Montclair Aims for High Density Development

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Rendering of a proposed multi-dwelling unit building at Montclair. Courtesy the developer.

The Crozet Community Advisory Committee (CCAC) heard plans at its January 12 meeting for a proposed development called Montclair (formerly White Gate Farm) to be situated on the south side of Rt. 240 immediately west of Wickham Pond. Two parcels totaling 17.5 acres will host a maximum of 157 units plus 16,500 square feet of commercial space and 3.5 acres of green space.

Currently zoned as a combination of Rural Area, which allows only 0.5 units per acre, and Light Industrial, the developer’s request to rezone the property as a Neighborhood Model district will be the first to take advantage of several increased density recommendations made by county planners and resisted by many CCAC members and Crozet residents during the lengthy Master Plan update process. The county’s new Middle Density (6-12 units/acre) is recommended in the plan for the majority of the property.

Applicant Vito Cetta of Weather Hill Homes, a developer who also worked on Wickham Pond, described the planned development as a mix of high-end and affordable housing. “We will have villas—big, single-family homes that are two to three stories in the $725,000 range, and townhouses that are 22-feet wide and 40 feet long, priced at $425,000 to $550,000,” said Cetta. “We can get bonus density [up to 18 units/acre] for affordable units, and we’re definitely taking care of that.”

An artist’s rendering of the planned Montclair development on Rt. 240, which proposes 157 residences on 14 acres. Courtesy the developer.

Cetta said that Habitat for Humanity will build 9 to 12 of the units and that his plans call for additional “bungalows or cottages” that will be considered affordable as well by the county’s definition of “80% of median income, or about $247,000.” As an example, he described a large, 12-unit building that will contain 1,700 square foot townhouses that sit above 430 square foot walk-out efficiency apartments, the latter being the affordable units. Cetta said that the smaller units will likely remain affordable in the future simply because they’ll not be able to rent for much more due to their small size.

The developer also proposed a mixed-use commercial space for the southwest corner of the property that might attract restaurants, services, or light retail, and he noted that the existing daycare center is planning an expansion in the same area. The artist’s rendering of Montclair also featured two parks and a playground with a basketball court, plus a large preserved area of stream buffer around a stream in the southeast quadrant of the area that will have a walking trail. Cetta noted that there will be three points of entry to the neighborhood—north from Rt. 240, west from Park Ridge Drive, and east from Wickham Way.

Several neighbors from Western Ridge and Wickham Pond raised concerns during the meeting about the additional traffic and school impacts of the influx of new houses, as well as the potential traffic flow through Wickham Pond of residents from other neighborhoods cutting through to avoid backups at the Park Ridge Drive intersection with Rt. 240. 

“Have there been roadway studies or engineering/environmental studies about the effects of this project?” asked CCAC member Marc McKenney. “With the potential of packing in upwards of 314 more vehicles on top of all the other residents we already have, I just see a train wreck waiting to happen. Where will these kids go to school?” McKenney also brought up concerns about the environmental effects of the need to fill in steep slopes on the west side. “Just because you can [build] to this extent, doesn’t mean you have to.”

The two parcels that make up the planned Montclair development are situated on Rt. 240, directly west of Wickham Pond and north of Western Ridge.

Twenty-four-year Western Ridge resident Kimberly Gale agreed with the latter sentiment. “I would say, with all the respect I can muster, that this neighborhood plan reminds me of the row houses that my Italian immigrant grandparents moved into in south Philly when I was young,” she said. “The level of packing people in is something that is mind boggling to me, and I teach young children and I see how they play. If this is not overcrowded housing, then what would be?”

One Western Ridge resident came to the meeting armed with several slides that documented the significant research he had done to frame his question. Eric Schmitz wondered about the truncated stream which appears to begin in the center of the property and run to the southeast, and he began digging into older county maps to find out whether there still is a northern part of that stream flowing across the property. He asserted at the meeting that there is, and he contended that the proposed design violates county ordinances regarding stream buffers and crossings by building across that stream.

As part of his evidence, Schmitz pointed to a conservation map in the recently completed Crozet Master Plan that clearly depicts a much longer stream running from above Rt. 240 diagonally through the parcels. He also pulled the plats on the property, all of which show a stream that was disrupted by the building of Park Ridge Drive but that still runs up to Rt. 240 and connects to the Lickinghole Basin. 

Schmitz recently walked the stream and took photos of water flowing, which he displayed at the meeting. He requested that the stream be put in the plan along with its required 100-foot buffer. “I would just ask what are the developer’s plans for that part of the stream?” said Schmitz.

Cetta replied, “You do realize that every single department of the county has reviewed this and they have given us the boundaries of the disturbed area and our plans are consistent with that. Frank Pohl, the county engineer, is the one who told us what to do.”

County planner Rachel Falkenstein jumped in to say that the conservation map in the Master Plan is mistaken, and that stream should not have been recognized. “The county engineer and the Army Corps of Engineers went out and assessed the stream in September and determined that that portion of the stream should be taken off the land use map, and we missed correcting the conservation map,” she said.

CCAC Chair Allie Pesch expressed dismay at the error in the newly minted and vigorously debated Crozet Master Plan. “That is so upsetting,” she said. “I feel like we should do a thorough study of this conservation map to figure out what else is misleading. Eric took pictures of it and it looks like a stream to me, but we’re being told that now that there’s a proposal, they’ve looked at it again and you’re allowed to build all over it. We worked so hard for two years and this is how we find out that it’s wrong? It’s too bad that this is what the community gets sold in the plan and then this is what actually happens.”

The Stream Buffers map from the conservation chapter of the October 2021 Crozet Master Plan shows a stream buffer continuing across the parcel all the way to Route 240.

Justin Shimp, the project’s engineer, tried to clarify the stream’s classification. “The stream buffers are not actually [legally] created by the Comprehensive Plan maps, but [instead] a stream buffer is lawfully created by the stormwater ordinance when a land disturbance occurs, when there’s activity on the ground,” he said. “So, conditions on the ground can change based on current evaluations, groundwater can have dried up and there’s no longer a stream.”

Shimp explained that just because one can see water on the ground in photos now, that does not necessarily mean it’s a stream. “The assessment takes into account historical signs of what it actually is, and there have been cases where there’s no stream and we go out and assess and find one, which then is required to have a buffer,” he said. “There is a confirmed ‘non-stream’ on this location, and that’s why the county staff updated their [land use] map as they did.”

The meeting concluded without clarity on the issue, which, if a viable stream does exist on the northwest part of the parcel, could significantly disrupt the planned development. For his part, Schmitz plans to continue to research county stream policy and the associated processes that are intended to protect Virginia waterways to ensure they are applied correctly in this and other cases. 

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