On December 14 the Crozet Community Advisory Committee met at The Meadows Community Center to discuss an allowable-use amendment seeking to expedite Charlottesville-based tech-company, Perrone Robotics Inc.’s move to the Barnes Lumber site in downtown Crozet. The meeting was the result of the CCAC’s unanimous decision to support the amendment at November’s meeting.
CCAC chair Dave Stoner opened the forum by introducing Milestone Partners’ co-founder and partner, L.J. Lopez. “It feels full-circle this meeting should take place here, as this is where we first introduced the Barnes Lumber proposal a couple of years ago,” said Lopez. “We’re here tonight to talk about rezoning for the proffer amendment on the current parcel which expands the uses to accommodate an exciting user that is invested in the long-term business of Crozet and the vision of Barnes Lumber. This amendment is really a short-term means to a long-term vision, in that there are current restrictions on the use of the property, so this expands those uses that are consistent with the comprehensive plan, supports Perrone’s use in the short-term, and allows for the current and parallel path of the larger Phase 1 commercial redevelopment plan for Barnes Lumber.”
After being introduced by Lopez, corporate operating officer of Perrone Robotics Greg Scharer offerred information about the company and their planned usage for the temporary and long-term offices they plan to install on the Barnes Lumber site. “Perrone Robotics is a software company that makes the software that makes cars drive by themselves,” said Scharer. “We see what we do as critical for making the world safer in the future. Cars will not have as many fatalities when they’re driven by computers, we’re very confident about that.”
Scharer explained PRI is a high-tech company that employs a highly educated workforce. In the next year, the business will look to expand from 15 to around 30 employees. “These are great, high-paying jobs for engineers, developers, testers and others that can help us take the software that we’re creating and test it in vehicles to make sure it’s flawless when we put it into cars in the future,” he said. “The business involves writing autonomous driving software, which we then test in a low-impact setting. It’s very quiet, very nondestructive and extremely safe.”
Having lived in Crozet for 45 of his 46 years, Scharer said that both he and company founder and CEO Paul Perrone—who’s lived in the area for more than 15 years now—are both thrilled that PRI is moving to Crozet. Additionally, he said the reason the company didn’t make the move sooner was they’d been unable to find a space that supported their needs and plans for future development. However, with the proposal of the Barnes Lumberyard project, all that changed. “We see the opportunity here to develop our business, but we also see opportunity to bring other companies that are symbiotic to our business to the area,” said Scharer. “We want to create a technology corridor greater than just what we are, that brings in more people, that makes it easier for us to attract great talent and, meanwhile, raises the tide in the area and the county as well. We’re committed to being here for a long time.”
With that, Scharer opened the floor to questions.
“What specifically is the temporary building going to look like?” asked a Crozet townsperson.
“To start with, we’re going to bring in a 60-by-84-foot modular structure that will give us about 5,000-square-feet of office space,” said Scharer. “Additionally, we’re going to use the older spaces for mechanical work, maintenance on vehicles, testing and things like that.”
“In terms of long-term employees, what do you anticipate five to ten years from now?” asked another community member.
“We have big aspirations; we intend no less than to become the Microsoft of cars,” said Scharer. “Whether we achieve that vision or just some portion of it, either way we’re going to be continuously growing. We’d like to see ourselves doubling in size every year. So in five years, a feasible scenario would be 120 employees.”
“Is the modular structure going to be permanent?” asked another community member.
“The modular structure is a temporary means of getting Perrone into Crozet and will eventually be replaced,” said Lopez. “They’ve bought into the long-term vision of Barnes Lumber and while we’re working through the larger planning effort—from rezoning, to the road network, to the uses—once all that’s resolved and we can make permanent plans, they would then pivot from the modular space and project forward to build a long-term permanent structure.”
Lopez and Scharer emphasized the company’s commitment to the projected development of downtown Crozet. “We want to be a part of making this community grow and thrive,” said Scharer. “In fact, for us to be successful, we need that to happen. You have to remember, we’re competing for talent with firms from Silicon Valley. So our employees are intelligent, sophisticated and youthful. They want somewhere they can walk around and socialize; they want to eat and shop close to home; they want biking and walking paths; they want parks and gathering places. So we’re invested in making the downtown development project as successful as we possibly can. We’ll obviously be more attractive to talent when we have a prestigious permanent building for them to work in. So, for our part, we’re hoping that will happen very soon.”
“Where do you intend to be doing the testing?” asked committee member Phil Best.
“There’s space now in the old lot and on a temporary basis we’ll be setting up a track in that area for testing,” said Scharer. However, in the long-term, as the Crozet Square development plan moves forward, according to Lopez, the company would eventually use the downtown road networks for testing. Additionally, PRI plans to set up a closed testing-loop adjacent to the business’s permanent structure. Most of the onsite testing would involve benign activities like parallel parking, backing into an empty space, or testing the sensitivity of sensors in detecting small objects—like, for instance, a cat.
When community members expressed concern about the cars being tested on public roads, Scharer explained that, at that point the software will be in its final stages of development and therefore safe enough to test on actual roadways. Additionally, he said a human driver will always be in the cars, capable of overriding the automated system at any moment and taking control of the vehicle. As a precaution, a remote-control operator will be standing by as well, who, in addition to being able to fully operate the vehicle, is also equipped with a kill-switch (which, when activated, tells the car to safely and as swiftly as possible pull over, come to a complete stop, and shut off the engine). “We take pride in our spotless safety record and the fact that we have never had a single issue,” said Scharer. “And we intend to keep it that way.”
In closing out the session, committee member Leslie Burns said, “I think it’s a great thing for us to be flexible and do what we can to accommodate a business like this coming into the area. This is the sort of company that will anchor Crozet as we move into the future.”
Indeed, beyond job projections, the company had over 150 visitors from overseas and out of state last year, many of whom stayed for days and even weeks at a time. And as PRI expands, Scharer says they only expect that number to grow. Factor in interest expressed by companies like Intel—which just invested heavily in PRI and says it would like to have a special supportive office nearby—and economic prospects begin to look increasingly lucrative.
The remainder of the meeting was spent looking at language for a resolution regarding net versus gross density calculations, which were discussed at length at the CCAC’s November meeting. The resolution will be used as a means of seeking to alter the county’s current zoning ordinance policy which, contrary to the methodologies outlined in the town’s Comprehensive Plan, calculates building units allowed for a given property under development by gross acreage. Alternatively, the resolution calls for a net acreage approach to be adapted, wherein units are determined based upon net buildable acreage, which would not include critical slopes, wetland areas, flood-zone areas, preserved greens space, roads, and so on.
“The CCAC understands that the gross density methodology employed in the Zoning Ordinance was originally intended to promote utilization of land in the growth areas, which it has,” read Stoner. “However, the Comprehensive Plan and growth area plan were subsequently written to provide a more nuanced methodology, and avoid some of the unintended adverse consequences of the gross density methodology.”
With a few exceptions, after being read aloud, the language in the resolution was found to be suitable, and was unanimously approved by the committee.