Facing what appeared to be a rejection by the Albemarle County Planning Commission June 19, developer Frank Stoner of Milestone Partners requested a deferral until August 5 of the commission’s vote on his proposal to develop the 20-acre former Barnes Lumber Company in downtown Crozet.
Stoner was before the commission to ask for a rezoning of the parcel, now zoned heavy industrial, to include it in the Downtown Crozet District, and to ask for a special use permit (SUP) that would allow him to build residential units on the eastern third of the property. The Downtown Crozet District, a unique zoning district in the county, was designed to create a traditional, pedestrian-oriented commercial and employment district in the heart of town. The zoning encourages apartments on upper floors but forbids residential use on the first floor of a building unless approved through a SUP.
County senior planner Claudette Grant, who was responsible for the report on Stoner’s plan, told the commissioners that the county’s planning analysis concluded that the plan should be rejected.
Listing five problems with the proposal, county staff said the SUP request for 200 residences does not conform to the terms such SUPs normally meet and is also “inconsistent” with the Crozet Master Plan. Further, the proposed intensity of the residential use would mean it is not “a secondary use” as the DCD zoning requires.
Planners faulted the proposal for “not showing a significant commitment to the office/research and development/flex uses/employment goals” that the Crozet Master Plan calls for on the property.
Citing the Virginia Department of Transportation’s review of the proposal’s traffic study, planners said it shows impacts on Crozet Avenue “that will be hard to address,” leaving those vague and unresolved but seemingly looming.
Planners said the project needs an assessment of stream and stream buffer needs for the parcel, since those will likely have to be mitigated.
Planners also said the project’s proffer proposals were not consistent with the county’s cash proffer policy and that they were in need of “substantial” revision.
County policy currently requires developers of single family homes in a growth area to pay $19,753 per unit, $ 13,432 for each townhouse and $13,996 per unit in a multi-family building to offset the public infrastructure demands of the new residents.
The Crozet Advisory Council, after meeting with planning staff to hear their reasons for a negative recommendation, held a special meeting the evening before the Planning Commission meeting and adopted a resolution opposed to the Stoner plan. The CCAC said it was “supportive of this type of mixed use development of the Barnes Lumber property and encourages the applicant to amend its application” and meanwhile noted its fundamental concern over “too much emphasis on residential development in lieu of commercial development.” The CCAC asked for a commitment to phase commercial development before residential development, and sought a more detailed commitment to a public plaza and green space, concluding that the plan “should comply more closely to the goals and intent of the Crozet Master Plan.”
White Hall District Commissioner Tom Loach of Crozet asked for clarification on one point to open the Commission’s discussion. Do DCD rules allow green space or relegated parking behind businesses to be considered as buffer solutions for adjoining residents on Hilltop Street and in Parkside Village? The answer from county planning chief David Benish was yes.
Presenting his plan, Stoner described it as based on a quarter-mile walking distance radius from The Square, which he said is the usual distance people are willing to walk. He said, “Commercial development is less viable on the east end of the property,” he said, and the 200 units he proposes for that area include 25 single family detached houses and 40 townhouses.
Samuel Miller District Commissioner Karen Firehock said she wanted to see more green space in the plan and criticized Stoner for showing a storm water pond on the southeast corner of the parcel rather than a management solution that was more naturalistic. Civil engineer Craig Katarsky of Timmons Group clarified that they knew a pond was not allowed as a solution in that instance, though the plan had mistakenly labeled it so.
Firehock also asked about the Rivanna Water and Sewer Authority’s observation that the development of the parcel may strain capacity in the single sewer line that carries Crozet’s waste to the Moores Creek treatment plant in Charlottesville. Stoner answered that developers pay a tap fee of $20,000 per house to connect to the sewer and water lines and he presumed that the RWSA would use that money to expand capacity.
Jack Jouett District Commissioner Mac Lafferty asked why Stoner had made no response to the county’s concern over storm water plans and also challenged him over his contention that people are reluctant to live above stores, citing the popularity of apartments on Charlottesville’s Downtown Mall and the units built above Old Trail Village.
Stoner noted that the DCD is six years old now but no development has happened in it, implying that the fault was due to the zoning rules.
