Residents of several neighborhoods adjacent to the proposed Oak Bluff development site packed the Crozet Library meeting room at the April 12 gathering of the Crozet Community Advisory Committee (CCAC) to hear Riverbend representatives describe the project and to ask pointed questions about affordable housing requirements, environmental impacts, road and traffic management, and other issues. Oak Bluff has been proposed for 33 acres situated between Rt. 250 and the Westlake neighborhood, to include 134 units in a mix of housing styles on five parcels spanning Lickinghole Creek.
The applicant is Riverbend Development, which has submitted a zoning amendment request to the county to upzone the parcels from their current R-1 (one unit per acre) status to Planned Residential Development, which allows a maximum building height of four stories (up to 65 feet tall) and much greater housing density. One key element of the Oak Bluff plan is that it will rely on the long-awaited Eastern Avenue Connector to handle the predicted 1,100 additional car trips per day the development will generate. During the subsequent open comment period, the consensus among meeting attendees was that the homes should not be built before the connector is complete.
“This [application] is a real deviation from the density and character of our neighborhood,” said Westlake resident Bill O’Malley during a five-minute presentation outlining neighbors’ concerns and recommendations. “The Eastern Avenue Connector is not part of this development project [it is a county/state joint expenditure], and when you say five years to complete it, I’d like to understand how that’s going to line up with the [housing] construction.”
Nearly 80 people attended the meeting at the Crozet Library, and the crowd was animated and vocal, clapping in agreement with speakers. CCAC Chair Joe Fore stood behind his chair for the duration of the discussion period, managing questions from attendees on behalf of Riverbend Vice President Ashley Davies. Although library staff typically encourage CCAC members to wrap up meetings by 8:45 p.m. ahead of the building’s 9 p.m. closing time, Fore began closing down discussion at 8:25 p.m., ignoring several raised hands and shouting a motion to adjourn over the voices of residents who were still calling out questions.
A few days later on April 18, O’Malley, representing Westlake residents, sent a letter regarding right-of-way assumptions and community boundaries surrounding the Oak Bluff property to Kevin McCollum, the county’s senior planner in charge of the rezoning request. “The proposed development is incompatible with, and will detract from, the character of the surrounding neighborhoods,” read the letter. “Riverbend is proposing some structures that are as high as 65-feet tall, and while we support different types of neighborhoods in Crozet, we believe that different neighborhoods should be distinct and separate from each other to make sure there is a distinct neighborhood model.”
Fore took to Twitter later the same day, questioning the residents’ definition of “character” and calling their objections “dubious.” He cast aspersions on O’Malley’s “distinct and separate” sentence (above) by calling it a “line that says the quiet part out loud,”—an expression residents interpreted as Fore questioning their motives.
Fellow CCAC member Michael Monaco, who had said during the April meeting that he was “very sympatico” with the Oak Bluff site plan, went further on Twitter the following day. He posted data on the difference in home prices between less and more dense housing developments, pointing out that “white households have a far higher net worth than other demographics” while criticizing Westlake residents’ stated concerns.
“All this is to say: preserving the ‘character’ of R1 zoning is preserving a majority-white, majority-wealthy, majority- over-55 demographic,” Monaco tweeted. “Period. It just is. It entrenches generational wealth and locks young families out of the housing market. What neighborhood character does that preserve? It takes a certain galling arrogance, frankly, to move into a home and pull up the ladder behind you.”
These comments offended some Westlake residents, and a flyer was circulated at the May CCAC meeting that reproduced Fore and Monaco’s tweets, clarified what the residents meant by “character,” and asked the question, “Does this sound like the board that has your best interest at heart?” Attendee Sameer Handa, who made the flyer, said he was upset by the committee’s “blasé attitude” about their concerns. “This board used very racially divisive language to further its agenda,” he said. “This was not a racial issue—it was a human issue.”
Monaco was absent from the meeting but Fore said, “If I’ve offended someone I apologize, my comments were issued in my personal capacity.”
“I’m not talking about your official capacity,” countered Handa, “I’m questioning your personal judgement that you would question our character as a community.”
Westlake resident Minsu Kim offered Fore some advice. “Before you make a statement like that publicly, it would behoove you to get to know us better,” said Kim. “Then you would understand how blatantly offensive Oak Bluff is to the character of Westlake, and it would help you to understand the concerns of the residents who live there. [Your and Michael’s comments] lead me to question what you guys stand for and whether you are really standing up for the people who are part of this community. I almost feel like you are parroting for the developers and builders.”
Fore said the committee’s charge is to provide assistance and feedback related to the adopted Master Plan and to ensure that development happens according to the plan, and he moved on with the agenda. Later in the meeting he said, “I think it’s critical that the CCAC provides a forum for people to come together and get information and provide input to learn and to share,” but he emphasized that everyone on the CCAC is “just a citizen” and that the committee doesn’t “approve or deny things” and it “takes no votes.”
Attendee and former CCAC member Tom Loach disagreed. “That’s not true, the CCAC has taken many positions in the past, and has drawn up position papers, and the Chair of the CCAC has gone to [and spoken at] the Board of Supervisors meetings,” said Loach. “If what the CCAC is boiling down to is [a meeting] where the members sit around and the developers come in and present and that’s it, then I’m not sure what purpose that serves. It used to be that the CCAC would convey the feeling and position of the community” to the county. “I think members of the community that are here now deserve to hear from the CCAC members as to whether they agree with what’s been said on those positions.”
Fore offered to take a vote, stressing again that a vote wouldn’t carry any weight. Attendee Kimberly Gale asked whether committee members convey their own opinions to the county or those of the community, especially if they have professional ties to developers. CCAC member Valerie Long said, “I don’t convey my opinion on these issues at all—part of our charge is to host a meeting … and to ask questions of the representatives.”
“To us, it seems like an incredible conflict of interest,” said Gale, “for the vice chair of the CCAC to [also] be the attorney representing the main developer who has single-handedly disrupted our community.” Gale was referring to Long herself, who had just been nominated to the vice chair role. Long is an attorney with Williams Mullen who has represented Vito Cetta of Weather Hill Homes, a developer involved in both the Montclair and Oak Bluff proposed developments. Gale’s remark was met with sustained applause from attendees.
Fore interrupted the exchange by saying, “We’re getting far afield from where we’re supposed to be. I’m not going to have people come in here and accuse members of racism and conflicts of interest.” The crowd shouted back that it was actually members of the CCAC that were accusing the community of racism. Fore again adjourned the meeting before 8:30.
Planner Kevin McCollum said after the May meeting that “the Applicant [Riverbend Development] requested a 12-month deferral on 5/3/2023 by email to work on revisions to the application. They will be able to resubmit at any time following our ZMA resubmittal schedule, but they have up to 5/3/2024 to do so.”
A second community meeting with the developers of Oak Bluff is scheduled for June 8 at 7 p.m. at Brownsville Elementary School.