County Suggests Tightening Critical Slopes Rules

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CCAC Focuses on Rt. 250 Safety

Albemarle County planners proposed that rules protecting critical slopes from being disturbed in designated growth areas such as Crozet be made stricter at a general meeting of the county’s community advisory councils in Charlottesville May 19. Critical slopes are defined as those that rise steeper than one foot in four, or at an angle of 25 degrees or more. The regulations are intended to reduce hillside erosion and siltation in streams and reservoirs. Disturbance of a critical slope requires special permission from the county.

County special planning projects chief Bill Fritz said that since the rule was established, most requests for a waiver have been granted, effectively nullifying the rule. He suggested that vulnerable slopes be ranked in a two-tier system, one class called “preserved” and the other called “managed.” The change would apply only within growth areas and not change rules governing rural development.

In preserved areas, “nothing would be allowed,” Fritz said. In managed areas, “some things could be done.” Preserved areas typically relate to nearby water features, he said. In Crozet, most of the affected slopes are in the eastern half of the growth area, along streams that feed the Lickinghole Basin, which was built to prevent runoff from development in Crozet from reaching the Rivanna reservoir.

Critical slopes that are disturbed by buildings or roads are required to be “blended in with the existing terrain,” Fritz said. “The aim is to eliminate even steeper slopes from being created by cuts and fill and to result in a more natural-looking hillside.”

The change would not affect exempt activities such as roads, water and sewer lines, walking or biking trails, the placement of gardens, sheds or patios, or the first house built on a county-approved lot. Fritz said the tiered system should also reduce the county’s expense in reviewing waiver applications.

“Through the ordinance [proposal], we’re trying to preserve the areas identified in master plans that need to be preserved according to the community,” said county planner Elaine Echols.

In the suggested tiers, preserved slopes could be disturbed if the applicant got a variance, but a variance is the highest and toughest level of exception to get and would involve proving that the situation affects no other properties and that a “hardship” exists that makes the property unusable without the variance. Financial reasons would not constitute a hardship, said county community development director Mark Graham.

Managed areas could be disturbed after getting a waiver and planners asked advisory councils to think about what the criteria for granting a waiver should be. The most likely outcome of the change would be that preserved slopes really would stay undisturbed.

“In the last 50 years we have been reluctant to say that any area is unsuitable for development, even though it may be very vertical,” observed White Hall District Supervisor Ann Mallek. She called for limited exemptions for waivers.

Crozet Community Advisory Council members were supportive of the idea. “We want the areas that are supposed to be preserved to actually be preserved,” said Meg West.

In the Crozet Growth Area, which comprises 2,914 acres, there are 178 acres of critical slopes. Some 148 acres, 83 percent, would be designated as preserved and 30 acres would fall in the managed category.

In other business, the CCAC reviewed a resolution it drafted at its May meeting regarding safety concerns on Rt. 250 following two pedestrian deaths in two years near the Blue Ridge Shopping Center. Former CCAC member Kelly Strickland attended the meeting to call for a report from a highway engineer that would take a look at traffic and pedestrian improvements on the stretch of the highway from the Mechums River trestle to the Interstate 64 interchange. He wanted the county to hire the work to be done before the Crozet Master Plan goes through its next required review in 2015.

CCAC members learned that Virginia Department of Transportation’s Charlottesville-area administrator, Joel DeNuncio, is moving to Old Trail and decided to invite him to a CCAC meeting to get a professional view of the issues.

Changes desired by the CCAC included dedicated left turn lanes at the Clover Lawn/Blue Ridge Shopping Center entrances, a place for pedestrians who are crossing Rt. 250 there to stand safely (such as a median platform), a walking path along the north side of the road from Old Trail to Clover Lawn, and a reduced speed limit of 35 miles per hour.

In other news, Mallek told the CCAC that the Crozet Avenue Streetscape project will go out for bids by contractors at the end of July and that a fence along the railroad tracks in The Square, a condition that CSX railroad made as part of its agreement to cede a claim to ownership of the parking lot there, will be built “soon.”

Build Crozet Library fundraising committee chair Bill Schrader told the CCAC that the effort has now raised $830,000. The new library’s grand opening is tentatively set for September 28, he said.