Montclair Stream Defenders Notch Victory

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A ditch from the corner of Rte. 240 runs into the contested stream near Western Ridge (photographed in March 2022). Photo: Malcolm Andrews.

After a steadfast and methodical campaign that began 11 months ago when Western Ridge neighbors asked simple questions about a visible waterway on a nearby property slated for development, county officials say the central question has been settled: it’s a stream. 

The county’s Community Development department announced in September that they had retained an outside consultant to make a “perennial flow determination” on two segments of a small stream flowing through parcels upon which the proposed Montclair development on Rt. 240 was sited. Department Director Jodie Filardo said the study would determine whether the stream was “perennial, intermittent, or ephemeral,” and that, in turn, would “drive buffer regulations for all stream segments.”

The consultant’s October report declared that both stream segments were found to be intermittent, which means they are subject to buffers under county rules. County Engineer Frank Pohl—who was involved in the 2021 removal of the stream from county maps and whose “conflict of interest” as a prior employee of Montclair’s developer necessitated the consultant hire—sent out a statement.

Albemarle County Community Development staff have redrawn the upper left quadrant of the now-official stream on county GIS maps. The dog-leg stream section is bounded by Rt. 240 above and Park Ridge Drive to the west.

“The determinations on both segments have been completed, and both segments were found to be intermittent,” said Pohl. “As the program administrator, I concur in this determination. As a result, the County GIS stream buffer mapping will be revised to reflect this new determination. Because this parcel is located within a water supply protection area, regulated land disturbances occurring on this parcel must provide for stream buffers in accordance with County Code §17-600 et seq.” The ordinance requires 100-foot buffers on either side of an intermittent stream in a water supply protection area.

The two adjacent land parcels proposed for the 157-unit Montclair development lie in the southeast corner of the Rt. 240 and Park Ridge Drive intersection and are owned by Samuel Craig of Craig Builders and the Adelaide Spainhour Trust. The newly required stream buffer will substantially impact the plan’s design as many of its units were within the buffered area. 

Considering the stream news, Montclair developer Vito Cetta described the project’s path forward.

“Our plan right now is to is to resubmit the [building] package and eliminate that portion of the site,” said Cetta. “So, we’re going to do a 77-unit project, just a portion of what we had before. Originally, we had 75 affordable units in there, but this time, we’ll have just 12 out of the 77 affordable, and probably Habitat for Humanity will build those. All those units in the northwest corner were mostly the smaller, affordable units, and now we can’t build them.”

At the same time, Cetta and Shimp Engineering will appeal the stream determination to the county, as allowed within 30 days of the decision. How the “judicial review” process of the appeal works, and who would make a final decision, were not clear in Pohl’s letter. “It’s a situation where your opinion, my opinion, and someone else’s opinion might be different about whether the water’s flowing there,” said Cetta. “It’s a very gray area.” If the stream determination flips back again upon appeal, then Cetta says he will reevaluate the now-excluded portion of the project. “That portion of land really has no value until the water issue gets resolved.”

Over the course of the quest to save the stream, Western Ridge neighbors joined with other concerned citizens to form a group called Crozet United, of which Eric Schmitz is the president. The organization now has hundreds of supporters, both from Crozet and other areas of Albemarle county. Schmitz says the group’s work is far from finished, and “the experience has publicly exposed weaknesses in the county’s policies, processes, and internal controls that are supposed to be the first line of defense for our natural resources.” 

“For instance,” he continued, “in terms of controls, how is one person [at the county] authorized to change our GIS maps without any documentation? How is it that our Water Protection Ordinance allows a developer to pipe [bury] a stream for the length of a football field, and the county can’t do anything about it? That’s not water protection.” 

After all of the effort, Schmitz hopes for a constructive outcome. “[Montclair] is an important first win but it’s nowhere close to the end of the game. We are now asking the Board of Supervisors to make a public commitment to work with a citizen-appointed committee to finally fix these policy problems by the end of June.” 

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