Park Project Hits Roadblock at Planning Commission

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Map showing red rings representing areas encompassed by distances of one-quarter mile, one-half mile, and one mile from Crozet Park, demonstrating the location’s centrality and community accessibility. Courtesy Collins Engineering.

Crozet Park’s plan to build a new Aquatic and Fitness Center ran into a wave of opposition before the Planning Commission at its March 23 meeting, prompting Claudius Crozet Park (CCP) Board representative Drew Holzwarth to request an indefinite deferral on the plan’s permit requests. The CCP is asking for two permissions—a Special Use Permit amendment to build the 47,000 square foot facility, and a Special Exception to site the new indoor pool closer to the park’s property line than zoning rules allow.

Holzwarth and Scott Collins of Collins Engineering opened their section of the meeting by summarizing the more-than-60-year history of the 22-acre park’s function within the community. “The [park organization] charter and the board’s mission is to promote the health and well-being and enhance the general social, physical, and cultural welfare of the residents of the community of Crozet and the western part of Albemarle County,” said Holzwarth. Crozet Park is a non-profit, 501(c)(3) organization owned by the Crozet community.

Collins emphasized the design’s efforts to connect the park to its surroundings on all sides. “This is an expansion of the existing Special Use Permit, not only for the buildings and facilities to serve from children to aging adults, but also for how the site can be used and how people can get to the site,” he said. “That [mission] translated into the design of pedestrian, bike trail, and vehicular connectivity out into the community. A one-mile radius basically serves most of the growth area with walkability, and the park is integral in that system.” 

The 2021 concept plan for the layout of the proposed Crozet Park facility expansion. Courtesy Collins Engineering.

Collins also addressed the fact that the county requires a Special Exception to the rule which limits a pool’s proximity to property lines even though this particular new pool will be entirely enclosed in a two-story building. “If you get down to it, [the rules are] talking about an outside pool because of the noise that comes along with a pool,” he said, “but this is an indoor pool and all the noise is going to be contained in the building. Also, this building is about the same size as a typical house out in Crozet, not towering over everything else.”

Neighbor views

Of the eleven members of the public who spoke during the public comment period, all five who took positions against the plan are residents of the adjacent Parkside Village neighborhood. Most of the anti-park expansion commenters talked about the burden of the project’s expected construction traffic on top of current traffic woes related to ongoing construction in Foothill Crossing to the east.

“We moved in [to Parkside Village] this February because we value green space and large trees,” said Jacob Feldman. “This project would eliminate green space dramatically due to the larger indoor recreational space and parking lots. The proposed commercial project does not belong in a neighborhood park, and the planning commission has approved a site along Route 250 for a commercial facility. The addition of double the vehicle trips per day is significantly noticeable to a [nearby] resident.”

Sarah Kasen, representing the Parkside Village homeowners’ association, voiced concerns about construction and screening. “The application proposes that all construction traffic use the park’s Hilltop Street access point, which is the only access route to over 80 existing homes and is already congested with construction traffic because it serves as the access road to Foothill Crossing. We suggest the park use the existing secondary entrance which sits on Park Road unused. Also, the plan shows the removal of existing mature growth trees at the northern park entrance, which will decrease light- and noise-abating screen there.”

Allie Pesch, chair of the CCAC but speaking personally, supported the proposal as in keeping with the established long-term vision for Crozet. “The park is the primary central recreational site for our entire growth area and the park board has prioritized pedestrian access for this park,” she said. “The park itself is a huge part of the Crozet master plan and it’s the center of the growth area. As the community grows, the park use continues to grow, and nextdoor neighbors should know that if they’re familiar with the plan. The [county’s] comprehensive plan prioritizes green space in the rural areas and development in the growth areas, and this is a natural [consequence] of that.”

Several other “pro” speakers lauded the expansion plan’s provision of enhanced child care options for after school care, programming for the elderly, and youth swimming options, while some “con” commenters claimed that the fitness center was simply a “for-profit business” that didn’t belong in a neighborhood park.

Commissioner views

Following the public comments, vice chair Karen Firehock kicked off the commissioners’ internal discussion with a comprehensive ‘no’ on the park requests, though she said she could be persuaded by others’ arguments. “I’m not in support of adding the access at Hilltop Street because of the curvature of the road in that location,” she said. “I don’t believe that we get a lot of advantage in terms of traffic flow, and the detriment to the residents is substantial. I’m not in support of adding a facility of this size to what is a neighborhood green space. It’s not in keeping with the comprehensive plan for green space—it’s out of scale for the park and not in the right location.”

The “right location” for several commissioners seemed to be an unidentified alternative, though some commissioners gestured toward the Old Trail Drive/Rt. 250 intersection where Crozet Sports is currently exploring a potential project. A few commissioners had never been to Crozet Park, but one nonetheless compared the project to Belvedere’s indoor soccer field house in Charlottesville in declining to support the CCP proposal. Commissioner Tim Keller brought up what he characterized as “a hidden issue that we have a responsibility to talk about.”

