Supervisors Ignore PC’s Advice in Final Master Plan

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The property on Tabor Street that the received the new Middle Density designation. Photo: Lisa Martin.

After almost two years of detailed labor by county planners and Crozet citizens, the Albemarle Board of Supervisors performed a final, confounding surgery on the Crozet Master Plan update at their October 20 meeting. Four of the six supervisors opted to reinsert a concentrated density recommendation on 16 acres in the center of Crozet—the so-called Middle Density designation that allows up to 18 units per acre. The move came despite vigorous community opposition and after the Albemarle Planning Commission had recommended preserving the property until more protection could be arranged for the historic structures and mature trees on site. 

Although Supervisors Ann Mallek and Liz Palmer both argued strongly against applying Middle Density to the block bounded by Tabor Street, High Street, Dunvegan Lane and Crozet Avenue, the final vote was five to one to approve the Master Plan update, and the formidable process has now drawn to a close. In the end Mallek voted ‘yes,’ in part “to try to improve things for the future and to recover some civility to this process,” she said in a letter to the editor for the Gazette. 

“I focused on the process deficiencies of inserting the Tabor change at the last minute, as well as the lack of recognition of the many other opportunities in the current pipeline for varied sizes of housing,” said Mallek. “I saw no desperate need to make this decision now; it could have waited another five years. In the end, however, I wanted the Crozet community to be in charge of the vote, to make the motion for approval and to vote for it, rather than having it dropped on the district by others.”

The now-approved land use change of the Tabor Street block (orange) from Neighborhood Density to Middle Density.

During the meeting, Palmer spoke in support of the Planning Commission’s recommendation that the Tabor block be considered for increased density in a future Master Plan, after the land and its structures have a chance to be protected by a Historic Preservation Ordinance. “I think that having a historic ordinance in place prior to [any change in density] is a reasonable assurance to the community for a really significant piece of property right in the downtown area,” said Palmer. “It will give the community more time to think about it and look at it. I’m very much against changing that.”

“I appreciate the detailed work that the Planning Commission did on [the Tabor block] when this was presented,” said Mallek in her support of retaining the lower planned density (3-6 units per acre) currently designated for the parcels. “There is no way that the trees and structures could coexist with Middle Density. [This designation] was dropped into the plan in May, and there was one day of public consideration after 18 months of work. The Planning Commission understood that it really detracts from the rest of the plan and removed it.”

A majority of the board, however, could not be dissuaded from their desire to impose greater development on Crozet. Supervisor Diantha McKeel said she was “really pleased” about the Middle Density suggestion for the Tabor block. “It’s walkable, it’s near the downtown area, it will allow people to get to their jobs, and [the developers] will be able to put in some sidewalks and other infrastructure for folks,” she said. In addition to the Tabor block, Middle Density is also proposed for two new developments on Rt. 240 between Wickham Pond and Music Today—Old Dominion Village (115 units) and White Gate Village (125 units).

The county recommends protections for the historic structures and trees in the Tabor Street block in the narrative of the land use plan, though not in an enforceable ordinance.

Supervisor Bea LaPisto-Kirtley asked if the houses on the Tabor properties were “really” historic or not, and suggested that historic status might be conferred to the homes sometime later because “it’s hard to develop later [after conditions have been imposed]; better to get it right up front.” She emphasized that “if property owners don’t want to develop, they wouldn’t have to, ever,” ignoring the very real potential for developers to buy up the parcels, bulldoze the land, and build at the by-right density without any protections in place for existing houses and trees.

As was the case in last April’s work session on the Master Plan, Chair Ned Gallaway chimed in at the end with an unsympathetic rebuke of Crozet citizen participation in the process. “I commend the staff, they had to contend with some unfair treatment [from citizens protesting Master Plan land use changes] that should be directed at this board and not at staff,” he said. “[Staff] were given direction on this Middle Density argument, and any comments directed at them were misguided and misdirected.” 

Gallaway also defended the move to impose Middle Density on the Tabor block during the very last land use planning meeting, 18 months into the process. “As far as things being ‘eleventh hour,’ at what point in anything we do is an idea to be precluded if it’s not there at the start?” he said. “This board has put in a lot of new things right at the last minute … it’s just the process. There are different viewpoints being represented on the board, and a new idea comes in and all of a sudden we’re being ‘heavy-handed’ and ‘dropping things in?’ That’s frustrating.” He stopped himself and said, “It’s probably best that I’m done now.”

Palmer tried once more before the vote to restate her objection to the density increase for Tabor. “As somebody who lives ten minutes from Crozet and who left it because of all the development, I do understand why the community wants more time,” she said. “I think that there’s a lot to be said for bringing the majority of the community along, and I hope that we will. So, if you’re not really familiar with and have walked that property, have walked through it many times, I would ask us all to just give the community the benefit of the doubt with that particular piece of property.”

County Planning Manager Rachel Falkenstein presents the Tabor Street block land use change to the Board of Supervisors during their October 20 meeting.

After the meeting, White Hall District Planning Commissioner Jennie More said she was surprised by the board’s decision to target the Tabor block. “In the beginning of this process, the planning staff had an idea for a new Downtown Neighborhood Overlay district, which would have contemplated a way to potentially offer some protections to downtown properties, and Tabor was included in that,” said More. “The overlay was, to me, a way that staff was responding to the community input that had told them, ‘We’re worried about these older neighborhoods being torn down and redeveloped.’”

The overlay idea was eventually discarded, which made the inclusion of the Tabor block as a candidate for Middle Density all the more perplexing to More. “It was like the staff were told to find somewhere else to put it, and [Tabor] makes no sense to me,” she said. “The message that sends to everyone who lives in those downtown neighborhoods is that it could have been any one of them. So, is that the fate of Crozet? It’s not really about how we infill and offer some protections when they turn around and basically triple the high end of what that property could be rezoned for.

“As far as the messaging to the community, it almost feels like someone’s playing games with a map and some monopoly houses and [the community’s participation] doesn’t matter,” she continued. “If [a developer] were to bring forward a plan, particularly with the four board members that are on there now, that dangled a few deeply affordable townhomes in front of them but it would mean tearing down the houses and trees, I have no reason to think that wouldn’t be approved. I don’t feel like we as a community were able to give really any input that was actually worked into this document.”

Email Lisa Martin at [email protected]

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