The Albemarle County Planning Commission has voted 6 to 1 to recommend denial of a rezoning of 5.67 acres on Berkmar Drive, citing a concern that the developer is not proffering enough to mitigate the impacts on traffic that will be caused by the mixed-use development.

Stonehaus Development wants the County to rezone the property from R-6 to Neighborhood Model District, which would allow for the construction of up to 275,000 square feet on the site of the former Planet Fun entertainment complex, as well as an adjoining forested area. County Senior Planner Elaine Echols said the development fits with the land use proposed in the proposed

Places 29 Master Plan

, which calls for a Neighborhood Center in that location. By right, only 39 residential units can be built on the site.

The scope of the project has increased since Stonehaus last brought the Berkmar Business Park project before the Commission in October 2006. Originally, residential use was not proposed, and the Planet Fun site would not have been part of the project.  Now both are part of the project.  Stonehaus is also responsible for the Belvedere mixed use development off of Rio Road East.

During the two and a half hour discussion, Commission and the developer ironed out several smaller issues, but could not agree on whether a connector road that would link Berkmar Drive to Route 29 was necessary to alleviate traffic issues. Stonehaus has offered to pay for the road, but not improvements to the existing signalized intersection to accommodate the additional traffic generated by the project.  Echols said that staff felt that Stonehaus had not fully addressed the requirements for a connector road, and had not shown that it was unnecessary.  VDOT, County Engineer Glenn Brooks and County Transportation Planner Juandiego Wade all recommend that Stonehaus should be responsible for paying for the intersection improvements, and for building the road straight through to Route 29.

However, actually building the road will be problematic for Stonehaus, given that an access road for the Better Living home improvement store is in the way, and the store’s owners would have to give permission to do so. VDOT is currently coordinating plans to reduce the number of entrances onto Route 29 as part of its Access Management Plan. A site plan for another nearby development, Rivanna Plaza, proposes moving the entrance for Kegler’s bowling alley to a new location that will also serve Schewel’s furniture. However, access to Better Living would have to be resolved, as they would lose access under this plan. Currently customers and employees use a frontage road, and there are currently no plans to redesign their commercial entrance.

VDOT has new regulations that require developers of large projects to perform a traffic study to analyze the potential impacts. Stonehaus performed such a study, and concluded they were not responsible for making those improvements, because according to their numbers the Berkmar Business Park would not generate enough vehicles to affect the existing traffic system.

Echols said staff had not had time to analyze the Stonehaus study before the Commission’s public hearing, and that VDOT was still in the process of conducting their review.

“But the indications we’ve gotten from them is that this particular development, according to the traffic study, generates the need for this connector road, because the connector road is being offered as the mitigating measure for the impacts, and so at the level of 275,000 square feet and 190 [housing] units, we believe that this road is necessary,” Echols said.

Frank Stoner, vice president of Stonehaus, said he did not suggest a connector to Route 29 as a way to mitigate the traffic.  Instead, he thought it was a way to assist the County’s goals. He showed the Commission a letter from Commonwealth Transportation Board member Butch Davies which he claimed showed that VDOT was responsible for the intersection improvements.

Joel DeNunzio, a VDOT engineer, said his agency is not responsible for the intersection improvements at Better Living, because VDOT did not build the original commercial entrance. He disagreed with Butch Davies. “I don’t believe it’s VDOT’s responsibility to upgrade this to road standard, and I think if you look back through the plans it was ever the intention of VDOT to do that,” DeNunzio said.

Nate Cunningham of Stonehaus said the firm is committed to building the connector road from Berkmar right down to Schewel’s entrance. Cunningham also presented the Commission with the results of their traffic study, which he said assumed a full build-out of 275,000 square feet.  He said the second study was done to correct errors made in the first one.

“What [the traffic study data] shows is that we have little if any negative traffic impacts and so our commitment to build the connector road was more out of wanting to support the County’s goals,” Cunningham said. “To date it has not been possible in large part because it is outside our control to force the [owners of Better Living] to move their access road.”

But County Engineer Glenn Brooks said he was bothered that the Stonehaus traffic study was presented to the Commission before being vetted by staff.

“The traffic study I saw was completely different,” Brooks said. He pointed out what he saw as several errors in the study, including what VDOT considers a failing level of service. He said VDOT also had not reviewed the newer traffic study, and would likely not be able to for at least four weeks.

