Albemarle Planning Commission pans multifamily development after focused opposition from neighborhood
Welcome to a somewhat irregular installment of Charlottesville Community Engagement that brings you a condensed version of a Planning Commission meeting where the full weight of a neighborhood was brought out to oppose a multifamily development next door.
I’m your host Sean Tubbs, and the intent of this episode is to document what happened. We’ll be back to the regular format next time, but when I first started doing podcasts in 2005, I wanted to capture conversations in the public realm. This one seemed important to spend time on.
On March 2, 2021, the Albemarle County Planning Commission was just moments away from recommending denial of a rezoning of nearly 20 acres of land on U.S. 29 to make way for 370 housing units.
The land is currently zoned for single-family residential and the county’s Comprehensive Plan designates future uses could have a residential density of between 6 and 36 units per acre. The proposal from RST development came in just under 20 units per acre.
At the end of the meeting, Attorney Valerie Long asked to defer a vote in order to give RST Development time to make adjustments after the Forest Lakes Community Association mounted a campaign to stop the development.
According to their November 2020 newsletter, a portion of a proposed increase in homeowners association fees for Forest Lakes residents was used to hire a consultant to conduct an “independent, professional review” of the proposal. Many of these materials are available on the FLCA website.
At the same time, Albemarle County is updating its affordable housing policy with a public hearing on the draft plan set for March 17 before the Board of Supervisors. Plans are one thing, but the actual ability for Albemarle to meet its housing goals depends on specific applications being approved.
Before we begin, let me let you know what you’re about to read or hear is an edited portion of the meeting. You can watch the whole thing on the county’s YouTube page. You can also take a look at the staff report on the county’s website. Staff had recommended denial of the project at this time.
What you won’t find in that staff report are new details about provisions and subsidies that would have kept the rental prices below market-rate. The federal definition of “affordable” is that rents would be no more than 30 percent of the occupants household income, based on a metric known as the Area Median Income (AMI).
On the day of the hearing, I asked attorney Valerie Long for more details about the affordability and got them.
“The Owner will commit to: at least 75% of the apartment units will be affordable to those making between 30% and 80% AMI, with an average of 60% AMI, for 30 years.
“The project proposes 254 apartment units. 75% of 254 apartments is 190 units
“In addition, it is our hope that the 108 for-sale townhouse units proposed will be affordable to those making 80% AMI.”
In her email, Long acknowledged staff had not yet received the material.
Now, let’s get to the tape from Tuesday night.
Following a brief staff report from planner Andy Reitelbach, an official with RST Development explained the intent was to provide housing to people with a wide range of incomes.
“The opportunities that we’re creating for ourselves with this wide range does provide for that opportunity with teachers and firefighters and first responders,” said Scott Copeland of RST Development.
Affordability came up several times during the two-hour public hearing, but the tenor of the discussion was set by a nearly 90 minute presentation where different representatives from the Forest Lakes Community took turns reading from a prepared script.
They were led by Scott Elliff, the treasurer of the Forest Lakes Community Association. In all, six out of seven of the FLCA’s Board of Directors would speak.
Elliff has previously led campaigns against interconnectivity with other neighborhoods. In 2016, the neighborhood was successful in preventing a trailhead from being built as part of the Brookhill neighborhood which was approved by the Board of Supervisors that November.
Elliff kicked off a long string of comments from Forest Lakes residents who all took turns reading from a slideshow supplied to the county in advance.
“We have a lot of ground to cover because there are so many issues regarding this proposal that we have,” Elliff said. “It’s deficient and unacceptable in numerous different areas and you’re going to see that in great detail.”
At first, the county struggled to display the presentation provided by the FLCA and a brief break was taken to address technical errors. Carolyn Shaffer runs the meetings for the county.
“Can you go ahead and get started on what you are talking about? All of the commissioners have seen…” Shaffer said.
“We’re all going to want to use the visuals that we created specifically for this, of course,“ Ellif said. “Many of our comments relate very specifically to the charts and analysis and examples that we’ve created just specifically for this tonight.”
The visual presentation was highly coordinated and stage managed by Elliff.
