By. Neil Williamson, President
Tuesday (8/24) evening, I joined a number of other interested citizens to tag along on as the Charlottesville Planning Commission went on a tour of some of the City’s steeper slopes. The Commission has been considering sharpening the language regarding waivers for building on steep slopes. This field trip was to designed to help orient the planners to the real world conditions within the city limits. Rachana Dixit was also along for the ride and has the story in The Daily Progress.
The tour started at Carter’s View subdivision which predates the City’s current steep slope ordinance. The relatively new development features views of Carter’s Mountain. The rear of some of these single family homes actually have a view of the down slope neighbor’s roof line.
City Planner Brian Haluska discusses Carter’s View slopes with Southern Environmental Law Center Senior Attorney Kay Slaughter and City Planning Commission Chairman Jason Pearson
The discussion of how the buildings were placed into the slope and the failure of one retaining wall were topics I heard as the group wandered around the site. The staff handout indicated ~75% of the site was comprised of “critical” slopes.
As this tour was designed to orient the Planning Commission to current conditions, I chose not to speak up too much at this stop but I did ask if the pile of dirt behind the Lot #1 sign would qualify as a “Critical” slope under the current ordinance. Charlottesville Planning Manager Missy Creasy indicated it would.
“Critical” slope AKA Dirt Pile behind Lot #1 Sign in Carter’s View
The second stop on the tour was a recently acquired City property for the Fontaine Fire Station. This land drops away from the current house on the property into a natural swale before rising again at the intersection.
Staff identified 43% of the parcel (18,935 sq. ft.) in critical slope area with critical slopes of up to 100%.
Aerial photograph of the Fontaine Site photo credit: City of Charlottesville
On October 13, 2009, The Planning Commission approved the critical slopes waiver for this parcel. In discussion on the site, I asked the rational for approving this site had to do with the proposed use as a Fire Station. One Planning Commissioner indicated public purpose was certainly a factor in their consideration.
I pressed to see if a new residential complex would get the same consideration. The Commissioner indicated if the applicant made a significant contribution to affordable housing that might be applicable. He also said there were some on the Commission that felt public purpose was the only reason to grant “critical” slopes waivers but that was a part of the overall discussion to see how the entire Commission (and ultimately City Council) felt about this issue.
Unfortunately, my meeting schedule precluded me from joining the group on the balance of the tour but I did review the information and was intrigued that information about the Brookwood Subdivision was included (but not visited).
I spoke with someone close to the actual development of Brookwood and they indicated that the Brookwood critical slopes were disturbed because the neighbors wanted that road to go through so they would have an additional egress from Ridge Street.
A previous developer had an approved plan to put a number of townhouse units on the top of the hill with no connection to 5th Street. All traffic would have exited Ridge. By right.
Photo Credit: City of Charlottesville
The new developer engaged the neighborhood and came up with a better plan. 80% of the neighbors enthusiastically supported the new plan. That road was VERY important to them. And the Planning Commission agreed and approved it. Then with future phases of the project they dramatically reduced the number of critical slopes by having the buildings act as retaining walls.
The site is challenging with the road included. Staff indicated 75% of the total site is comprised of critical slopes. Interestingly this carefully designed project created a net environmental benefit to the community. Today, the stormwater that leaves the property is actually cleaner and lower peak volume than before development because of the bioretention and treatment.
The discussion of “critical” slopes will continue. The Free Enterprise Forum is asking the City to be transparent in their goals for the proposal is it environmental, aesthetic or something else you are tying to protect/preserve.
As there is no other city of over 20,000 in the state of Virginia with an existing “critical” slopes ordinance, it would do the City well to move slowly and to bring the development community along for the discussion.
Neil Williamson is the President of The Free Enterprise Forum, a privately funded public policy organization covering the City of Charlottesville as well as Albemarle, Greene, Fluvanna and Nelson County. For more information visit the website www.freeenterpriseforum.org