Wayne Cilimberg, the County’s Director of Planning and Development, reminded the Commission that they have spent much of the last year discussing ways to ensure that necessary infrastructure is in place before  a new development is approved.

“With further information, it may be that this project can find that right place in terms of what is reasonable to have occur with the infrastructure that is possible to be built, and then future infrastructure is probably going to be in the hands of the County and maybe VDOT to get done or some future developer of the Schewel’s or Better Living site,” Cilimberg said.

Commissioner Jon Cannon (Rio) suggested the developer consider contributing cash to the intersection improvements at such time that they are required. Cilimberg asked a question which explained some of the logistical issues with that approach.

“How much development are you comfortable letting occur understanding that you have cash towards an improvement that’s not specified in terms of its timeframe to be accomplished?” Cilimberg said.

The yet-to-be adopted Places29 Master Plan shows a diagonal dotted line where the proposed connector road should go

Cannon acknowledged the potential danger in rezoning without considering the impacts on infrastructure. “There’s a tension here between getting the density of development we’re asking for in the growth area under our Comprehensive Plan… and the concerns about stressing already stressed  infrastructure which won’t accommodate that development,” Cannon said.

Edgerton said he thought the plan was a good one, but that staff needed the ability to study the traffic study. He said Stonehaus could come up with a phased development plan, but acknowledged that time was running out on the application.

Commissioner Tom Loach (White Hall) said he thought the issues should have been resolved before the public hearing, and that he would be taking a strict stance on requiring infrastructure before development.

Stoner said the rezoning needed to occur by June or the project will be dead.  He said he would be open to phasing, possibly limiting construction at the site to 120,000 square feet over the next five years.  “We’re not going to build 275,000 square feet in my life time,” Stoner said.

Cannon said he would support that, but did not see how the Commission could write those conditions during a meeting.  Commissioner Marcia Joseph (At-Large) said she didn’t have enough information to make a decision. “I want [Stoner] to be able to have the full amount that he wants, but I just want to have some sort of a phasing plan,” Joseph said.

Recently appointed Commissioner Linda Porterfield (Scottsville) said she thought the Commission should go ahead and recommend the rezoning given that the County wanted density in the area. While Strucko said he could agree with that, he also wanted staff’s full opinion on the second Stonehaus traffic study.

“This development is going to have an off-site impact on the infrastructure, and I want to know what the infrastructure’s current capacity is, what the margin of change on that capacity will be as a result of this development, and what those numbers are. I’d like to see those numbers as part of this proposal, but I don’t see that tonight,” Strucko said.

Cunningham said that he would be hesitant to proffer the full cost of connecting the road to US 29, in part because of the complex access management issues  involved. “Part of the reason we’re concerned about [the intersection] is that there’s potentially a lot of money to correct the existing conditions there,” Cunningham. He said Stonehaus would be willing to pay for a portion, but without a firm cost estimate he could not feel comfortable even proffering a percentage.

The discussion went back and forth for nearly two hours before Commissioner Porterfield made a motion to recommend approval of the site, with several conditions. No one seconded the motion, and it died.

Cannon said he could support a motion to recommend approval if Stonehaus agreed to pay for the entire connector road. “Traffic studies at the level of development at full build out indicate that the connector road will be necessary to avoid unacceptable traffic impacts,” Cannon said. “Seems to me the logic is, if they go back and reduce the size of this thing and are able to demonstrate to the staff and to VDOT that there won’t be impacts that necessitate a connector road that [it] will no longer be a requirement.”

Cunningham said he agreed that developers should cover costs, but that there was no guidance from the state or local government about how the mitigation should be calculated. “I would much prefer for us to have this be a science, much like the proffer policy has become for [residential] units, in which its very clear once you drop below a certain [level of service], you provide money in order to offset those impacts,” Cunningham said.

“I know everyone on this Commission is struggling on this because this is exactly the kind of project we want to see there,” Edgerton said. “You have done exactly what we want to do. We want to finish it up but we want to do it responsibly and we cannot do it without more time and more study.”

But Porterfield said it was important to send a positive message to the developer, and so she again introduced a motion to recommend approval. And for a second time, there was no second and the motion failed.

Edgerton’s motion to deny was based on not having enough information on the connector road.  Commissioners voted 6- 1 to recommend denial, with Porterfield voting against.  The Board of Supervisors will consider the project on May 7, 2008.

Sean Tubbs


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