“In introducing each person, we have a page with their name on it so you don’t need to use the other name stuff,” Elliff said. “I set that up so you could just roll through this presentation, kind of fully contained.”
“I still have to do the three-minute timer,” Shaffer said.
“Of course, and our people all know that as well,” Elliff said.
Before we go further, let’s review the rules of procedure for the Planning Commission. Especially two lines which are worth noting here.
Each other person speaking on a matter shall be allowed one appearance not to exceed three minutes.
A speaker may not reserve any time for rebuttal or transfer any time to another speaker.
After several minutes of getting the presentation to be visible, the clock started.
Elliff was the first of 27 speakers who were part of the presentation. He was also the 7th and the 14th.
“Our HOA Board presidents will speak and you have a number of volunteer residents who are going to talk about very specific topics and have done a bunch of research,” Elliff said. “We’re going to have charts and analyses and examples and all kinds of things including a couple of areas where we actually contracted our HOA for outside professional support just for this meeting.”
Elliff said the FLCA acknowledges the parcel is in the county’s growth area, but that the current proposal was out of scale. He said the new affordability provisions had no effect on the FLCA’s opposition to the project. He spoke for nearly four minutes before Shaffer cut him off.
“This is going to create just a tremendous amount of traffic potentially between Brookhill and…”
“Because there are so many speakers I have to stop you,” Shaffer said.
“Yes, thank you, so, happy to go on,” Elliff said.
Speaker after speaker explained how they felt this development would hurt their community.
“The 350 additional new housing units at this time I think is simply too much and too soon,” said Mike Turbidy, a member of the FLCA Board of Directors.
“I would be looking at those big, quite frankly ugly buildings,” said Sheila Katz.
Katz read aloud from comments made from those who signed the petition against the development.
“Traffic is going to be backed up actually to my development. I don’t know how I’m going to get out in the morning. This is a poorly designed ugly and excessive development that benefits no one except for a handful of opportunists ignoring what is best for our special community.”
Helen Marie Field also read from other comments from the petition.
“I am very passionate about my opposition to this proposed development,” said Helen Marie Field. “I grew up in Northern Virginia specifically Vienna and I have watched the terrible over development over the years. After graduating from UVA, I stayed in Charlottesville specifically because of its charm and the character of Albemarle County but this is being threatened more and more each year.”
Cat Smith called the current proposal “heavy-handed and ham-fisted.”
“We used a balloon and raised it up to the height of the buildings as the developers have indicated they would be and you can just barely see it there on that slide on fullscreen but it is well above what is an 8-foot wide privacy fence which is directly behind some of the homes in Cricklewood Court,” said Cat Smith.
The next speaker was George Pearsall but he had difficulties being heard, so Scott Elliff was given the chance to take his turn to keep the slide presentation running on track.
“Scott, would you like to take George’s comments, since we can’t hear him?” Shaffer asked.
“Sure, I can do that,” Elliff said. “It’s just two pages.”
“Your time starts now,” Shaffer said.
“He’s the president of the HOA Ashland,” Elliff said. “George’s point primarily is that the scale of this just as Cat mentioned beforehand is overwhelming and huge compared to the one story residential townhouses that are in this area.”
Elena DeLisoe objected to the density and asked that the development include more open space.
“Green space is important for people’s physical and mental wellness,” DeLisoe said. “A less crowded environment results in a better community, reducing the potential for conflicts related to disputes over noise, parking spaces, traffic, snow removal, pets, and other situations created by packing more people into smaller areas.”
One of the consultants hired for the project is also a resident of Forest Lakes.
“FLCA hired us to do a visualization and analysis of the proposed development,” said Vlad Gavrilovic of EPR PC. “We were all also asked to do a professional assessment of the proposed plan and there are some concerns we found from the plan and where it deviated from what I call professional best practices.”
Gavrilovic said EPR PC rewrote the plans and found that a maximum of 200 units were all that would fit on the property.
“We think that’s a much more reasonable yield for the property using professional design standards,” Gavrilovic said.
Forest Lakes resident Alice Keys compared the proposal to the Places29 Master Plan.
“This proposed development may meet the density required in the Comprehensive and Places29 Master Plan, but it does not respect the scale and character of the existing surrounding neighborhood,” Keys said.
