For the moment, Justin Shimp’s plans for an urban farm/housing development have been put out to pasture. After an erroneous vote last Monday, the Charlottesville City Council voted, 3-2, to deny a rezoning that would let the plan come to fruition. Spearheading the denial was Councilor Kathy Galvin, who said the project would not conform to land-use and Comprehensive Plan goals. “The workarounds to our existing zoning don’t add up to me, in my view, [as] a good, healthy vision for the city,” Galvin said. “Its short-circuiting of the process, in my view, is a breach of trust with the surrounding community.” Despite the setback, Shimp said he eventually plans to pursue a similar opportunity on the property. Originally rooted in a joke about cultivating high-quality marijuana, the proposal for 918 Nassau St., formerly known as Hogwaller Farm, straddles the border between Charlottesville and Albemarle County in the southeast corner of the Belmont-Carlton neighborhood. In Albemarle, 7.52 acres of the property was converted last fall from light industrial to agricultural for farm sheds, agricultural and forestry use. A 100-foot buffer from the top bank of Moores Creek or the outer limits of the floodway reduced the farmable acreage to 3.75 acres. “We envision this urban farm as a hybrid of community garden plots available to rent and an educational space for workshops pertaining to gardening, farming or starting a farm business,” Hannah Patrick, who would coordinate farming on the site, said in February. In Charlottesville, the rezoning proposal for the mainly residential portion of the project became the sticking point for officials. A rezoning from R-2 Residential to Highway Corridor would allow for the construction of a 1,280-square-foot greenhouse, a 600-square-foot farm store, commercial space and two apartment buildings with a total of 30 units. Through the rezoning and a special-use permit, the apartments would have a mix of one- and two-bedroom units for a total of 42 bedrooms; the commercial or house of worship uses would be restricted to 2,000 square feet; and buildings would not exceed 35 feet in height. Three of the apartments would be reserved for 20 years as affordable units for households making up to 50 percent of the area median income. The land to the south of the property already is zoned Highway Corridor.
The development came before the city Planning Commission four times as refinements were made. In December, commissioners recommended that the City Council reject the rezoning. One of the reasons for the denial was because of changes made that some commissioners felt gave them insufficient time to make an informed decision. “I’m extremely uncomfortable with new edits, new changes being made by the applicant at our meeting, not giving the staff the opportunity to review it ahead of time and not giving the public the opportunity to review them,” Commissioner Jody Lahendro said in December. “It is not fair to the Planning Commission, staff or our city residents that people come the night of their presentation with new information or with handouts,” Commissioner Taneia Dowell said at that meeting. Other concerns came from citizens about the construction of the development in the Moores Creek floodplain. Floodways are areas that are expected to have swiftly moving water during high-water events. Floodplains are areas that are expected to be inundated during flooding events. “One of the city planners said to me last year that if a piece of vacant land had not been built on in the city, there is a reason,” Charlottesville resident Mark Kavit said Tuesday, adding that there is a history of flooding on Nassau Street.
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Shimp has permits in place for construction on the property and could build six single-family homes or 12 duplexes without City Council approval. The permits came after an adjustment in the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s maps delineating the floodplain. The revision came after a multistep, two-year process, Shimp said, and fill would be used to raise a portion of the property out of the floodplain to allow for construction. Galvin said the floodplain remained a problem for her because the apartment buildings would be “centered on an asphalt parking lot that is bigger in area than the footprint of the buildings themselves and that will degrade, in my view, the waterways.”
Despite concerns, Councilor Mike Signer said he was “inclined to put the benefit of the doubt” on the development. “I’m interested in innovation, and I think that it’s a pretty creative use of a part of the city,” he said. “… I think that it could be healthy enough and different enough and creative enough in the overall landscape of the city that I find the pros outweigh the cons.” Councilor Wes Bellamy agreed, saying that complicated projects like 918 Nassau St. are on the horizon, due to space constraints in the 10.3-square-mile city. “Even if this doesn’t pass, we’re still going to have to look at different models in the future,” Bellamy said. Galvin said the zoning Shimp requested went against the intent of Highway Corridor designation, which, despite allowing mixed uses, de-emphasizes housing. “It’s a convoluted, multi-tiered way to get the kind of a zoning you want that is contrary of anything in our Comprehensive Plan and the vision statement of the community,” she said. Shimp said in an email Wednesday that he would like to wait for the revision of the city’s zoning ordinances to be completed before attempting again to move forward on the property, “but I’m not optimistic that will happen anytime soon. So, we will likely pursue another similar option for the property.” “We could start on our ag part of the project, but it’s really not the same project without the greenhouse and retail store, and I feel very strongly about that vision, so we are going to keep working towards that goal and strive towards making the county land something unique and valuable to the community.”
Last fall, Charlottesville director of neighborhood development services, Alexander Ikefuna, warned of the city’s byzantine zoning leading to issues. “The city’s zoning ordinance — I’m sorry to say — is a wastebasket of errors. … It makes it extremely difficult for a zoning administrator to effectively provide zoning review letters and so on to the applicant,” Ikefuna said in October. “Until we change our zoning to make it what it is supposed to be, I think we are going to continue to have a problem.” Bellamy agreed during Monday’s meeting, saying “our process is flawed, I think, in the eyes of many.” In rejecting the project because of idiosyncrasies in the current zoning, Bellamy said he wondered “what message do we send to future developers?” Shimp on Wednesday also disagreed with the council’s decision being made on outmoded rules. “I find it very disturbing that council finds the zoning of the property and the zoning ordinance to be some sacred document when it has been identified as error-filled by the director of NDS,” he said. “I cannot believe that council would stand behind such a document in defense of denying a project that everyone in the immediate community felt was a good idea. The zoning exists to promote the wellbeing of the community, [and] the staff specifically stated that my project accomplished that, yet that was ignored.” “I don’t plan on letting this setback slow down my push for creating more housing throughout the city, though we can’t let poor policy decisions stop us from pursuing good projects.” Bellamy and Signer voted against denial of the rezoning, and Galvin, Councilor Heather Hill and Mayor Nikuyah Walker voted in favor of the denial. Walker, who said she was deferring to the wishes of the Planning Commission, changed her vote after confusion over an affirmative vote for the motion indicating a rejection of the rezoning.