Plan Your Work, Work Your Plan
Now that county planners have introduced new proposals to further increase housing density in Crozet, let’s review the goals and principles of the Crozet Master Plan.
Crozet was designated as a Growth Area when Albemarle adopted its Comprehensive Plan in 1980. The village of that day had the key asset, an independent water system with a large capacity reservoir at Beaver Creek, built back in the day when apple cold storage required large amounts of ice. For 20 years no substantial growth happened. The county was encouraging development up Rt. 29 North. Finally, the people who had moved in along that highway got exasperated by the sprawling subdivisions that had far outpaced supporting infrastructure. (Sound familiar?) County officials got tired of hearing those complaints. The growth had to go somewhere else. They pointed west.
Suddenly, in year 2000, large farms around Crozet were bought by large-scale builders.
The experience of Rt. 29—which appeared in Newsweek magazine as an example to the nation of what not to do—was instructive to Crozetians. Rt. 29 was a “community” designed for cars to live in. People wanted a bypass around it, but they could not figure out how to pull that off.
The county had been talking about planning growth, rather than just trying to catch up to it, so the citizens of Crozet presented themselves as the inaugural case for a premediated approach to the problem. For a town of about 2,000 people at the time, planning meetings had a heavy turnout. Hundreds participated. And they paid attention. Consultants were hired and U.Va. architecture professors lent their expertise. The Crozet Master Plan adopted by the Board of Supervisors in 2004 took the zoning established in the Comprehensive Plan and suited it to the facts about Crozet. That zoning laid out a “build-out” population of about 12,500 when all the undeveloped land was finally occupied. Crozetians expected to grow to quadruple size. That would be a different town, but we were determined that it would still be the friendly, self-reliant place we knew. Our population inside the boundary now is about 10,000. Given rezonings allowed since the plan was adopted, our likely build-out population is anticipated to be around 17,000.
While the fate of Rt. 29 was taken as the negative example, the downtown mall in Charlottesville was taken as the positive. The Master Plan was intended to skip the sprawl stage typical of development after World War II and become instead the reaction to it called New Urbanism. That idea put an emphasis on pedestrian accessibility. The expression of that goal is a central business district surrounded by neighborhoods within a walking distance of about half a mile. The citizens’ next push was the creation of the Downtown Crozet District in 2006, a unique form of zoning in the county that allows the vision of the plan to be realized.Thus also, Old Trail has a commercial center as the hub of its neighborhoods, rather than placing it along Rt. 250 in strip shopping centers.
If you study a map of Crozet, you can see that there is basically no way to lay out a bypass around the town. Only Rt. 250 left relatively free of stoplights can perform that function. The other expression of pedestrian-emphasis is the trail system laid out in the plan that allows neighborhoods to have paths to other parts of town, especially Crozet Park, without necessarily having to drive to them.
This concept of placing the greatest density nearest to the commercial zoning was referred to as “pyramidal density.” Density is lowest on the edges of the growth area where it contacts rural zoning and increases the closer you get to the business centers. The effect of this rule was demonstrated in the case of Sparrow Hill on Rt. 250, which saw the developer’s original proposal for high density on the highway reduced to a tolerable scale. And it explains why townhouse zoning usually adjoins commercial zoning.
The proposals to increase density on the growth area’s boundaries sabotage the underlying principles of the plan and if passed would become precedents for further sabotage. The proposed “historic overlay” densities threaten to destabilize established neighborhoods.
Literally thousands of housing units are approved in Crozet that have not yet been built, and their impact is not now felt. We are way behind on our infrastructure needs. The bridge over Lickinghole Creek that will connect east Crozet to Rt. 250 at Cory Farm has been identified as our highest priority for several years and it is not even in prospect. The addition to Crozet Elementary is not funded and is starting to look insufficient as planned.
Why this pressure from the county? Because the Growth Area is essentially full. Can it be expanded?
Remember that the boundary is based on watersheds. All our watersheds supply the Charlottesville reservoir and therefore we must prevent possible contaminants from reaching it.
North of Rt. 240 is our water supply. Ours is uniquely precious because our reservoir fills with runoff from forested mountain slopes. Many towns have to take their water from rivers that have already run past someone else and their sewage plants. We are lucky and we must strictly protect that resource. High-density development in that watershed is a big no-no.
The Lickinghole Basin was built to capture runoff from within the Growth Area. The pond allows sediments to settle and not continue on. That was a county-paid-for project.
South of us is Stockton Creek, which has no protections now. To build south of Rt. 250 with high densities would require a new project to protect Mechums River.
And to the west we find large farms under conservation easements that protect the rural character of Greenwood.
So the county, with no good options, looks to pack more people in the area they have. When the growth area management strategy runs to its limits and saturates, what can the county do? Declare new growth areas in locations that were formerly declared to preserved rural areas? That’s not likely to be a popular solution either.
In what sense is a master plan a plan if it has no predictability beyond five years? Our problem with the current plan is not in its land use designations. Those were hard-fought negotiations in 2004 and in 2010, and they should be considered settled. The Crozet Master Plan represents the democratic will of the people who will actually live under the plan, not the interests of planners, who often do not protect the stated will of the citizens but the particular interest of developers. The plan is in some sense a treaty between the inhabitants of Crozet and their local government.
What we need to fix in the plan now are discrepancies between what maps in it appear to say and what the corresponding text states. What we have seen happen is these discrepancies used against us when rezonings are proposed. It turns out that either the map rules or the text rules, depending on which can be interpreted to allow the greater density. Our focus should be on getting more explicit maps and tighter conformity between the words and the visuals. Our plan is sound and it is working for us. We just need to stay vigilant when greed raises its head.