Albemarle coping with growing pains in development area

Andrea Matheson, the manager of Adventure Farm, spends much of October selling pumpkins. The patch is open Saturday and Sunday afternoons all month, and after paying the entrance fee, families often wander through the corn maze or sit in the grass and drink wine from the farm’s vineyard.

For many visitors, Adventure Farm is a welcome respite; it’s off Earlysville Road, two miles away from the pace of U.S. 29. But when Matheson’s grandparents bought the land in 1950, they were much farther from urban life.

“There were hardly any neighbors at all. My grandmother was very isolated,” Matheson said. “She still lives on the farm, and she’s always amazed when she goes out and sees the traffic and all the houses, and she’s like, ‘Where did all these people come from?’”

People started to arrive in larger numbers when the Charlottesville Albemarle Airport opened next to the farm in 1955. Developers like Charles Hurt, owner of the Virginia Land Co., noticed the area’s potential and began to buy land on either side of U.S. 29.

“I guess I’ve owned a thousand acres along 29 between the airport and the city,” Hurt said. “In general, I’ve bought land on all sides of the city. [Charlottesville] has grown from the center out, in different directions at different times.”

Concerns about water quality pushed Albemarle to restrict growth to “development areas,” starting with its first Comprehensive Plan in 1971. Today, the development areas border Charlottesville, with the exceptions of Crozet and the Village of Rivanna.

Hurt’s properties, much of which were about to turn into Hollymead and Forest Lakes at the time, became part of the Places 29 development area.

“Since we were going to limit people’s ability to take over greenfields [undeveloped land] and turn them into subdivisions and sprawl ever outward, we were going to have to make sure that the urbanizing area was attractive, in every sense of the word, to live in,” said Sally Thomas, who was an Albemarle supervisor during the drafting of the county’s Neighborhood Model, which encourages mixed-use, mixed-income developments.

The plans and models seem to have worked — land within the development boundaries has become increasingly attractive to both developers and residents.

The number of people living in the development area between Polo Grounds Road and the North Fork Rivanna River grew from 2,572 in 1980 to 7,690 in 2010. Estimates for 2016 set the tract’s population at 8,804.

“We have more building permits being requested than any time in Albemarle’s history. Almost every piece of land in 29 North is in play,” Supervisor Norman Dill said at a late September Board of Supervisors meeting.

Riverbend Development has won approval to build between 800 and 1,550 residential units on 277 acres at Brookhill, south of Forest Lakes. The University of Virginia Research Park has 253 acres ready for new offices, laboratories and shops. Great Eastern Management Co. has started construction of the roads and pipes at North Pointe that will serve a maximum of 893 residential units.

The Charlottesville-Albemarle Metropolitan Planning Organization recently estimated for their Long Range Transportation Plan that 17,971 people will live in the northern Albemarle development area by 2045.

With so much development on the horizon, what will life be like in northern Albemarle in five or 10 years? Is Albemarle’s infrastructure ready?

Families select pumpkins at Adventure Farm.
Credit: Eze Amos

Meeting kids where they are

Many families are drawn to northern Albemarle by the area’s public schools.

Starr Schmidt moved to Albemarle from Prince George’s County, Maryland, in 2012. She said the traffic and crime there made her eager to leave Maryland.

“There is no way I would have sent my kids to school there,” Schmidt said. “And we paid way higher taxes there than we pay in Albemarle.”

Now, as a mother of two children with developmental disabilities, Schmidt said she is grateful to live near Baker-Butler Elementary School and its special education offerings.

“[Baker-Butler] tries to meet kids where they are and keep them in the general classroom as much as possible,” Schmidt said. “It takes a lot of staff to do that, and it takes space.”

Baker-Butler, Albemarle’s newest elementary school, has grown steadily since it opened in 2002. Now, there is little space left for more students.

“We have had to be really creative to figure out how to house everybody in ways that make sense,” Baker-Butler Principal Stephen Saunders said.

Baker-Butler currently enrolls 59 special education students, including eight in a preschool program. That’s nearly double the school’s SPED enrollment in 2012.

Baker-Butler also has become more diverse as it has grown.  In 2017, a third of its students were racial minorities and more than 26 percent came from economically disadvantaged households.  Saunders said the school’s current students speak 21 languages and represent 24 different birth countries.

Saunders said that Rivanna Station draws employees into the Baker-Butler school district from U.S. military bases all over the world. More than 1,200 people work at Rivanna Station, a sub-installation of Fort Belvoir that is home to several intelligence organizations.

“We have kids moving here from South Korea, from Texas. We also have refugees,” Saunders said. “Ten years ago, you might not have seen that. … That’s a pretty big shift.”

