rights," contends Wheeler.

He also disagrees with Wright's perception that Charlottesville Tomorrow is a hotbed of Democrats. "Our vice chairman, Paula Newcomb, is Republican," says Wheeler. "I think that's not an accurate critique of our board."

He encourages those who doubt the organization's nonpartisanship to check out its donors on the Virginia Public Access Project website. [Disclosure: Hook owner Ted Weschler is on that list.]

VPAP tracks who gives money to state political candidates and how much. Wright contends that Albemarle County races are on there because Charlottesville Tomorrow donated $6,000 to VPAP. "There would not be online use of VPAP [Albemarle] data unless they donate money," he says.

"The donation was to support the initiative overall," replies Wheeler, who calls the donors' list "another example of nonpartisanship. We're bringing that transparency to the local level."

County spokeswoman Lee Catlin is not surprised that citizens were more satisfied with government in the county survey than in Charlottesville Tomorrow's because the county measures a wide variety of services such as fire, police, and parks.

"A lot of services are not as controversial as development," says Catlin, noting the narrow focus of the Charlottesville Tomorrow survey. "It's a very understandable discrepancy when you ask people about the one thing they're not very happy with."

She compares the most recent survey to those brought to the BOS by other advocacy groups like the Chamber of Commerce, the Free Enterprise Forum, or Southern Environmental Law Center.

"We are always anxious to find out what people are thinking and how government can be better," says Catlin. "We have to pay attention."

Still, "We do feel very confident of the credibility of our survey," she says.