Lifelong Albemarle resident Paul Merrell said he was one of the first to move into Forest Lakes back in 1993.
“The proposed development is definitely not similar to this neighborhood or the livability,” Merrell said. “It is instead an example of urban sprawl not in character with the neighborhood that we have now.”
Merrell acknowledged that growth is going to occur. He said there were other locations for affordable housing in Albemarle and Charlottesville.
“It only really benefits the developers’ profit and outcomes from this development,” Merrell said.
Sue Friedman recently concluded ten years on the FLCA Board, and was just appointed to the Places29-North Community Advisory Committee. She raised concerns over equity. The development as proposed requires special exceptions, which are common in the land use application process.
“What is the trade-off in harming an existing development, Forest Lakes, versus giving a developer concessions?” Friedman asked. “What is the expense that we’re willing to have those who are already live here bear for this new development, particularly looking at the traffic and the aesthetics open scale? So in terms of how the county and the planning process addresses equity. Those who are here, we in Forest Lakes, do we deserve to be harmed? Do we deserve to have challenges and expenses to benefit a new development?”
The next scheduled speaker was not available, so Elliff was given another chance to read someone else’s remarks.
“Next we have, it was supposed to be Bob Jones but Scott is going to speak again because Bob was not able to make the meeting,” Shaffer said.
Elliff proceeded to speak about the traffic study the FLCA commissioned from EPR to challenge the traffic study RST had developed. He said the developer’s study did not factor in new development in the Brookhill community under construction to the south.
“We actually asked the developer to run an alternate scenario for us just so we could understand the potential and they frankly declined to do that specifically, so we spent our own good money to contract it,” Elliff said. “Same model, just some different inputs. Next slide please.”
At this point, Elliff is the 14th speaker reading from the same presentation. The 15th consecutive speaker is Jane Keathey, another member of the FLCA Board.
“I feel like this RST development as planned is a poor fit for the space at that intersection,” Keathley said. “There are too many planned units and it will not be able to be adequately accommodated by the local surroundings as we’ve been describing here this evening.”
“Could I have the first slide?” asked Paula Grazzini as she took her turn in the coordinated presentation. She said the Planning Commission needed to take into consideration the additional traffic that will come from the Brookhill development as units are occupied by new residents. Grazzini detailed the EPR traffic study.
“We feel that the majority of people living in those areas are going to choose Archer Avenue and Ashwood Boulevard as their morning rush hour route to reach 29 whether they’re going north or south,” Grazzini said.
Bill McLaughlin, the 18th speaker, is another new member of the Places29-North Community Advisory Committee and sits on the board of directors of the Hollymead Citizens Association. He also said the density of the proposed development raised health concerns.
“My concern is for the health of the people who will be living there in relation to the threat posed by airborne viruses similar to the one causing the current pandemic,” McLaughlin said. “As we are all well aware, the current pandemic has struck most heavily at essential workers who cannot work from home and often work closely with the public. And of course it is just these people who most often live in high-density housing.”
Deborah Bremmer was the 20th speaker named to speak in the powerpoint. We are now 70 minutes into the presentation.
“I’m concerned that if this development is approved that our overcrowded schools will become more overcrowded and our property values will be negatively affected,” Bremmer said.
Speaker 21 was Tamera Hammond, who said approving the development would be against the spirit of the recently adopted Climate Action Plan.
“One of the main themes of the Climate Action Plan is to protect our local natural environment,” Hammond said. “It also states that the plan is as much about the kind of place we want to live in here in Albemarle County as it is about reducing the community’s contributions to greenhouse gas emissions.”
Dick Billings is another member of the FLCA Board and as the 22nd consecutive speaker, he showed a topographic overview of the property.
“This represents first of all the highest ground in the local area so every bit of rainfall that hits this development has to run off to somewhere,” Billings said.
Billings reminded the Planning Commission that the development of the Hollymead Town Center in the 2000’s resulted in stormwater that carried dirt and sediment into Lake Hollymead.
“We don’t want to see that again,” Billings said. “What we would like to see is any plan going forward have a requirement for 100 percent remediation of any damage to the local area.”