Baker-Butler currently is at its functional capacity with 634 students enrolled. The school’s enrollment stayed flat this year after adding 40 students between 2013 and 2017.

The county School Board indicated that it would support adding a trailer classroom at Baker-Butler as an interim measure. If built, the classroom would be located on one of the school’s soccer fields.

“The challenge on our end is: How do you stay a world-class school when you have so many variables changing at all times?” Saunders said.

If Baker-Butler continues to grow, the School Board is likely to redistrict some students to Broadus Wood Elementary in Earlysville.

Broadus Wood has room for more 100 more students, and little growth is projected in its attendance district for the next decade.

“Redistricting could relieve pressure [at Baker-Butler] and benefit a school with declining enrollment,” said Rosalyn Schmitt, chief operating officer for Albemarle County Public Schools.

View of Hollymead Elementary from Powell Creek Drive
Credit: Skyclad Aerial

The addition of Baker-Butler Elementary helped solve overcrowding issues at Hollymead Elementary in Forest Lakes. Redistricting decisions and a cyclical decline in Forest Lakes’ student population have left Hollymead with nearly 100 fewer students than it enrolled in 2011.

Baker-Butler, Hollymead and Stony Point elementary schools all feed into Sutherland Middle School, which serves the 29 North corridor and areas to its east. Enrollment at Sutherland remains under its 650-student capacity, although the division projects it could rise to 700 by 2025.

Albemarle’s current school enrollment projections do not account for the growth that North Pointe and Brookhill would bring to northern Albemarle.

But many of northern Albemarle’s new developments have been on the books for years. To win county approval for rezoning and special-use permits at the time, developers set aside sites for elementary schools, created parks and improved roads. The General Assembly in 2016 limited this proffer system, which allows localities to expect developers to offset the infrastructure burdens of their projects.

“We have to spend almost 50 percent of our infrastructure costs [for North Pointe] before we get to the first lot,” said David Mitchell, construction and development manager for Great Eastern Management.

North Pointe’s infrastructure projects will include roads and utilities and preparing a 15,000 square-foot site for a library and 12.85 acres for an elementary school.

Plans for Brookhill include a similarly pre-prepared, 7-acre elementary school site.

“All grading and the utility hookups [will be] put in, so they can come in and just get started doing the building itself,” said Ashley Davies, a land use planner for Williams Mullen working on behalf of Riverbend Development.

Brookhill also has dedicated a 60-acre parcel on the western side of U.S. 29 to the county as a potential site for a new high school.

The School Board in 2017 considered the option to build a new comprehensive high school on the Brookhill site. It instead chose to pursue the construction of satellite centers to facilitate project-based learning and internships.

The School Board’s decision was motivated in part by concerns that a new high school near Brookhill would segregate Albemarle’s diverse urban ring from more affluent, predominantly white neighborhoods in northern Albemarle, officials said.

Data from 2017 show that 17 percent of students at Sutherland Middle School came from economically disadvantaged households.

At Jack Jouett Middle School, which draws from the urban ring and rural areas west of U.S. 29, 50 percent of students were economically disadvantaged.

Schmitt said the challenging topography of the Brookhill high school site also would make construction there costlier. However, she said the site was still being evaluated as a location for Albemarle’s first high school center, currently budgeted at $35.1 million.

Albemarle Tech, a small pilot of the center model, opened in the Seminole Place industrial facility in August.

“From a planning standpoint, their concept is a wonderful one, instead of finding a huge, green space … and building an enormous school we have to bus everyone to,” said Albemarle Director of Planning Andrew Gast-Bray.

The School Board is a long way from securing the funding to build and maintain the new elementary schools. But it has taken action to reduce overcrowding at Albemarle High School within the next few years.

AHS draws from northern Albemarle and most neighborhoods in the county’s urban ring around Charlottesville.

“All the growth in those areas is feeding into AHS,” Schmitt said.

Enrollment at AHS is nearing 2,000 students. The school currently is using eight trailer classrooms, more than the rest of the county’s middle and high schools combined.

“Albemarle High School is where it feels like there are a lot of kids,” said Crystal Soucy, president of the Baker-Butler PTO. “I don’t feel that Baker-Butler is crowded. Maybe it seems that way on paper.”

“I worry about the students at [AHS] who are … just floating by and not getting the attention they need,” said Mary Kay Campbell, a Forest Lakes resident. “It’s a tough challenge when you have that many students in a space that wasn’t planned to fit all of them.”

Ashwood Boulevard entrance to Forest Lakes, looking north
Credit: Skyclad Aerial

How bad is traffic on 29 north?

Traffic on U.S. 29 is bad, but it could be worse.

