Tonight, the Charlottesville City Council will have an item on their consent agenda for approval. Stanley Martin Homes needs a critical slopes waiver to build 45 single-family homes on land in the Fry’s Spring neighborhood between Monte Vista Avenue and Azelia Drive.
“These provisions are intended to direct building locations to terrain more suitable to development and to discourage development on critical slopes,” reads the definition in the city’s zoning code.
The project is opposed by the city’s Tree Commission.
“We are also dismayed about possibly losing one of the few remaining large mature forests in the city when our tree canopy is rapidly declining,” said Peggy Van Yahres, the chair of the Tree Commission. “It has declined to now 40 percent over just four years.”
That data is based on a 2019 study and Van Yahres said the Commission believes it has further declined. (Charlottesville Tree canopy continues to decline, December 9, 2021)
“We feel the public benefits of denying this far outweigh what the developer has proposed,” Van Yahres said. “The developer has proposed a manmade stormwater management system that will have to be maintained by the homeowners when we have a natural forest and natural system that doesn’t need to be maintained.”
Van Yahres made her comments at the general citizen input period at the beginning of the meeting. It would be another five hours before the Planning Commission took up the matter after long public hearings on the Capital Improvement Program and the Comprehensive Plan.
Missy Creasy, the city’s Deputy Director of Neighborhood Development Services, said that this application for a critical slopes waiver is different from others that the Planning Commission has seen throughout the years.
“The development site already has been platted and the lots are non-conforming legal lots of record from around the 1920’s,” Creasy said.
That means that Stanley Martin or any other developer has the right to build the units. Or at least some of them. There are 88 lots and the proposal is to replat them into 45 lots.
“In the current configuration of the site, there are 22 lots currently that are affected by critical slopes,” Creasy said. “However, because they are lots of record and if they are moving forward with single-family, they would be exempt from the critical slopes ordinance.”
Creasy said that because Stanley Martin wants to adjust the boundaries of the lots, the ordinance comes into play. The developer could go completely by-right without the waiver, but Creasy said that would result in more tree loss in order to conform to technical requirements for stormwater and site access.
“The request that they’ve put forward includes preservation of an area that includes 77 trees,” Creasy said. “If they went out there by-right, there are areas of that open space that they are proposing to conserve that would be open to being demolished.”
Scott Collins is the civil engineer hired by Stanley Martin Homes for the project. The company paid $2,423,500 for the properties on August 5, 2019.
“What we did was come forward with the best development that we think fits in well with the neighborhood,” Collins said.
Collins said the land itself is in a valley and currently serves as drainage for property on Azalea and Monte Vista. The plan is to use 0.6 acres of open space to help treat stormwater and slow it down without resorting to purchasing nutrient credits.
Collins said the property will be developed with or without the critical slopes waiver.
Two Commissioners said they would like to see the site developed with smaller lots with more residential density. Collins responded to both of them.
“This is about the right size that fits within the neighborhood and this size of house is pretty comparable to the other houses,” Collins said. “This is the best project that fits in with the existing neighborhood. To come in with something smaller and denser has the feeling that it doesn’t quite fit in with the character.”
Three members of City Council were present and had no questions for staff or the applicant. A public hearing was not required.
Commissioner Hosea Mitchell said he had been concerned about the development before the meeting.
“Water management is not as problematic as I thought it might be,” Mitchell said. “It breaks my heart to see all those trees taken down but this site is going to be developed one way or the other. I’m not sure we ought to stand in front of that bulldozer. It’s coming.”
Commissioner Karim Habbab also said he would support the waiver with a bit of a lament about the forest going away.
“There’s no care at all given to the existing asset and it’s just treated like empty land with nothing there,” Habbab said. “We have a great asset there but it’s the lesser of two evils I guess.”
Commissioner Rory Stolzenberg had been one of the ones who wanted more density.
“It’s just a little bit painful to see this plan,” Stolzenberg said. “This is the sort of site that is crying out for a [Planned Unit Development]. All the stuff about neighborhood character doesn’t really resonate with me.”
Stolzenberg said he would prefer to see a townhouse development built into the hillside. But that would take a rezoning, so he would support the waiver.
The current idea is to eliminate the Planned Unit Development aspect of zoning, as well as the Planning Commission’ and City Council’s role in critical slopes waivers.
Stolzenberg also said he wasn’t upset about the trees.
“We’ve heard a lot about carbon sequestration of trees,” Stolzenberg said. “A mature tree will sequester about 22 kilograms of carbon a year. An average Charlottesvilliean emits about eight tons of carbon per year.”
Stolzenberg said he would “beg” Stanley Martin to place more homes on the land. He and five other Commissioners voted to recommend Council’s approval. The item is on the consent agenda, which means there will be no discussion of the item unless a member wants to remove it.
This is not the last you’ll hear or read from the December 13, 2022 Planning Commission. I am going to write up the Capital Improvement Program discussion hopefully sometime before the end of the week. I’ve previously written about an update on the zoning code from that meeting, and you can read that story here.
Before you go: The time to write and research of this article is covered by paid subscribers to Charlottesville Community Engagement. In fact, this particular installment comes from the January 3, 2023 edition of the program. To ensure this research can be sustained, please consider becoming a paid subscriber or contributing monthly through Patreon.