Gail Hayes does not live in the development, but her parents do. We’re now at 80 minutes into the presentation.
“You’ll hear me echo some of what Vlad Gavrilovic, Tamera Hammond and Dick Billings said,” Hayes said. “The bottom line up front is that I believe the plan is not acceptable as it has been presented and should not be moved forward until substantial changes have been made.”
The 24th speaker, Todd McGee, is a realtor who also sits on the FLCA Board.
“Unfortunately this project would have a negative impact on the value of the homes that border the site,” McGee said. “The proposed development will have a negative impact on the value of any home that is directly adjacent to the site.”
The 25th speaker was Donna Cameron who along with her husband chose Forest Lakes because of its amenities.
“I’m here to address the intangible and unmeasurable human impact that this proposed development has upon the Forest Lakes residents,” Cameron said. “We knew that the area behind us was zoned residential and would someday be developed but we trusted in the integrity of the 29 Master Plan. We never dreamed that waivers, special exclusions, or expanded stepbacks would create austere, concrete high-rises that would breach our privacy, invade the dark skies, and potentially cause run off flooding.”
The 26th speaker is Paul Moruza, the president of the Hollymead HOA. He said his neighborhood would also be affected by the development.
“We are really all part of one community,” Moruza said. “I would like to represent our Hollymead neighbors to you. We are 468 families and individual residents. We have single-family homes, condos, and townhomes. Hollymead is the older brother of the developments in the Forest Lakes.”
Moruza gave this description of the development.
“It is a very block Soviet-style construction which will be seen from all over,” Moruza said.
The final speaker on the unified presentation was Jimmy Baranik, the current president of the Forest Lakes Community Association.
“For those of you who don’t know, Forest Lakes is the largest homeowners’ association in Albemarle County, 1,500 homes and about 5,000 residents and as Paul mentioned previously, we are one big happy neighborhood.”
Baranik thanked the other speakers who had spoken as well as the hundreds who signed a petition against the development. In all, the total presentation took nearly an hour and a half.
The public hearing was not over. Crystal Passmore is a city resident who wanted to weigh in.
“My comment today is just that I would like people to have homes,” Passmore said. “I want people to have affordable homes. I want people to live in the town where they work. I don’t want people to have to commute from Ruckersville if they work in Charlottesville or if they work in downtown Albemarle. I don’t know anything about viewsheds or intrusive lighting. I just want people to have homes they can afford.”
Passmore said the voices of those who would one day live in the development could not be heard under this arrangement.
“Everyone who has spoken before me has convinced me that this is a lovely place to live,” Passmore said. “I would love it if you guys would allow more people to live here.”
A few more city residents spoke in favor of the project, including Josh Carp. He questioned the notion that the new development would hurt property values.
“I think it’s more important that people have affordable housing then that property values continue to go up,” Carp said. “These houses in the neighborhood are worth half a million dollars plus. If you want to deny affordable housing to maximize property values for people who have that much money, maybe you can come to my kids’ daycare and explain to the teachers why they can’t live in the area.”
Many opponents of the project cited the county’s Comprehensive Plan. City resident Rory Stolzenberg read other portions.
“First, land use objective 5 - promote density within the development area to help create new compact urban places,” Stolzenberg said. “Encourage developers to build at the higher end of the density range on greenfield sites provided that development will be in keeping with design guidelines in the Neighborhood Model. Encourage developers to build within the density range recommended in the master plan on infill sites. Ensure that housing is available to all populations.”
City resident Matt Gillikin called attention to the organized opposition from Forest Lakes residents.
“It’s really remarkable to see how consistently affluent neighborhoods in the county gather their resources together to fight against housing for people who don’t have the resources that they have,” Gillkin said.
After those four spoke, another previous speaker had a second chance to speak, in violation of the Rules of Procedure which Chair Julian Bivins corrected.
“Hello, my name is Jimmy Baranik, I spoke earlier,” Baranik said. “I just want to point out that we are not opposed to underfunding anybody, we’re not opposed to having people who can’t afford wages in our neighborhood. We are opposed to the buildings. That’s what we said. The building environment. We just need to overhaul the plan. I want to make sure everyone is crystal clear on that.”
