This month will show if developer Frank Stoner’s decision to punt at the Albemarle County Planning Commission June 17, postponing their vote on his vague and unimpressive plan for the vacant Barnes Lumber property rather than risk having it officially rejected, will result in revisions of the plan to make it capable of achieving the economic and civic goals that are essential to Crozet’s future prosperity. In granting the deferral, the commissioners rather generously gave Stoner another chance to work with the Crozet Community Advisory Council to arrive at a plan that would win their support.
So far Stoner has taken a take-or-leave-it approach with citizens, for example declaring he will walk away if the county insists on payment of cash proffers for new residential units as its policy now requires. Proffers are a hard-won policy that took years to establish, but happened when the public finally grew exasperated with developers who walked away with handsome profits and left the messy consequences of their projects to be fixed and paid for by the ordinary taxpayer. Stoner deserves no exemption from them.
Master planning came about because of the obvious failure of sprawl-style development, especially for commercial use, that made cars a more important priority than people. Planning tries to learn from mistakes and avoid them. The Crozet Master Plan is the fruit of 10 years of wise, diligent and vigilant effort by hundreds of citizens to preserve the best aspects of Crozet’s small town life while coping with the pressures that come with being designated by the county as an official Growth Area.
If you familiarize yourself with the plan, you will find it describes the sort of town you—and nearly everybody—wants to call home. It went through a formal public revision process in 2010 and, learning from their experience with its implementation, citizens corrected weaknesses that had produced undesirable results. The plan is sound and has strong support in the community. So far the county officials have shown they will respect it. Only developers have tried to alter it to suit themselves, such as Stoner’s campaign to introduce rule changes that allow detached houses where they were formerly banned.
As Stoner’s plan stands now, it still represents a fatal subversion of the community’s vision. From the start, the Master Plan has faced resistance from developers who wanted to develop Rt. 250 into a file of shopping centers and who regarded downtown as obsolete. The Downtown Crozet District was designed to change that calculus and, by codifying some details that developers typically had to hassle over, make downtown the place that was more advantageous to build in. But, to make a football analogy, the DCD draws lines on the field; it does not call the play that will be run. Stoner’s plan shows the imagination of a dive into the line and none of the imagination of that goes for victory.
The future of Crozet is absolutely on the line when the public decides which development plan will be allowed to proceed. Wasting the only open ground in downtown on residences when undeveloped townhouse-density zoning lies on the west and east sides of the DCD, means that ultimately commercial growth will happen on Rt. 250 rather than in a setting friendly to pedestrians and community social life.
The master plan aims to create an employment district in downtown so that Crozetians eventually commute to jobs in Crozet, and not to Charlottesville. The concept behind Growth Areas is to consolidate growth so as to contain the county’s infrastructure costs in coping with it. Crozet is currently projected to reach a population of 17,500 people (it’s now about 7,000), making it only slightly smaller than Waynesboro. Meanwhile that is supposed to be achieved without having to turn Rt. 250 into a four-lane highway. That makes the success of downtown development vital.
Let’s remember that Stoner’s Milestone Partners company is a for-hire firm that offers development management services to real estate investors who prefer to remain anonymous and unburdened by the quotidian hassles of getting a project through the county’s permitting process or having to answer the public’s objections to the plan. As the company’s website makes clear, it expects its compensation to reflect how lucrative a plan it succeeds in chaperoning through the public approval process for its clients. Perhaps this explains Stoner’s obdurateness; improvements or compromises are not his call to make but the prerogative of his unknown investors. Now we shall see if we can get a plan that the mysterious investors would be willing to have their name[s] known for.
The CCAC has come up with a useful description of what elements are essential for the success of downtown and it now appears the CCAC is prepared to defend the master plan. An acceptable plan will have to have a better road system that will allow traffic to circulate around the commercial activity. It can’t draw thousands of people in one place served by one road. Second, the right plan will respect Crozet’s town identity and provide it an adequate civic and event space protected from cars. Third, the plan would emphasize job creation over bedroom creation. Fourth, the plan should have strive for beauty and protect our glorious views.
Crozet has been a community since America began and we don’t want to be transformed now into a bunkhouse for Charlottesville. This month will decide if we settle for that future or continue marching to one we have been striving for. For all the talk about “evolving” town design, whatever is built in downtown is essentially permanent. We must ensure that it is not done wrong.