In the public comment opportunity, CCAC member Jennie More said, “I feel strongly it should be denied. I’m the fifth generation of my family to live in Crozet. I want a plan that will create a vibrant downtown. There is a lack of focus on job-creation in the plan. . . . The process is being rushed. Let our master plan work for us.” She cited the improvements made according to the plan, such as the new Crozet Library, the Crozet Avenue streetscape project and the improvements to Jarman’s Gap Road. “I want my boys to know that we got Barnes Lumber right.”
CCAC member David Stoner (no relation to developer Frank Stoner) presented the CCAC resolution. Residents of Tabor Street and Parkside Village asked for consideration of a “transition zone” to buffer their properties.
Other speakers condemned the plan as two vague about its incorporation of a civic space, as having an inadequate road plan that would allow traffic in downtown to be easily jammed, and, in using 39 percent of the property for new housing, wasting the parcel’s potential for realizing its economic purpose for the town.
“I worked on the master plan,” said CCAC chair Meg Holden. “We feel strongly about downtown being essential to Crozet. I agree [the plan] needs more detail. We need to work together to come up with something workable. I would hate to see us walk away and not work with the developer.”
In his rebuttal comments, Stoner said, “You’ve heard anxiety over the future of Crozet. There’s not a clear directive about how much commercial is needed. The master plan doesn’t give guidance on how to get to the full build-out. There’s an enormous an amount of commercial space in our plan. We may not fill it in 20 years.”
Scottsville District Commissioner Richard Randolph read off a list of recent Commission actions in which other developers paid the established per unit cash proffers.
“Why should you get a free ride from the community on proffers?” he asked. “Other developers are willing to pay their fair share.”
Stoner answered, “Our position on proffers is clear. We don’t want proffers imposed because other properties that were converted into the DCD did not pay proffers.” That claim ignored the fact that those were existing buildings in downtown and not new ones adding to demand for public services.
“Proffers are too onerous today,” Stoner said. He said the county should instead raise the real estate tax rate, arguing that a one-cent increase would raise more than the amount collected from developers through the proffer policy. “That would be fair to everybody since we are all part of the problem. It’s not just new people.”
Loach said, “My feeling is the same as the county staff and the CCAC. The plan as it stands is incomplete. I think we have a good master plan. I don’t see flaws in it. The Zoning Text Amendment of last year [that created a special use permit process to allow residential use on a case-by-case basis in the DCD] was to give flexibility for transition areas. It was not meant to change the underlying intent of the zoning. We need employment downtown. Not using the light industrial area in this property would be a shame.”
At-Large Commissioner Tim Keller said he did not think the differences between what the plan showed and what the public expects for the area are unbridgeable. “There’s a need for further discussion,” he said. “We see evolution in our built environment all the time. I encourage the parties to keep working.”
Lafferty said, “I agree that something needs to happen on the Barnes Lumber property. I’m concerned that all the discussions haven’t gotten anywhere yet.”
“I’m sympathetic to the community on the master plan,” said Firehock, “but I also feel sympathetic to the developer. This is a daunting site with a high amount of risk. Buffering on the residential side makes sense. I think the issues can be worked out.”
“I would hate to see the plan shoved under the table,” added chairman Cal Morris.
“I’m somebody who has worked on an advisory council,” said Randolph. “You appreciate their time and effort. For this body to make a recommendation inconsistent with the CCAC’s would violate the reason for the council. These are manageable issues, but so many are unresolved.” Returning to the subject of proffers, Randolph said to Stoner, “You should do your fair share.” He said he would agree to deferral of the vote. He cited issues with proffers, stream buffers, too intense residential density, and a lack of clarity on green space as needing attention.
“The concept of a deferral may make sense,” said Stoner. “We don’t have flexibility on certain contract deadlines. If we could have intensive work with the CCAC…an eight-week deferral would put us in a difficult spot contractually.” Stoner said previously that he wanted the plan to go before the Board of Supervisors in August.
Director of Planning Wayne Cilimberg told the Commission that with a deferral, the earliest the Supervisors could have the matter on their agenda was September.
Stoner could go before the Supervisors with a denial recommendation from the Commission, but the Supervisors might send it back to the Commission then if they felt they lacked information about the project.
“We’ll take a deferral and work like mad to get back to you in August and go to the board in September,” said Stoner, asking to be on the Commission’s August 5 agenda. That idea passed 6-0.
