County Planners Surprise CCAC with Last-Minute Change

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County planners propose a land use designation change for the area in orange from Neighborhood Density (3-6 units/acre) to Middle Density Residential (6-18 units/acre). Courtesy Albemarle County Community Development.

At the May 12 meeting of the Crozet Community Advisory Committee (CCAC), during what was supposed to be a wrap-up of the Crozet Master Plan’s land use chapter, county planners dropped an eleventh-hour revision into the mix. Planning manager Rachel Falkenstein explained that, in response to the Board of Supervisors’ concerns about insufficient affordable housing and development potential in the current plan, the county is proposing that a 16-acre section of land in the center of Crozet be shifted from Neighborhood Density to a Middle Density residential designation.

The proposed area is roughly a square bounded by Tabor Street, High Street, Dunvegan Lane, and Crozet Avenue just south of Tabor Presbyterian Church. The site currently contains seven parcels on which sit seven houses, and is zoned R-2 (two houses per acre). The Middle Density Residential category has been the object of much of the community’s opposition to other parts of the proposed land use map, particularly as it is applied to Rt. 240 potential development areas such as White Gate Farm and Old Dominion Village. 

Middle Density allows for 6 to 12 units per acre, with up 18 units per acre if certain housing types such as bungalow courts, cottages, or tiny homes are used. Falkenstein said that applying Middle Density to this new site would concentrate higher densities within the center of Crozet (instead of out at the edges), and would allow for infill development in a walkable location adjacent to downtown. “Partnering with a future developer would support the completion of transportation improvements,” she said. “If not, then by-right development would not generate the revenues to fund those improvements, and we wouldn’t have the transition from high to low density, extending from the downtown area outward.”

County planners say they will including “supporting narrative” in the Master Plan’s land use chapter to protect historic homes and trees from future bulldozing. Courtesy Albemarle County Community Development.

In the public feedback segment that followed the presentation, CCAC member Sandy Hausman did the math and noted that 16 acres with 12 units per acre would lead to a conservative estimate of 192 new houses on that block of land. “That’s a lot of new traffic with no infrastructure to support it,” she said. “This seems crazy to me.” She also pointed out that whenever homeowners are going to be affected by land use changes they should be notified, as they had not been in this case on this site.

CCAC member Joe Fore said that he thought the idea was actually a good compromise. “This plan allows plenty of walkability and bike-ability, it’s the perfect place for increased density,” he said. “The Planning Commission and the Board made it very clear that they want more density and more people in Crozet, and they’re going to get it in the plan one way or another. This is a way to accommodate some of those concerns, putting density right where we want people to be in the downtown core.”

Five of the seven parcels on the site fall within the Historic District designation of Crozet, and are surrounded by a large canopy of tall, mature trees. While Falkenstein said that planners would recommend some “supporting narrative” about the importance of protecting the historic homes and the tree canopy in the land use chapter, that language has no enforcement mechanism for a future builder.

Chair Allie Pesch asked CCAC member (and developer) David Mitchell for his opinion on how stipulations about preserving the older homes and trees on the site would be viewed by potential developers, and his response was bracing. 

“There will always be, in this community, requirements to preserve things like that, but they do conflict with density,” said Mitchell. “Physics is physics; two things can’t live in once space. Look, I modeled my own house in part on that big house [on the proposed site] because it’s gorgeous … but the reality is if you’ve got to build around those houses it’s going to cost you money, so they go down. Affordable housing regulations work in that the people who are not in affordable units pay for those who are. When you don’t use the land it’s a loss. Frankly, the only thing a government body can give a developer to be able to make money is density.” 

Hausman commented on the prospects of the anti-density position winning the day. “I did attend the Planning Commission meeting [regarding the Crozet land use plan] last night, and I’m very discouraged,” she said. “I don’t think the county’s listening to us, I don’t think we’re going to have any say in the end about this density, density, density. If anyone wants to contact me, I really think that Crozet should be thinking more seriously about seceding, I just don’t see how this works out for us, it’s very depressing.”

Supervisor Ann Mallek cautioned about the lack of concrete regulations in this case. “My question is, if this application came in [for rezoning] and there were 90 or 100 units or more in the plan, how many really affordable units would there be? 15? That’s sort of the trade-off—are we getting enough of what the goal is for this location [affordable housing] when we have absolutely no legal ability right now to protect those historic houses or those trees. Many people have been asking for these rules for years and they aren’t there, so people should go in with their eyes open.”

Pesch asked Mallek whether she thought Crozet could persuade the county to drop other Middle Density proposals in exchange for this new downtown location density. “Do you think with your colleagues on the board you would be able to argue that we don’t want Middle Density on Old Dominion or White Gate (which are still deferred right now), and actually try to steer the development this way, or do you think we’d just end up with it in all three places?” Mallek’s guess was that the latter would be the case.

CCAC member Shawn Bird looked at the GIS data for the site and brought up the issue of its ownership. “There are seven parcels but five of them are owned by the same entity,” he said. “That’s 14 of the 17 acres being held by a major player. I don’t know if there’s been a discussion with them, but that could spur development.” As it turned out, the “major player” is R&H Partners, LLC, which belongs to Ruth and Henry Chiles of Chiles Orchard fame, and Henry penned a letter to county officials the following week to express his opinion of the plan. 

Chiles said that they and their children and grandchildren stand in strong opposition to this proposed change. “We had no knowledge this recommendation was in the works, nor do we support this land use change in any way,” said the letter. “We have no interest in developing this beautiful block.” The Chiles family owns five of the seven homes on the site and are living in four of them. “We are far more interested in maintaining this land in its existing open and green form than we will ever be in developing it with dozens more houses.” The family requested that the middle density proposal be “rescinded immediately.” 

The county also recommended connecting Dunvegan Lane, currently an abandoned access lane, all the way to Park Road to allow for through-traffic to Park from Crozet Avenue to help alleviate congestion at the Tabor Street intersections. Alan and Marlowe Howard, who live on Dunvegan, also wrote to the county to express their opposition to both the connection and the land use change. 

“Such a connection could not occur without destruction of buildings and parts of buildings on both sides along this street which was originally a farm lane,” wrote Howard. “As a result, this whole neighborhood would be destroyed. … We are absolutely astounded and dismayed that our government can propose major changes to the value and use of our property without contacting the land owners that would be involved and specifically request their input prior to considering these dramatic changes that would affect our lifestyle and property values in a dramatically adverse manner.” 

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