At its meeting on November 14, 2007, the
Albemarle County Board of Supervisors
approved the rezoning of six acres near Crozet for a planned residential development. That’s not unusual, but this time, the property will be used to bring something called co-housing to the county.
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“Cohousing in general is an intentful community where people decide this is the type of place where they want to live and they choose to design it in such a way that it provides strength in community,” said Colin Arnold, who represented the applicant,
Blue Ridge Cohousing
LLC. The plan is to create 26 housing units on the property, creating a unique space where residents would park their cars on the outskirts of the property and walk to their homes.
“This a place where they feel they can live and work and be part of a community within their neighborhood and in connection with the greater neighborhood,” Arnold continued.
The Supervisors’ approval came despite a unanimous recommendation for denial from the County Planning Commission on October 9, 2007. The Commission was concerned that stream buffers would be affected by grading, that proffers were not in keeping with the County’s policy, and that the applicant had not demonstrated that owners of the private road would grant permission to upgrade Parkview Drive, the existing private street that will connect the development to Route 240.
Since the Planning Commission, the applicant has proposed making at least five units “affordable” under the County’s guidelines, and also offered to contribute over $286,000 in cash proffers, based on the County’s still evolving proffer policy. They also clarified the manner in which they’re willing to widen Parkview Drive and place a pathway along it, as well as making intersection improvements at Route 240.
But one issue remained for Supervisors to consider. Is the plan’s unique method for storm water management adequate?
The applicant sought to use four bio-retention filters to purify storm water before it returns to the water table, rather than the County’s usual method of sequestering runoff into ponds. Under the applicants’ system, runoff from the roofs as well as the parking lots will be fed through something that acts a lot like a rain garden. Rather than go to stormwater retention ponds, overflow water is routed
underground to porous underground areas that include gravel, then mulch
and then topped with highly-absorbing plants.
“That is technically a doable thing,” said Wayne Cilimberg, the County’s Director of Planning and Community Development. “There is some question though and concern about having such facilities in yards that are occupied by residents. That would be a concern with any development. There’s always the concern that when you have facilities that are serving a purpose for a larger area that they may get affected by the individual owner.”
(Samuel Miller) wanted more information on the plan, out of a concern that protections might not be enough for cohousing residents as well as other Crozet residents.
“This is in their own drinking watershed, and without any other protection downstream, so I’m more persnickety about what happens here than I might be in some other places in Crozet,” Thomas said.
The largest of these would be about 20 by 30 feet. Supervisor Rooker asked how maintenance could be guaranteed, and Brooks responded that the County has a standard maintenance agreement. When asked how the safety of neighborhood children could be assured, Albemarle County Senior Engineer Glenn Brooks said usually the County would not allow drainage basins so close to residential units.
“Usually during an administrative final plan review the engineering group would not allow this. We would say that was too close to the residences. It becomes a nuisance. That’s in a normal subdivision where you subdivide the lots, people have individual ownership, and they don’t want these things in their yards, infringing on their ability to provide yardscapes,” Brooks said.
Given the unique ownership arrangement of the co-housing project, Brooks said this wasn’t an issue. He said the applicant’s design met the minimum requirements for the County’s water protection ordinance, but that to do it better, the applicant would likely need to sacrifice one structure to provide a larger drainage area. The County requires that sixty percent of all stormwater runoff in a development be captured and prevented from entering local streams.
“To do this well, I think you’d have to lose a house. You’d have to provide a little more area in order to get the water from your parking areas through the housing units to the facilities that are in the back of the houses,” Brooks said. “The idea is to get some drainage going from the houses and the pervious areas through swales to these facilities. It looks like it’s going to be very tight, and that’ll really depend on how the final plan is done.”
Brooks was asked by Supervisor
(Rio) on whether he felt the system as suggested would work. Brooks said that he thought the drainage system by the parking lot would work, but that the one behind the houses would not. “They may do so initially, but I think over the long run, the residents will not like having these in the back yard and they will be altered.”
But Colin Arnold disagreed with Brooks’ assessment, and said that people who choose to participate in the community will want to help preserve the land in as natural a method as possible. He said a similar system in a cohousing community near Blacksburg has worked for more than a year and a half without any errors. He said potential residents prefer this option to a storm water detention pond, which he said would be an eyesore.
Landscape architect Kevin Connor helped come up with the plan, and he said it could easily be modified to add more filtration units.