The CCAC, which found itself unable to express what it wanted as opposed to what it didn’t like about Stoner’s plan, met again in a special session June 26 to address the matter of how to define the desirable elements of a plan to develop the Barnes property. David Stoner was asked to draft a list of those features and distribute to members in advance. A four-hour meeting ensued and another meeting was set for July 2 when the CCAC members would ratify a final statement of their position.
The draft document set out these essential concerns:
Amount of Residential vs. Commercial/Retail: No single family detached development at all on the site – only townhomes and multifamily (condos and apartments) units. (Some CCAC members are adamant about this; others are willing to allow some single family detached development if it is limited.)
If any single family detached is developed, limit this to a single row only around the south and east border of the property only as buffer area in accordance with the intent of the Master Plan.
Phasing and Prioritization of Commercial/Retail vs Residential: Require via proffers that some minimum amount of commercial/retail space be built initially, or at a minimum prior to allowing a certain number of residential units.
Plaza, Green Space, and Viewshed Concerns: More public green space and hardscape (Plaza area) should be specifically identified and proffered. Clarify via proffer the potential size, location, and design of the green space on the southeast portion of parcel, including separately defining the likely stream buffer requirement and remaining useable acreage. Provide via proffer additional “pocket parks.” Require additional consideration of preserving the Blue Ridge Mountain view shed, especially throughout the Plaza area.
Proffers: Require financial proffers for each single family or townhouse or multi-family residential unit in accordance with current County policies; Consider reducing or waiving those for (1) buildings in which 1st floor commercial/retail exists; and (2) age-restricted (i.e. >55) housing units. Request that the County use proffers for identifiable community projects that would benefit the downtown area, such as a new CSX underpass, parking deck, or infrastructure improvements to the square.
Traffic and Road Layouts: Include alternative/additional road layouts that improve traffic circulation.
Crozet Community Association President Tim Tolson passed out to CCAC members two versions of lumberyard development plans proposed by Piedmont Development Group when it approached the supervisors in 2010-11 about rezoning the property—at the time it was still owned by the Barnes Lumber Company, which was seeking the rezoning. The CCAC reviewed both plans at that time. Tolson pointed out that the county is using the same project numbers for the Stoner plan as it did for both Piedmont plans.
One drawing from December 2010 shows Library Avenue extending to the east end of the parcel and parallel to a street extending from The Square. Small streets connect the two. A revised plan from February 2011 shows Library Avenue as the dominant artery with interconnected parking lots on the north side of the property. Both plans show a pedestrian mall as the central feature of the high ground of the commercial area.
The lumberyard was subsequently foreclosed on and Piedmont Development Group did not succeed in acquiring the property from Union First Market Bank. Its plans became moot, but they demonstrate alternative ideas for the property.
“It’s important to remind people about these plans because they show other ideas are possible,” Tolson said.
He laid out the case for having a grid system of roads in the parcel and pointed out that Oak Street, undeveloped but connecting The Square with Library Avenue, marks off the first block as laid out by the town’s first planners. High Street comes in naturally to form a second block and a third and additional blocks can be imagined extending east.
“The plans show other ways of handling buffers, rather than more housing,” said Tolson. “There could be a landscaping solution instead. We also need a real plaza where people congregate and we can have events.”
The CCAC also expressed support for the idea of a road under the railroad tracks at the east end of the property, roughly near the firehouse, that would connect Library Avenue to Three Notch’d Road.
Tolson characterized the CCAC’s “post-deferral” position as “moving to defending the terms of the Master Plan.”
He said the CCAC had been influenced by comments from local real estate broker Cliff Fox, who said that it would be a waste to build housing in valuable commercial and light industrial zoning. Moreover, Fox argued that banks are indeed willing to loan for buildings that have residences above commercial space; only HUD is unwilling. Fox claimed confidently that a grocery store could be interested in locating on the parcel.
Former CCAC member Bill Schrader reminded the council that it had recommended against a proposal by a Crozet resident who sought a zoning change in north downtown a few years back. The CCAC stuck to the terms of the master plan. Not to do so now would mean that “big money wins out over ordinary people,” he said, a thought that discomfited the council.
The CCAC’s next regular meeting is July 17 at The Meadows community hall (off Crozet Avenue) at 7 p.m.