Fix the Rules
Two serious defects in Albemarle County ordinances are at the root of current threats to Crozet neighborhoods such as Freetown and Blue Ridge Avenue.
First, when a property is given grandfathered zoning, it should apply to the existing use that is the grounds for the grandfathering. The site of the proposed ReStore ‘N Station formerly had a small ancient cabin on it housing a small engine repair shop, probably with a total of 400 square feet. The grandfathering is meant to allow the lawn mower shop to stay in business. Replacing or renovating that structure to continue in the same use is what the public understands as “by-right.” Anything different should have to go through the rezoning process. Instead, we now contend with a proposal to build the county’s second-largest gas station/truck stop, with all its attendant consequences, as by-right. But its impact is, obviously, radically more significant than that of the lawn mower shop and the public has a right to influence the new use through a public hearing process.
This flaw is also at the source of the conversion of a modest basket shop in an old gas station at Clover Lawn into a 20-unit retail complex with nearly as many townhouse in its rear. Or the transmogrification of a defunct former small motel into the sprawl-era-style shopping center that is the home of Harris Teeter. In each of these cases the master plan’s intention of keeping Rt. 250 as undeveloped as possible so that it can function as a bypass around where density is supposed to happen—pedestrian-oriented downtown Crozet—is being subverted as well.
Second, any unbuildable topography in a parcel—flood plain or steep slopes—should be regarded as indeed unbuildable when applying the density limits assigned to the parcel by the county’s Comprehensive Plan. Common sense says the limit applies to the buildable area. But current rules allow the density of unbuildable portions to be compounded onto the buildable land. For example, the Piedmont Housing Alliance wants to develop a 10-acre parcel on Blue Ridge Avenue, zoned R-6 (six units per acre), which has about four unbuildable acres. Their plan is put 60 units on the remaining six acres, rather than the 36 units that would seem to be intended by the zoning principles of the comprehensive plan. Unbuildable acres should simply be deducted, not shifted, in development concepts.
Citizen objections to Restore ‘N Station and PHA’s West Village are mainly about their scale relative to existing neighbors. The county has had a bad habit of favoring conjectural future uses and imaginary people over actual people and the conditions and the rights inherent in them.
The residents of Freetown and Blue Ridge Avenue are real people, most established in their homes for quite a good while, and they have as much right to security and tranquility in their homes as developers do to maximize their profit possibilities on adjoining parcels.
Clearer definitions of “grandfathered” and “unbuildable” in the pertinent ordinances would spare citizens many long and costly fights over what is an appropriate development plan.