“We could take the four areas and make them eight smaller areas, ten smaller areas,” Connor said. “We can certainly handle it with the topography and the grade in these areas. In final design, we might break it up even more because the more disconnected system is the better system.”
Supervisors wanted to make sure the system could handle a large storm. Brooks said he has already waived the requirement that the system could withstand a ten-year storm, because the area is close to the convergence of two streams. Wayne Cilimberg weighed in and said, given the unpredictable nature of hydrology, it was impossible to require a system that’s 100 percent foolproof.
“You can’t engineer these rezoning plans to that kind of detail, and so we try to take the approach in saying that there is a plan that has a technical solution, but it is not necessarily the solution that will be ultimately decided upon,” Cilimberg said. “I think Glenn [Brooks] has to exercise the full requirements under the ordinances, and if it means losing a unit, then they would have to lose a unit. And that does not jeopardize the plan approved, it just means they’re not building to the greatest extent that the plan would allow.”
(White Hall) wanted clarification from the County Attorney Larry Davis on whether permission would be required from all owners of land further along Parkview Drive before the improvements to the road could be built. Davis said they have the legal right to do so under the existing agreement.
PUBLIC HEARING COMMENTS
Veterinarian Martin Schulman owns the property, and is one of the people who hopes to live in the new development.
“The greater Crozet community will benefit from your support of this proposal as a correct use of clustered neighborhood village development in the growth area of Crozet.”
Schulman added that he felt the property would be within walking distance of many nearby employers, including Music Today and the Starr Hill brewery.
But other residents of the area were not happy with their would-be new neighbors.
“We think this project is pretty much too large for this site,” said Steve Melton, who lives nearby on
Halcyon Drive, pointing out that 26 homes on 6 acres of land was too dense for his tastes. “We know it’s going to get developed at some stage in the future, but we’d really like to see something on a smaller scale.” Two other members of Halycon Drive also spoke in opposition to the rezoning.
Melton said he also had concerns about how costs for the upkeep for the private road would be shared, but he also posed a question about what might happen to the community in the future.
“What happens if this fails? Does it turn into rental property? Is it low-income property? How will that impact us?” Melton asked.
Susan Perry wants to live in one of the units with her husband Jim, and is knowledgeable about the history of cohousing. She is confident it will be a big success.
“Cohousing started in Denmark about 40 years ago and was brought into the states in the late 1980’s.
Since then, there’s close to 100 built and many that are in process. What typically happens is that once one is built, then there’s more in the community. We haven’t even advertised, we’ve just had a small group and we probably have half the units already accounted for. “
Peter Lazar is the manager of Blue Ridge Cohousing, and he said he would be willing to do whatever it took to create a storm water management plan that would surpass the County’s minimum guidelines.
Cohousing advocate and member of Blue Ridge Cohousing Jay Parry says there is no evidence to support the claim that property values for nearby projects will be reduced.
“If you do research into cohousing you discover that all the fear that surrounds it is unfounded,” Parry said. “If anything, property values actually go up.”
Jay Perry said that the County’s lack of affordable living choices could be addressed through more projects like cohousing. “There are people who are involved in this community because it’s the only house that they think they’ll ever be able to afford,” Perry said.
While debating the plan, Supervisors Slutzky,
(Jack Jouett) and
(Scottsville) all expressed their support for the project. Supervisor Thomas said she supported co-housing as an idea, but the reality can often be a less rosy.
“In my district I have a place where something sort of dating back to the 60’s and 70’s and not called co-housing was created, and it fell apart, and it’s created a lot of headaches for the people who live in those houses ever since, because they have to agree to things that they can’t agree to,” she said. “I’m leery of what we’re setting up and I’m leery of setting it up so close to Beaver Creek.”
Supervisor Wyant supported the project, but said he felt site plan approval was going to be hard to come by, citing a difficult storm water management plan as well as a road maintenance agreement.
Despite his concerns, Wyant made the first of three motions to approve the rezoning. The vote was 5-1 with Supervisor Thomas casting the no vote.
The Board also approved a waiver to allow Parkview Drive to remain a private road. They also waived requirements to add curb and gutter improvements to the street.
Though approval from the Board of Supervisors has been granted, the project has more procedural hurdles to clear. A public hearing has been scheduled for January 9 to allow the Albemarle County Service
Authority to be granted jurisdiction over the property for public water and sewer. Though in the growth area, the ACSA’s maps do not entirely correspond.
County staff will review the final site plan before a building permit is granted.