A site rendering of the proposed Crozet Park Aquatic and Fitness Center from a 2020 presentation. Courtesy Collins Engineering.

“This was a swim club from the 1950s,” said Keller, “so this is part of the segregationist past in Virginia. It was good to hear [WAHS swimming and diving coach Dan Bledsoe] talk about the desire to expand [swimming instruction for] the young people who would become involved with it, [but] when I put this together with putting this facility in the center of a neighborhood area, I think this is so changing it from what it was historically was that perhaps there needs to be some kind of land swap, finding some other area to do this facility.”

Addressing an earlier public comment about the removal of mature trees, Firehock had a specific remedy in mind. “In terms of the trees that would be removed, I think the trees should be replaced on an inch-per-inch caliper basis to provide the same benefits for shade, noise abatement, and air pollution mitigation [as exists now],” she said. U.Va. representative to the commission Luis Carrazana also bemoaned the loss of trees at the park over the years, pointing to the “pile of dirt just [north of] the soccer field” where trees used to grow, perhaps not recognizing that area as part of the Foothill Crossing subdivision under construction.

Commissioner Rick Randolph quoted from a Joni Mitchell song as he summarized his resolute opposition to the project. “Should the commission be supportive of a car-intensive, asphalt-intensive use in a green space area?” he said. “This is no longer Claudius Crozet Park, it is the Claudius Crozet recreational facility with surrounding grounds. This use is incompatible with the area, and I don’t think there’s been an adequate level of communication with the micro-communities surrounding the park in hearing and trying to address their concerns.”

In the end, only commissioners Jennie More (the White Hall District representative) and Corey Clayborne expressed a desire to support the CCP project moving forward with conditions. “I see the need in Crozet for something like this, and some of the park spaces are underutilized,” said More. “I do see an attempt [in the design] to preserve some of the green space. A lot of the activities [that the project will facilitate] are already happening at the pool, but there’s not enough room for everybody who wants to participate, so to me it’s allowing those activities to continue.”

Park board views

As the commissioners’ disapproval mounted, Holzwarth requested a deferral to be able to prepare a response to their concerns. After the meeting, Holzwarth and CCP board chair Kim Guenther shared their perspectives on what had been discussed, noting that the park expansion is exactly the kind of infrastructure that so many Crozet residents have been asking for as the population increases.

“The current Crozet Park Aquatics & Fitness Center (CPAFC) is sized for a Crozet population that existed several decades ago,” said Guenther. “As a designated growth area, Crozet has expanded and neither infrastructure nor recreational offerings have kept pace. When the current Crozet Park pool was built in 1997 the Crozet population was about a third of what it is today. Now, twenty-four years later with a current population estimated around 7,000 and projected to double (or more) by 2030, our small CPAFC is no longer meeting the recreational needs of the community.”

To illustrate her point, Guenther pointed to tremendous unmet demand in the community. “Our licensing for after-school and summer camp programming is tied to the size of the current fitness facility, which only accommodates 29 children,” she said. “Even though we have 22 acres, the licensing is tied to the building square footage, not the outdoor space. We must add floor space to open up more spots in these programs. The new CPAFC will allow us to serve up to 250 children.”

As another example, the current pool is unable to start a development team due to lack of lane space. “Young swimmers are being actively turned away,” said Guenther. “And, during our busy spring and summer pool season, it’s a constant juggling act trying to provide lane space for swim teams, recreational and masters swimmers, and other aquatic programming. Our one outdoor pool is insufficient given the need for aquatic programming across all age groups.”

As for its intended site, Holzwarth said that a park facility that serves an entire community should be centrally located. “The Crozet Trails Crew and Dan Mahon (now retired from the county) have spent years building a spectacular trail system where ‘all trails lead to Claudius Crozet Park,’” he said.  “Without a doubt, this trail infrastructure will lessen the vehicular burden at the park. While there are still missing links to the sidewalk and trail system in Crozet, it gets better every year. There is not a place in Crozet that is more centrally located than Claudius Crozet Park.”

Guenther also wished to correct a “misconception” she has heard from residents that the plan routes construction traffic through the north entrance so as not to disrupt members. “This is incorrect,” she said. “The issue is safety, especially of kids and pedestrian traffic in the park. The decision to route construction traffic through the back of the park, which sees limited use, is to avoid as many cars and pedestrians as possible.”

Holzwarth and the CCP board will address the commission’s concerns and forge ahead with the project. “This facility at Crozet Park is well-needed infrastructure for the population that already exists in Crozet. The County of Albemarle pushed all of this growth into our community, and now we need the infrastructure built to support this population.” 

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