Field School Clears First Hurdle for Relocation

Plan for the new Field School campus (Courtesy of Field School)

Field School of Charlottesville has been a welcome resident of Crozet for the past decade, but they are looking to relocate to larger, more up-to-date quarters closer to Charlottesville. The Albemarle County Planning Commission voted unanimously at its December 13 meeting to recommend approval of the Field School’s application for a special-use permit to build a new campus on 25 idyllic acres on Barracks Road, just west of Charlottesville near the Colthurst Farms subdivision, and about 1000 feet from the nearest development area. It is mostly wooded and features a 3-acre pond and mountain views, combining the advantages of rural natural beauty and proximity to town. The new location will allow for an increase in enrollment from the current 86 to as many as 150 students.

The Planning Commission’s task, as explained by planning director Andrew Gast-Bray, was “to evaluate the location and environmental impact” of the proposal, independent of the quality of the school itself.

“We love it in Crozet,” admitted Field School founder and Head of School Todd Barnett. “But we need to draw on a larger community.” Youthful and enthusiastic, he apologized for his attire when I arrived for our interview the morning after the vote, as he had just participated in a gym class with his students. He also teaches History, Civics, and English at the private boys’ middle school, along with 16 other full- and part-time faculty members, as well as driving the daily school bus from Charlottesville to Crozet.

He described this trip at the Planning Commission hearing. “I drive through five compromised intersections in the 10 miles from the Charlottesville bypass to Crozet on 250 West. If our site switches to Barracks Road, a big wide road that is relatively lightly travelled, one mile off the bypass, our population will travel 10 minutes less each day, easing area congestion, minimizing pollution, and without a doubt causing less traffic and increasing safety on county roads generally.”

In granting their recommendation for approval, Planning Commissioner Karen Firehock complimented Barnett on the thoroughness of his proposal and for engaging the community in its development. “I had to ask fewer questions than usual because this was a very well put together, very detailed proposal. Much of the due diligence was done.”

In addition to the 300 letters of support received by the Planning Commission, 11 parents, teachers, students, and neighbors spoke at the meeting in support of the new location, describing it as the perfect site for a relatively small, nature-oriented school.

Barnett has held three meetings with Colthurst residents and also with representatives of the neighboring St. David’s Anglican Church, to listen to their concerns and involve them in the planning process. “We would much prefer to see the school rather than a developer to come in and do what they could by-right, which is one house per two acres,” noted long-time Colthurst Farms resident Jessica Simons, a sentiment that was repeated by other speakers.

Rendering of what proposed Field School buildings might look like (courtesy of Field School)
Rendering of what proposed Field School buildings might look like (courtesy of Field School)

“This puts the idea of a bypass to bed forever and always. Who could argue with listening to children having a phenomenal experience in both the morning and afternoon?”

Parent Steve Bolton noted that this was a “direct Civics lesson” for the many students in attendance. Dennis Rooker, lawyer for the school, emphasized that this use is “in harmony with the purpose and intent of the Albemarle County Comprehensive Plan.” Engineer Justin Shimp noted that both Jack Jouett Middle School and Albemarle High School are also located outside the growth area, in rural zoning districts.

Neighbors were especially gratified that the school has promised to plant a natural screen or buffer on its borders and to employ no lighting or sound amplification on its athletic fields. Only one resident spoke against the proposal, due to traffic concerns and a small area of critical slope disturbance. These were allayed by a VDOT traffic study that predicted only 372 trips per day to and from the school between 8 and 5 p.m.

The permit includes an allowance for special events—such as graduation and parent visiting days—twelve times a year. Safety will be increased by VDOT’s stipulation that both left and right turn lanes off Barracks Rd. be built, which will be on Field School property and will not impact the current road structure.

The property, which will be donated to the school by a supportive community member if the proposal is approved, was previously owned by Charles Hurt, who had prepared it for farming use by installing a dam to create a pond that will afford opportunities for fishing, canoeing, and aquatic studies by science classes. It was also used in the past as a construction trash dump site—since cleaned up—and a portion of it had been designated for the now-defunct Western bypass. As seen in Shimp’s sketch, plans for the 25-acre campus include an academic building, gym, dining hall, and nature pavilion for outdoor instruction. The permit allows for the three buildings to have a footprint no greater than 30,000 sq. ft. The buildings will only occupy 4.3 acres plus 3 acres of athletic fields, with the rest preserved for outdoor recreation, hiking trails, and the like. The site will use public water and a central sewage system with three connections to one septic field.

Todd Barnett
Todd Barnett

After over six years of work on the relocation project, Barnett welcomes this outcome, but cautioned that it is only the first step. “Many thanks to all those who supported Field School’s SUP bid on our Barracks Road location before the Albemarle County Planning Commission,” read a 12/15 Facebook post. “We got a unanimous approval from that body. This was Round 1, with Round 2 coming up in 1-2 months before the Board of Supervisors. I will be reaching out for support again in a month or so.” The Supervisors are expected to consider the proposal in late January or early February, and Barnett hopes to double the number of letters in support to [email protected] If the project is approved, the building plans would then go before the Architectural Review Board for consideration. If all goes according to plan, Barnett hopes to occupy the new campus within the next five years.

The Field School of Charlottesville is an academically rigorous private school for boys in grades 5-8 with the mission to “develop well-rounded boys of character and accomplishment.” It opened in 2007 at Crozet Park with 27 students, and moved to its current location in the former Crozet High School (later Crozet Elementary School) in 2009. Built in 1923, the building is drafty and lacks modern conveniences; the entire property only occupies 8 acres.

Barnett pointed out that they always knew their current location would be temporary. The Field School curriculum emphasizes hands-on, interdisciplinary study, with daily time spent outdoors and many field trips, including an annual 8th grade visit to Costa Rica. The school’s motto, “omnis puer scitus et frater… every boy known, every boy a brother,” highlights the personal touch of small classes with an emphasis on values education and community-building. Their many contributions to the Crozet community have included an annual Spirit Walk featuring both prominent and little-known historical characters and followed by apple butter making, an annual play or musical, and various community service projects such as splitting and delivering firewood for needy families, helping to set up the Crozet Arts and Crafts Festival, donations to PACEM, and regular choir singing at Mountainside Senior Living. Eighth-grader Will Jackson spoke of looking forward to future Spirit Walks “re-enacting the lives of Hessian soldiers who were held near there” during the Revolutionary War era.

To enjoy the Field School’s presence in Crozet while you still can, plan to attend The Adventure of the Indigo Falcon in April, a Sherlock Holmes production involving all students and some adults, which will feature a missing child, street urchins, drumming, and choral singing. If the quality is anything like last year’s Shenandoah Boys, it is sure to be an evening well spent!

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