“Gratified” was how a Forest Lakes Community Association Board member described neighbors’ feelings after a proposal for a townhouse and apartment development on U.S. 29 was deferred last week.
“The objective was to send the developer back to the drawing board to start over, since there were so many deficiencies in the proposal, and that was accomplished,” said association board member Scott Elliff in an interview.
Elliff and other residents of one of the largest developments ever proposed for Albemarle County spoke out against a rezoning request for a property at the intersection of U.S. 29 and Ashwood Boulevard at Tuesday’s Planning Commission meeting. The proposal was for about 254 apartments and 108 townhouses on the 19.5-acre site, with at least about 190 of those apartments being affordable.
The months-long effort of neighbors against the project culminated at the meeting where 25 residents of Forest Lakes, Hollymead and Ashland spoke out against the proposal in a coordinated presentation — one of the more organized campaigns to oppose a housing proposal in recent years in Albemarle.
“Their proposal for affordable housing is laudable, as we said, but our analysis has not really changed whether the houses are affordable or not affordable, or gold-plated or anything,” Elliff said. “The matter is traffic and green space, and schools, the environment and everything else. That doesn’t matter who’s in the unit. It matters how many units and how it’s designed.”
But Scott Copeland, with RST Development, said they’re not giving up yet.
“We’re not throwing in the towel,” he said after the meeting. “We’re still trying to figure things out.”
The Forest Lakes Community Association raised its dues for 2021 about 3% in part for “engaging a local consulting firm to provide an independent, professional review” of the RST proposal, “relating to traffic levels, requested waivers of county regulations and community design alternatives,” according to a neighborhood newsletter.
Elliff declined to provide how much was spent on the studies.
“I think that the point is that the association felt strongly enough about it to spend its money, its homeowner dues money, to get the expertise that we needed to make sure that we could see what the potential impacts would be, and be able to react to them in a professional way,” he said.
During public comment last week, residents in and around Forest Lakes and Hollymead took turns speaking out against the development.
The residents showed a rendering from local planning firm EPR, which was hired by Forest Lakes to analyze the proposal, including what it would look like from Ashwood Boulevard.
“The bottom line is it’s ugly, there are no trees, there’s no berm, there’s no welcoming feeling to coming home, because everybody who lives in Forest Lakes is going to have to pass that,” said Forest Lakes resident Sheila Katz, who read from comments on a petition during the public hearing. “There’s no way to ignore it.”
But Copeland said RST would not be removing the berm along Ashwood or the trees on it.
“They created a rendering without any trees, without anything around it to create a point, and it wasn’t factual,” he said. “… When our counsel put up the stark difference between our image of actual trees there currently in [Virginia Department of Transportation] right-of-way — that we cannot knock down, it’s not our land — versus what they put up, it’s a jarring difference. That to me was perhaps, in hindsight, the most frustrating part of the evening.”
In a staff report, county staffers said they were “unable to recommend approval” of the proposal.
In Albemarle’s Places29 Master Plan, which is part of the county’s Comprehensive Plan, most of the property is shown on the future land use map as urban density residential, which recommends density of between six and 34 units per acre. The Comprehensive Plan includes a policy to focus development into the county’s designated growth areas, while maintaining the rest as rural areas. That results in about 95% of Albemarle kept as mostly rural land, leaving about 5% of the county for growth.
The proposal from RST has a net density of 19.89 units per acre, and a gross density of 18.97 units per acre, fitting in the Master Plan recommendations.
Some of the things residents complained about are allowed by county standards, such as the creation of private streets that is in the proposal. Even though public streets are preferred in the development areas, private streets are permitted for developments that consist of all multi-family or attached units, as is proposed with this project.
But the proposal did ask for one special exception for stepbacks, as the county requires a minimum stepback of 15 feet for each story above the third story.
Sue Friedman, who lives in Forest Lakes, questioned how the county and the planning process address equity.
“What is the tradeoff in harming an existing development, Forest Lakes, versus giving a developer concessions, and what is the expense that we’re willing to have those who already live here bear for this new development, particularly looking at traffic and the aesthetics, scope and scale?” she asked.
