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'Mission creep': Charlottesville Board of Architectural Review under fire

Questions have been raised about the Charlottesville Board of Architectural Review after City Council overturned a pair of its recent decisions.

But Mayor Lloyd Snook says the nine-member body still has his support – within reason.

“I know there are a lot of folks out there who think the BAR has been getting in the way of progress,” Snook told The Daily Progress. “But I don’t see it as an existential crisis.”

However, at the most recent City Council meeting fellow Council Member Michael Payne suggested otherwise.

“I think it’s going to take a long time to repair that reputational damage,” Payne said on Monday after the council overturned a BAR decision that would have prevented a downtown church from installing solar panels.

Facing an onslaught of allegations that the BAR was stuck in the past, the city’s preservation planner Jeff Werner pushed back, showing that the BAR had approved all 15 prior requests for solar panels. Werner pointed to the removal of a swath of slate as the most recent sticking point.

“Obscuring and damaging the slate conflicts with the BAR’s guidelines,” Werner told the council, “and the proposed installation does not comply with the secretary of the Interior’s standards.”

But the fact that the solar panels at First United Methodist Church on East Jefferson Street would be practically invisible from the ground seemed to win the day. The council voted 4-0 to overrule the BAR and allow the installation.

After that vote, Payne alleged that the BAR’s solar denial “hurt the cause of historic preservation.”

Clayt Lauter agreed with that assessment.

A Ridge Street homeowner, Lauter appeared before the BAR late last year seeking permission to tear down an outbuilding in his backyard. His plan was rejected by the BAR in December; a month later, he won his appeal to City Council.

“The BAR should focus on the truly historic nature of Charlottesville,” Lauter told The Daily Progress. “They have experienced mission creep, and that is not serving them well.”

Lauter’s case is one that some critics have called “shedgate.” He ultimately convinced the council that he should be allowed to tear down a roughly 12-by-14-foot outbuilding behind his home.

When he appeared before the BAR in December, he declared the building to be in disrepair. The small structure had termite damage, a plywood floor and it was standing in the way of his effort to construct a dwelling for his elderly father-in-law.

“The public can’t see it,” Lauter told the BAR. “This shed, this shack is not visible to anyone unless you’re my neighbor.”

City records paint a warmer picture.

With two windows, a fireplace and chimney, it was constructed as a “cottage” according to the staff report, a servant’s dwelling built at the same time as the main residence on the property in 1895 by Edgar Gianniny, the proprietor of the former Gleason Hotel, a four-story commercial building on West Main Street.

“This house/property has one of the very rare remaining servant’s quarters remaining in structures from this era,” wrote then city planner Ron Higgins in a 2003 letter urging the site’s inclusion on the state landmarks register.

That effort failed, and Lauter says the BAR needs perspective.

“Maintaining history for history’s sake is to some degree ludicrous,” Lauter said. “For Mount Vernon, I get it. Monticello, sure. Their perspective on that shed was insane.”

Werner seemed to telegraph a philosophical or territorial divide just a moment after Lauter’s vow to “See you at City Council” following the 4-2 BAR vote on Dec. 20 to deny his demolition request.

“Whereas the BAR reviews things in a very small box,” Werner explained, “City Council is allowed to review other circumstances.”

Albemarle County doesn’t see such controversy before its own Architectural Review Board, said former ARB Chair Paul Wright. Part of that, he said, stems from that fact that Albemarle has has no preservation ordinance; so the ARB has no mechanism to block a demolition.

Another factor, Wright said, is that the ARB is a significantly smaller group, with just five members.

“With nine people it’s impossible to have predictable design,” Wright told The Daily Progress.

Wright said that the inevitable absences among such a large body contribute to the predictability problem because the membership changes.

“It can change from meeting to meeting,” said Wright. “That is burdensome to anyone who wants to build.”

Before he joined Albemarle’s ARB, Wright said, the group endured some scorn for forcing then-booming electronics retailer Circuit City to tone down its trademark entrance, which resembles a bright red plug, at Albemarle Square.

He said the group was also criticized for forcing the developer of a planned Toys R Us on Branchlands Boulevard to clad the building in brick instead of a more colorful toy-oriented design.

“Just because corporate wants to do something and it’s a trademark doesn’t mean you get to do it,” said Wright, noting that both companies failed and closed. “Those decisions turned out to be correct.”

During the recent solar slate debate, the BAR chair pointed out that slate is a local and long-lasting material, as it’s mined in adjacent Buckingham County. By contrast, the church’s planned asphalt roof tiles and photovoltaic panels will likely be imported from China.

That discussion made Snook wonder if the BAR might have strayed from its mission.

“We have delegated to folks with some expertise some decisions that are within their expertise, and I’m happy to have them be our architectural advisers,” said Snook. “Let’s just identify when they’re speaking from an architectural standpoint and when they’re trying to blend architecture with environmental concerns.”


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