A portion of Charlottesville’s Woolen Mills neighborhood has become the third area of the city to be designated as a historic conservation district.
Charlottesville City Council voted unanimously Tuesday to create the district, which proponents claim will keep land prices lower in the predominantly single-family residential neighborhood.
“In thinking about the shape of the city and where the city is going, [there is] value in having areas where the fabric is intentionally protected and where gentrification is intentionally forestalled in some way,” said Mayor Mike Signer.
The Woolen Mills district will cover 85 parcels of land on sections of East Market Street, Chesapeake Street and several cross streets. New construction proposals and demolition requests must now go before the Board of Architectural Review.
The district had the support of the group Preservation Piedmont.
“It’s the right thing to do for the city, providing an additional layer of review of proposed tear-downs and construction of buildings out of scale with the neighborhood,” said Kay Slaughter, a former mayor and current Woolen Mills resident.
Currently, if a building is taken down, a new one can be put up under its existing zoning. Properties that are zoned for single-family residential can be built by-right at a height of 35 feet.
The conservation district requires BAR review before construction.
“The additional protection will ensure that the neighborhood retain its more modest homes, some of which are still affordable,” Slaughter said.
Louis Schultz, who lives on East Market Street and whose property would be affected, opposes the district.
“What will be preserved here is houses that are owned by upper-middle-class white people, and they are really not under any threat of being taken down,” Schultz said. He pointed out that Slaughter’s house is not within the proposed district and she would not be affected by what he regards as a violation of his property rights.
The conservation district status already has been granted to the Rugby, Venable and Martha Jefferson neighborhoods.
“They report no problems and only benefits from the ordinance,” Slaughter said. “We maintain that those opposed to the ordinance have misrepresented its effects by conflating the stricter requirements of the individually protected properties with those of the more lightly regulated conservation districts.”
The city has 74 individually protected properties, one of which is the Woolen Mills Chapel. Changes made to the exterior of these structures, such as window and door replacements, must go before the BAR.
Structures in conservation districts do not require that level of review.
The Woolen Mills Neighborhood Association brought the request to the Charlottesville Planning Commission in July 2016 and asked for the district to be studied. The BAR approved the district that September, and the Planning Commission followed suit in November.
However, some in the neighborhood began raising questions about whether the district would introduce onerous regulations that would be a burden on homeowners.
“The Woolen Mills Neighborhood Association requested a six-month deferral so that the ordinance and guidelines could be amended, and that was accomplished in April of this year,” said Mary Joy Scala, city historic preservation planner.
The amendments eliminated fees that property owners had to pay to make property improvements and required that city officials respond to those requests in 30 days rather than 60 days.
City Council heard a first reading and public hearing for the ordinance in July. Ten people spoke, and seven were opposed to the district.
Since then, Scala sent councilors a compilation of all the responses submitted as part of a Neighborhood Development Services poll held in May.
“Since that first reading in July, I believe you all have received approximately 26 emails, with 23 in favor and three opposed,” Scala said.
City Councilor Kristin Szakos said the amendments made in April helped sway her decision to vote for the district.
“We were worried about affordability and the impact on people being able to comply with this, and I think those [amendments] eased the fears that some in the neighborhood had,” Szakos said.
Councilor Bob Fenwick said support from the Planning Commission and the BAR persuaded him to vote in favor.
“Unless I have a compelling reason to override it, I will always go as a default position to them,” Fenwick said. “This is in line with what many people around the city are concerned about, and that’s neighborhood protection.”
However, Schultz disagreed and said the district would have the effect of stopping development on currently vacant land. He also said it would make it harder for people to make additions to their building.
“This is not a positive for the neighborhood,” Schultz said. “It doesn’t protect affordable housing. It doesn’t protect rental properties. It affects the part that’s already been gentrified.”