Most commissioners last week said they wanted more open space and a transit stop, while others had more specific requests around buffers, stormwater and schools.
In an interview after Tuesday’s meeting, Planning Commission Chairman Julian Bivins said he felt the documentation that the commission was given ahead of the meeting still had a lot of unknowns, but that he could support it with some modifications.
“Did I like the project? I liked a whole bunch of the project,” he said. “Was I surprised by all of a sudden getting 30 years plus additional affordable units? Well, I have to say I was surprised. I was pleasantly surprised, but I was surprised.”
In the application, 50% of the units, or about 181 units, were proposed as affordable to those making 80% of area median income. Current household AMI for the area is $93,900, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
At the Planning Commission meeting, Valerie Long, an attorney with Williams-Mullen who is representing RST Development, said 75% of all of the apartments, or about 190 units, would be affordable in the 30% to 80% of AMI range for 30 years.
Currently, the income limit at 80% AMI for an individual is $52,600. Albemarle public school teachers make that much money after 10 years of teaching experience, while police officers and firefighters need 13 years of experience, according to 2020-21 county pay scales.
The county has been working to update its housing policy, a draft of which includes changing the definitions of affordable housing and workforce housing.
Forest Lakes residents have pushed back on prior development around them and additional road connections to the area, including a connection from Brookhill to Ashwood Boulevard, which ultimately was approved.
And in the last two years, other residents of mostly single-family developments have come out against nearby denser development, particularly in the county’s urban ring that surrounds Charlottesville.
A Virginia Beach developer ended up deferring a proposal, called Parkway Place, for up to 328 apartments on a 27-acre site at the intersection of the John W. Warner Parkway and Rio Road after the Board of Supervisors was close to a tie vote, which would have killed the proposal.
The developer made revisions after feedback from Dunlora residents, and the Planning Commission supported it, but supervisors cited traffic concerns with the proposal. Later, Supervisor Donna Price said she regretted that she was going to vote against it.
That property sold in January to Rio Point LLC for $7.5 million, according to county records.
South of the city, along Old Lynchburg Road, Habitat for Humanity of Greater Charlottesville is redeveloping the Southwood Mobile Home Park into a 700- to 800-unit mixed-income, mixed-use development. Planning for the project has been led by residents, and the goal is to not displace any of the current residents.
At the time of the Southwood project’s first rezoning, residents in nearby Mosby Mountain and their community association spoke out and wrote emails to planning commissioners asking them to reject or reconsider the proposal, citing plans to sell some of the parcels to for-profit developers, proposed four-story buildings and traffic concerns.
Ultimately, the rezoning was approved. The first phase of the redevelopment is under way, and other rezonings for more of the property will be needed in the future.
Bivins said new projects have a “different expectation” for them to blend in with neighboring properties.
“I think now we’re at this point, particularly if the county holds to the 95/5% mantra that our county leaders have held to, that’s going to mean everything that comes in is really going to have to think about what their edges look like … because I can tell you from what I’ve experienced, Albemarle County doesn’t seem to do getting comfortable with things that are disparate.”
With “fewer and fewer open pieces of land” in the development area, Bivins pointed to a place that the county already wants to target for redevelopment, and where some have said new development should occur before empty land is developed — the area around Rio Road and U.S. 29.
“That’s the one place where I think we might be able to shape or rethink how our design focus and how our community focus will go forward, because right now, it’s still very much what I would call single-family detached homes, and you might have a few side-by-side townhouses here, but we seem to struggle with any height,” he said.
The Board of Supervisors approved a small area plan around the 29-Rio intersection in 2018 and the county is nearing completion of an optional form-based code for the area.
Bivins said that he, as a community member and not in his capacity as a planning commissioner, thinks that the county will need to partner in that development.
“I think the county needs to come in there and say, ‘We’re going to be a partner, and put something big to us there,’” he said. “I don’t know what that is — the supervisors have a better idea about that.”
At its March 17 meeting, the Board of Supervisors is scheduled to hold public hearings on the form-based code and amendments to the housing policy section of the county’s Comprehensive Plan.