The Community Comes Before Profit
Milestone Partners, the new owners of the 20-acre former Barnes lumber yard in downtown Crozet, has repeatedly raised as an issue the “marketability” of the site as its future uses are currently defined in the Crozet Master Plan (CMP) and more specifically in the Downtown Crozet District (DCD), a special set of zoning rules designed to enable the core of town to prosper and continue as the commercial and cultural center of life in Crozet. Those rules essentially promote a traditional town center that foremost seeks to offer employment opportunity. Milestone’s implication is that the rules raise too high an expectation and therefore they must be watered down.
Tellingly, their first effort in their development approach was to effectively sabotage the DCD rule against first-floor residential uses by arguing the rule should be waive-able, a proposal that the Albemarle County Board of Supervisors enacted with unaccustomed alacrity in 2013. The effect of this change, not well understood as it was happening, is to make residential uses comparable to commercial ones. Thus the wheel spokes were sawed halfway through and the cart was put back on the road.
For all the economic consequences of formal town planning, its purposes are fundamentally social and only secondarily about commerce. The goal of the rules is to foster a place where people want to live. Fate looked on Crozet’s advantages, among them a substantial independent water supply at Beaver Creek, and made the former village an official Growth Area, a tactic in the county’s long-term aim of preserving its suitability for agriculture—which is a worthy and even necessary goal.
The Crozet Master Plan is the determined, strategic, public effort of Crozet’s citizens to cope with the pressures of growth while preserving our long-held values, generally considered small town values, namely self-reliance and a love of neighbor that is compassionate but not meddling. Economic growth follows organically from a plan that attracts people because it shows that it puts people first. Thus protection of the permanent social goal trumps in all cases the merits of any particular economic possibility.
The terms of CMP and the DCD have been thoroughly hashed through by Crozet’s citizens and subsequently ratified by our local political authorities. They are not broken and they do not need fixing. They need our loyalty and perseverance. We are trying to bequeath the legacy of community solidarity we inherited, only on a bigger scale that welcomes more people and offers them, too, a bright future. But the build-out of Crozet is not on a timer and nothing is lost in letting it happen in small, digestible steps.
After the adoption of the CMP in 2004, the people of Crozet learned a bitter lesson in how a document could be interpreted by local government with the saga of the rezoning of what is now Old Trail. What was first presented to Crozet as a plan for 800 houses was eventually transmogrified, mainly through behind-the-scene arrangements the public was not privy to, into a 2,600-unit project.
Stung, Crozet fought back in the revision of the plan in 2010, pulling down allowable residential densities and insisting again on the primacy of a vibrant downtown. The county saw the wisdom of the plan and supported it with storm water and street improvements and a new library.
A second lesson of the Old Trail betrayal was the institution of the Crozet Community Advisory Council (CCAC), a citizen review panel for development projects that the CMP called for but did not then exist.
Previously, in line with the town’s tradition of self-reliance—we created a fire department for ourselves, a public park and a pool, a rescue squad, and a town hall forum, the Crozet Community Association—the CCA organized town views on issues presently facing it or bearing on its future. Its luster is now somewhat eclipsed by the CCAC, whose members are appointed by the supervisors and whose meetings are effectively controlled by local government policies. But the CCA continues as Crozet’s grassroots expression of pure democracy.
The CCAC is meant to be a jury of citizens that evaluates development proposals against the plan—the law, to continue the analogy—and makes a recommendation to the supervisors—the judge—about the proposal’s conformity to the community’s social values. Is this project good for our posterity is the question CCAC members must answer. And they must answer truthfully.
Besides introducing the worm of “marketability” as the standard by which the success of the CMP should be judged, Milestone has pursued a strategy of meeting privately with some CCAC members to persuade them individually of its agenda. In the last year clear factions have appeared for the first time on the CCAC: those who defend the Master Plan and those who defend Milestone. One side talks about the integrity of the plan, the other about that elusive prey, economic development, which every town everywhere is in the hunt for.
The legitimacy of the CCAC as a voice of the people is now being called into doubt. Recent county rule changes about council membership terms, designed to deal with a dysfunctional advisory council for Rt. 29 North, potentially give supervisors the ability to pack the councils with members who will recommend in agreement with a supervisor’s agenda, regardless of wider public opinion. This is ominous.
The CCAC must redouble its determination to stand up for the welfare of the town as a whole and not allow itself to be played as a tool of development interests. Milestone has yet to reveal an enlightened plan for the lumberyard. That is what the CCAC is entitled to expect.