By Brian Wheeler
Charlottesville Tomorrow
Friday, December 30, 2011

Throughout this year’s master planning process for the new Biscuit Run State Park , local officials repeatedly pushed for the inclusion of athletic fields. It was also the No. 1 request from the public.

CONCEPT illustration provided by Habitat for Humanity

However, the state’s Department of Conservation and Recreation said such facilities were the responsibility of local governments and not something to be included in a state park. DCR staff emphasized at one meeting that they were not “changing their paradigm.”

“We have been barking at the state officials for many months to include fields in the Biscuit Run master plan,” said Bob Crickenberger , Albemarle County’s parks and recreation director. “I don’t think that’s a possibility anymore.”

However, a paradigm shift of another sort appears to be under way. Habitat for Humanity of Greater Charlottesville has stepped forward with a proposal to swap land it owns at the neighboring Southwood Mobile Home Park for land in the state park that it says is well-suited for a complex of up to five fields and parking.

“The county was deeply disappointed that there were no athletic fields as part of the master plan,” said Habitat’s executive director, Dan Rosensweig . “We know that the Biscuit Run development itself deeply divided this community, but there seemed to be one area of 100 percent consensus, and that is the fields are a great need and a great community amenity.”

Biscuit Run State Park is on 1,200 acres south of Charlottesville between Route 20 and Old Lynchburg Road. Before it was sold to the state in December 2009 , Biscuit Run had been rezoned for 3,100 homes — the largest single development approved in county history.

Habitat bought the 100-acre Southwood Mobile Home Park in 2007, a neighborhood of 348 trailers and between 1,200 and 1,400 people. It was expected to be redeveloped alongside Biscuit Run.

When the Biscuit Run development failed in a tough housing market, its investors were still on the hook for a $1 million contribution to Habitat to build a connector road through both developments.

Habitat received its $1 million when Forest Lodge LLC sold Biscuit Run to the state. Now it’s moving forward with its redevelopment plans with the park as its new neighbor.

“Our vision is a mixed-income, mixed-use new community for current Southwood residents and new residents,” Rosensweig said.

To implement that vision, Habitat has committed to not displacing the neighborhood’s current residents, a task made easier if there is some vacant land on which to build the first new buildings.

CONCEPT illustration provided by Habitat for Humanity

Habitat is sharing a concept plan that would move 13 acres of its land at Southwood into the park in exchange for six acres that it would use to facilitate its redevelopment project and seven acres for a county-owned athletic field complex.

“We have a deficit of 11 [regulation] fields right now and the need for an additional eight in the next five to 10 years,” Crickenberger said. “This is a great opportunity.”

Habitat intends to donate the land for the fields as a proffer in a future rezoning request that, if approved by the county, would allow for increased housing density in the new Southwood.

A land swap requires permission from the Virginia General Assembly to allow for negotiations between Habitat and DCR. Del. David J. Toscano , D-Charlottesville, said he is ready to draft legislation to support the effort.

“Assuming that the county thinks it’s a good idea, I think I can wholeheartedly support this,” Toscano said.

The Albemarle County Board of Supervisors had yet to discuss the proposal in a public meeting. Supervisors Ann H. Mallek and Chris Dumler both confirmed in interviews that they will bring it up at their meeting Wednesday.

“We have to iron out the zoning process issues,” Mallek said. “I think it’s all doable, we just need to do the process correctly.”

Mallek said she wants to get a resolution of support passed by the board in time for Toscano to submit enabling legislation prior to the opening of the General Assembly session Jan. 11.

“I think it’s a great idea,” said Dumler, who recently toured the site. “I am 100 percent behind it and I think other board members will see how important this is and how crucial that land swap is.”

Mallek said the board may be encouraged by staff to rezone the entire park as rural to set the stage for negotiations. Two-thirds of the original Biscuit Run development was located in Albemarle’s growth area.

Rosensweig calls the “trailer park transformations” a “new paradigm” for affordable housing. He says the local Habitat is one of the only ones in the county doing major new development as opposed to the more typical home restorations.

Rosensweig said his project’s redevelopment plan will take another year and a half to complete. He also said he has met twice in recent months with DCR staff to discuss the land swap.

In the absence of state funding to implement a plan for the state park, Habitat may be the first to open some of the Biscuit Run property for local recreation needs.

“I am very grateful to the staff at DCR for recognizing the community need for fields and affordable housing and agreeing to work with us to try and make that happen,” Rosensweig said.


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