Jason Inofuentes, a former member of the Pantops Community Advisory Committee, spoke in favor of the project.
“Affordable housing is an imperative that cannot be set aside for the interest of a select few homeowners,” Inofuentes said. “The development would represent an incredible value across 30 years to those who aren’t in the position to buy a well-manicured lawn on a quarter-acre lot.”
That was the end of the public hearing. You can watch the whole thing here.
Deliberation and deferral
After a brief recess, Valerie Long had five minutes to respond according to the Rules of Procedure.
“Obviously we cannot in five minutes rebut all of the comments that were made tonight so first let me say that we have very clear responses and rebuttals to absolutely every single point that was made in opposition,” Long said.
Long sought to address concerns about the traffic input, the visibility of the buildings from existing neighborhoods, and claims of full clear-cutting.
“So the images that you saw from the criticisms of the project are entirely inaccurate,” Long said.
After more explanations, Shaffer informed Long she was over time.
Next, the Planning Commissioners had the chance to discuss a matter.
Commissioner Jennie More went first as she prepared to ask a question.
“I just want to be clear that I want to figure out a way to get to yes,” More said.
More asked another question about the view from the development. She wanted to see a slide that Long had shown during rebuttal.
“I guess there’s a more generous area there than I had imagined and seeing that slide from her helped me understand the possibilities with buffering that could happen there,” More said.
However, the slide was not shown and Long was not offered a chance to respond. During a series of questions from commissioners about the affordability component of the project, staff responded about county policy. At one point, Scott Copeland with RST sought to make a clarifying point.
“Mr. Chairman, can I address the question about the affordability?” Copeland asked.
“No thank you,” Bivins said. “Not right now, thank you very much.”
The planner for the project, Andy Reitelbach, was invited to respond.
“Regarding the new proposal that Ms. Long presented this evening, that hasn’t been submitted to staff yet so I really can’t say on the 75 percent that I believe she mentioned, what those numbers are,” Reitelbach said. “I haven’t seen any plan or anything like that so I don’t know if Ms. Long may be able to expand on that more.”
Long wasn’t given the chance to respond.
The University’s non-voting representative on the Planning Commission, Luis Carrazana, wanted to know more about how stormwater would be treated on the property.
“I don’t remember seeing a [topographical map] in the application, but we did see one from the residents,” Carrazana said.
“There [are] at least conceptual stormwater management facilities up here in the northeast corner of the site,” Reitelbach said. “I know our county engineer has reviewed at least the conceptual grading and stormwater management and had no objections but stormwater is something that would have to be addressed at the site plan stage and would have to meet all of the state requirements.”
Commissioner Karen Firehock said she had hoped for a more innovative proposal that went further to mitigate stormwater by allowing more open space.
“I am very supportive of the need for affordable housing in our community,” Firehock said. “I am really disappointed at the notion that means we have to sacrifice green space and adequate recreational areas.”
Firehock said she was inclined to recommend denial, but also reminded everyone watching that the Planning Commission’s vote is advisory.
“And the developer would certainly have ample opportunity to amend their application,” Firehock said. “Whether we end up voting for or against it.”
Commissioner Corey Clayborne was concerned about one aspect of infrastructure he thought was lacking in the proposal.
“I was a little concerned I didn’t hear about public transit and this notion to work with the county,” Clayborne said. “If we’re going to have all of these affordable housing units, there’s no public transit there. Do we just leave it alone, or do we just turn a blind eye to it?”
To step out of the meeting for a second, in the current fiscal year, Albemarle County is contributing $87,500 toward creation of a regional transit vision, as well as $53,107 toward a “feasibility study and implementation plan for expanded transit service to population and employment centers within Albemarle County.”
Last week, members of the Regional Transit Partnership were told by TJPDC staffer Jessica Hersh-Ballering that the goal of the study was to inform a second grant application to pay for funding of an actual project.
This information was not conveyed to the Planning Commission at the time.
Commissioner Rick Randolph represented the Scottsville District on the Board of Supervisors from 2016 to 2019. He compared the proposed project to an infamous public housing project in Chicago.
“Twenty years from now, what will this development look like?” Randolph asked. “Will it be like another project like Cabrini Green in Chicago?”
