Katurah Roell of the Piedmont Development Group speaks on behalf of the Clifton Inn at Tuesday's Albemarle County Planning Commission meeting. Credit: Credit: Josh Mandell, Charlottesville Tomorrow

The Albemarle County Planning Commission has recommended a zoning ordinance amendment that would enable historic inns and restaurants to expand and build new structures on their properties.

The Clifton Inn filed a request in 2015 to expand its building. This prompted the county to reexamine its zoning code for historic inns and taverns in rural areas.

While the Planning Commission has voiced support for the Clifton Inn project, changes to county zoning code also would impact dozens of other historic sites.

“[The Clifton Inn is] the poster child for doing everything right,” said Commissioner Karen Firehock. “We have to make regulations that assume that others won’t be as wonderful and thorough.”

After a July work session with the Planning Commission, county planning staff recommended a two-phase process to amend the zoning code. The first expedited phase will establish regulations for additions to historic inns and restaurants already in operation. The second phase will create a more detailed policy for those that are not already in use.

The commission recommended both phases in separate unanimous votes at its meeting Tuesday evening, following an hour-long discussion with county staff and representatives from the Clifton Inn and local advocacy organizations.

The recommended ordinance amendment for Phase 1 requires new structures to be “complementary and proportionate” and “clearly subordinate” to any historic structures or sites on the property.

The amendment applies to structures historically used as inns and taverns. It also affects historic buildings like the Clifton Inn that are already licensed for those uses.

Clifton was built in 1799 as a private residence, but was operating as an inn when it received its special-use permit. Two other Albemarle properties, Keswick Hall and Michie Tavern, are similarly licensed.

Principal county planner Elaine Echols said the county’s Historic Preservation Committee felt strongly that the specificity of the amended ordinance should be limited, due to the varied sizes and characteristics of the county’s historic buildings and sites.

“We have tried very hard … to make the changes that are needed [to the ordinance] without going into a lot of detail,” she said.

However, the Southern Environmental Law Center recommended more objective standards for new buildings.

“We just think having some type of a ceiling [on the size of the expansion] makes some sense,” SELC senior attorney Morgan Butler said at the meeting.

Firehock agreed. “‘Complementary and proportionate’ is not specific enough … I would like to see a number put in there,” she said.

Commissioner Bruce Dotson suggested that any expansion of a historic inn or tavern should not exceed the square footage of the original historic structure.

“To me, if the historic resource is one square foot bigger than the historic part, it’s still dominant and proportionate,” Dotson said.

The SELC also recommended adding a clause explicitly prohibiting the establishment of new restaurants on historic sites, a policy included in the county’s Comprehensive Plan. Echols said this was a substantive change that could be addressed in Phase 2 of the amendment process.

Firehock expressed concern that the county could approve an expansion that would cause the Virginia Department of Historic Resources to revoke the site’s historic designation. Without the designation, the business would be ineligible for a special-use permit from the county, resulting in a harmful Catch-22.

“DHR is woefully understaffed … it’s unlikely that the DHR would be weighing in [before the county awarded a special-use permit],” Firehock said. “I am questioning whether we have adequate resources on staff to make these judgments.”

Katurah Roell of the Piedmont Development Group, representing the Clifton Inn, assured the commissioners that his company would seek feedback from the DHR.

“We will continue to be watched by [the DHR],” Roell said. “We don’t want to step on their toes.”

In Phase 2 of the amendment process, the Planning Commission will recommend to the Board of Supervisors which entity — if any — should evaluate the impact of proposed construction on historic resources. At Tuesday’s meeting, Commissioner Pam Riley said she would prefer to rely on the expertise of the county’s Historic Preservation Committee.

In a public comment, Neil Williamson of the Free Enterprise Forum said the Historic Preservation Committee should not be granted that authority because its members are not elected.

The Planning Commission’s recommendations for the amendment process will be brought before the Board of Supervisors next month.

image_printPrint
A man smiles at camera

Josh Mandell

Josh Mandell graduated from Yale in 2016 and has been recognized by the Virginia Press Association with five awards for education writing, health, science and environmental writing and multimedia reporting.