Charlottesville PC checks 0 East High Street projects against Comprehensive Plan

A portion of the fifth submission for 0 East High Street

Does Charlottesville’s Comprehensive Plan sanction the existence of public facilities such as sidewalks and sewer pipes that would be built as part of a development in the floodplain? That was the central question asked at a public hearing before the Charlottesville Planning Commission last Tuesday. 

“Our focus tonight is on the review of the identified public features for their consistency with the Comprehensive Plan,” said James Freas, the city’s director of neighborhood development services. (staff report for the item)

This on the item on the Planning Commission’s agenda is known as a 2232 review after the section of Virginia Code that enables this check of what would otherwise be a by-right development under the city’s existing zoning code. 

“The applicant proposes two new streets labeled Public Road A and Public Road B in addition to widening our existing Caroline Avenue and Fairway Avenue,” said Carrie Rainey, the city’s urban planner. 

The land for the roads as well as land for public trails to the Rivanna River would eventually be dedicated to the city as part of the project. 

“The applicant is also proposing the dedication of two  new parcels, Lot A and Lot B,” Rainey said. “Lot A is proposed to include a new public trail and Lot B is proposed to include a new parking trail and parking lot and trail connection to the existing Rivanna River Trail.” 

The scope of the review was limited to the Comprehensive Plan and did not cover whether any of the improvements would meet technical guidelines including whether the city would eventually issue a permit to build in the floodplain. 

“Generally as part of the Comprehensive Plan compliance review, we are not reviewing the details of design of those pieces part of which would have to be confirmation that the floodplain permit could be achieved and that the requirements were met per the floodplain and floodway section [of the code],” Rainey said. “So there’s not a detailed analysis at the time. That would happen during the final site plan process.”

The city has issued four denials of preliminary site plans so far. 

Civil Engineer Justin Shimp represented Seven Development during the compliance review. He said he listened at the site plan conference last October when neighbors of the property expressed concern they would lose access to the Rivanna River. The fourth submission contained more specific guarantees to the city. 

“It is private property right now and people have been traversing across it but there is no easement or any right of the public to do so,” Shimp said. “This project proposes creating those rights in perpetuity.” 

Shimp is one of most prolific civil engineers in the community with dozens of land use applications in process at any particular moment. He said he’s never had one of his projects called up for a 2232 review. He said the development would help advance the city’s ability to access the river, citing one of the “guiding principles” of the Comprehensive Plan adopted in November 2021.

“‘The city will place an emphasis on enhancing networks and safety for walking, riding bicycles, and public transportation,’” Shimp read aloud. “This is definitely an improvement for walking and bicycling in this corridor.” 

Some of the guiding principles of the Comprehensive Plan as seen on page 22. (view the whole plan)

City Councilor Michael Payne cited other sections of the Comprehensive Plan such as the Urban Rivanna Corridor Plan which was added to the larger document in February 2022. (read that plan)

“And I just really struggle to see how you could make the argument that this is improving access to the Rivanna River,” Payne said to applause in a CitySpace filled with opponents of the project. “It’s kind of as if there is this public space that the community loves to come to and we’re going to pave over that, therefore we’ve increased the access.” 

Shimp reminded Council and the Planning Commission that the land is not public property and the current landowner could put up fences at any point. 

Mayor Lloyd Snook said he found nothing in the Comprehensive Plan that said the city desired apartment buildings in the floodplain but said he was unsure of the outcomes of a 2232 review.

“This is not a site plan review, this is not a rezoning request, and frankly it’s something that I don’t know if Council has a particular voice in,” Snook said. “When we get to vote on what, I’m not sure.”

City Attorney Jacob Stroman confirmed that Council would be able to vote on the Commission’s recommendation once they’ve made one.

The public hearing featured many speakers who asked the Commission to find that the public facilities would not be consistent with the Comprehensive Plan. 

“The single dumbest idea I’ve heard is to build in the Rivanna floodplain adding to the likely future floods,” said nearby resident David Swanson. 

“These facilities would ruin the High Street riverfront as we know it,” said John McDonald. 

There was an appearance from the Green Grannies, but you’ll have to hear that in the podcast. 

“Multistory apartments are not more attractive than trees,” said Bob Gibson of Chesapeake Street. “They’re not really ‘improvements.’” 

One former member of City Council urged the Planning Commission to vote that the project would not be in compliance. 

“The comp plan and the city code all require protection of water quality from harms caused by stormwater yet heavy storms impact this area,” said Kay Slaughter. “The project would further exacerbate problems by removing substantial mature trees and vegetation within the floodplain.” 

After the public hearing, the matter came back to the Planning Commission. Commissioner Hosea Mitchell said he could anticipate something would eventually get built at 0 East High Street.

“There’s a property rights rule here that’s going to be utilized but as it relates to this public facilities offer, I do not believe it is consistent with Chapter 6, Goal 1, which is connectivity where you want streets to connect to one another,” Mitchell said. “And I do not believe it is consistent with Chapter 7, strategy 5.8.” 

That strategy reads: “Work to preserve and enhance wetlands, floodplains, and other features that provide natural resiliency against climate change.” 

Commissioner Philip d’Oronzio said the trails that would be provided by the current application would be consistent with the Comprehensive Plan, but he didn’t think the public roadways would be.

Commissioner Karim Habbab also agreed that the roads wouldn’t connect to anything. 

“If you look at our Climate Action Plan and strategy 7.1 in the comp plan that talks to avoiding sensitive environmental resources and natural resiliency features such as flood plains, stream buffers, and wetlands, and the general goal of increasing our climate resiliency as well as the Rivanna River Corridor plan on retaining and stewarding natural habitats and systems throughout the corridor, this as presented…[is] not suitable, sustainable, or resilient and [is] detrimental and would go against our Comprehensive Plan,” Habbab said. 

The vote to communicate to Council that the Commission did not find that some of the public facilities to be in compliance with the Comprehensive Plan was unanimous. 

Commissioner Rory Stolzenberg was not present for the vote and there is one vacancy. 

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 August 14, 2023 edition of the program. To ensure this research can be sustained, please consider becoming a paid subscriber or contributing monthly through Patreon.

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