Randolph said the project would supply affordable housing, but fell short on one intangible metric.
“They didn’t satisfy the need of a community to have a soul, and therein lies my concern,” Randolph said. “I can’t find a soul to this project.”
Randolph also said the residents would need to be responsible for covering the cost of maintain certain services and he was skeptical they could do so.
“There needs to be clarity how residents can afford to maintain the roads within this community, plow them when it snows, and to cover the annual cost through their HOA fees for pool and exercise facilities when now 75 percent of the units are going to be affordable housing? Where does the money come from? These are not inexpensive?”
More said she was frustrated that details about the affordability for the units were not made available.
“When you bring us brand new information especially when it’s really important information that is a change of substance the night of the Planning Commission, I think it’s something that’s great to add to the conversation but it leaves staff not able to respond because he hasn’t had that submitted, and it leaves us with questions about something I think is key and important.”
The public hearing last over two hours, with the Forest Lakes Community Association getting almost 90 minutes of consecutive time.
“The level of public comment, which is great, also does tend to wear us down a little bit so then maybe we aren’t asking the great questions we could ask,” More said. “We have staff here that could answer stuff about traffic and these types of things and I think that’s too bad because as I said before I’d like to figure out how to get to yes.”
After More’s comment, Bivins asked Commissioners what they wanted to do. Commissioner Corey Clayborne responded.
“I move to recommend denial of ZMA202000007-RST Residences for the reasons stated in the staff report and the reasons stated within the conversation that we’ve had amongst the Commission,” Clayborne said.
At this point in a regular in-person meeting, the applicant’s representative might stand to request a deferral. A vote by the Planning Commission to recommend denial doesn’t kill a project, but Supervisors often follow the lead of the advisory body.
Let’s hear what happens next.
“Obviously there’s been a lot of comments made,” Long said. “I will reiterate we are prepared to address all of those if asked but if that is not the preference of the Commission tonight, we would be more than happy to take the comments that we’ve received tonight and go back and amend our plans and certainly update the affordable housing, work on the precise location of the transit, and…”
“I thought you were asking about something else, but that’s not what we’re doing here,” Bivins said.
“I’m sorry?” Long said.
“So, you’re asking about you will take whatever we decide and go forward,” Bivins said. “I thought you might be asking for a different kind of situation.”
“No, in fact Mr. Chairman, I think we would like to ask for a deferral at this point so that we can take the comments that we’ve received and see if we can do our best to address those so that we could come back to with you an application that could gain your support and recommendations,” Long said.
After a few minutes of parliamentary procedure, the motion to defer was adopted unanimously.
Commissioners had some parting comments.
“I do think that this development can be fixed in terms of the things that we have recommended,” Firehock said. “I just think that we need a much more quality development with more green space, more attention to fitting in with the character of the neighborhood, public transportation.”
“You’ve heard the thoughts and the cares of the Planning Commission, and I think I can say that each of us wants this to be a successful project but many of us felt that we were not provided with enough information for us to fall directly in the most positive way of supporting the project,” Bivins said.
Shortly after publication, I received this response from Emily Kilroy, the county’s director of communications and public engagement:
The Board of Supervisors has as part of their adopted procedures the following regarding visual/audio presentations: “The speaker may include a visual or audio presentation, provided that the presentation is received by the Clerk at least 48 hours before the Matters from the Public session at which the speaker plans to speak.” You can find this online here: https://www.albemarle.org/government/board-of-supervisors/public-meeting-participation-guide (FAQ for What are the speaking rules for Matters not Listed for Public Hearing?) Prior to the Planning Commission Public Hearing for this application, the Forest Lakes HOA contacted the Planning Division to request to provide a Powerpoint and this was submitted in advance.
The County Attorney’s Office did review the request to provide a list of speakers and a presentation that each speaker would speak to a part of and found it was consistent with practice. For in-person meetings, a speaker could upload a Powerpoint or other visual up at the podium and use that during their 3-minutes. Understanding that every speaker could do that individually, and knowing the transition time that takes when that action is taken individually, a combined presentation was deemed permissible.
Allowing an individual to speak multiple times was a procedural error and has been addressed.