Campbell said she can avoid traffic on her commute to downtown Charlottesville by starting and ending her workday earlier or going to the gym before driving home. But her daughter’s soccer practices at a Charlottesville elementary school require a drive down U.S. 29 in the middle of rush hour.

“I think our roads are not built for the amount of vehicles that we have during the rush hour periods,” Campbell said. “I think it is only going to continue to get worse, especially as those new neighborhoods go in.”

Virginia Department of Transportation officials said they think that some tweaks to U.S. 29 can keep traffic moving despite the proposed developments. One improvement would be a restriping of lanes after U.S. 29 is repaved north of Towncenter Drive in a few months.

“We have some small spot improvements that we’re planning on, mostly up at Airport Road,” said Joel DeNunzio, the area’s VDOT resident engineer. We really want to try and get three [southbound] lanes of traffic through the intersection, since that seems to be the starting point of … the congestion. … We’re also looking at a slight improvement at Timberwood [Boulevard] with trying to also get an additional through traffic lane through there.”

Additionally, at North Pointe, construction crews will install some intersection types on U.S. 29 that haven’t been seen in the county before, he said.

“We’re going to see an RCUT up here at North Pointe,” DeNunzio said. “RCUT stands for ‘restricted crossing U-turns,’ which basically means you take a right to turn left. … You take the side streets, and instead of allowing them to take lefts or go through, they go up and make a U-turn at a safe location.”

RCUTs and other “innovative intersections,” such as roundabouts and diverging diamond interchanges, ease congestion by eliminating traffic signals or reducing the number of traffic moments the signals control, DeNunzio said. Traffic signals are among the biggest choke points on roads, he said.

“I think you’re going to see more of this type of solution versus your traditional traffic signal,” DeNunzio said.

“If you make intersections work better, and they’re safer, you really don’t have to do major widening,” he said.

If not for the innovative intersections, U.S. 29 would have to be widened to six lanes from the current section by Hollymead Town Center to the North Fork Rivanna River, DeNunzio said. Three RCUTs will be built for North Pointe, including one at the current intersection of U.S. 29 and Lewis and Clark Drive.

Off U.S. 29, there will be some interconnectivity to keep some local traffic of the highway. North Pointe has a proposed parallel road system, said Adam J. Moore, a land use engineer for VDOT. When it is fully built out, a road is expected to connect to Worth Crossing at Proffit Road. Additionally, Brookhill is slated to have a road connecting it to Ashwood Boulevard.

“On the other side of the road, the county has applied for funding to extend Berkmar from the roundabout at Timberwood and continue all the way up to Airport Road to where Innovation Drive comes in,” DeNunzio said.

From there, UVa has plans to extend Lewis and Clark Drive to Innovation Drive.

Tractors work to widen U.S. 29 near present-day Fashion Square Mall, April 12, 1954.
Credit: Virginia Department of Transportation

If all goes according to county plans, a bus between the major subdivisions and downtown Charlottesville also will lighten the vehicular load. The bus would stop at “nodes” along U.S. 29 like North Pointe, Hollymead, Rio Road and Hydraulic Road Gast-Bray said.

“We have complete places at that spot, so we organize the traffic to be able to serve that: the parking so that people can park once and take transit wherever they need to go,” Gast-Bray said. “It all works together when we create options and we design around being able to accommodate everybody at these nodes, and these nodes right now are a bunch of parking lots that are empty.”

Gast-Bray said that nodes could also help development area boundaries last. On average, each car uses four parking spaces a day.

“If you’re hopping on transit, it’s far less space,” he said. “If you built the way we used to build with big parking lots everywhere, we would have to [expand the development zone]. But it’s not what people want right now.”

Although there aren’t any standalone transit projects, DeNunzio said, “everything we’re doing accommodates transit.”

That includes the proposed subdivisions, Moore said.

“Brookhill has bus stops in its plans because the county requested it,” he said.

One Charlottesville Area Transit line currently runs between the Walmart Supercenter and the Downtown Mall. UVa in August began its own shuttle service between Grounds and the research park. The bus, provided through JAUNT, runs every half hour.

Brad Sheffield, JAUNT’s executive director and a former county supervisor, said the shift from funding guiding the process of where transit projects go to preparing for future transit needs is encouraging.

“I feel like we’re getting in a good direction now,” Sheffield said.

“As these developments are being proposed or coming online, it’s important to know which of those need multimodal transportation,” he said.

JAUNT also is working to predict future demand in the area, he said.

“We try to do what we can to prepare, but we would rather have discussions about land use first,” Sheffield said, adding that he feels that the county needs to take a fresh look at mass transit.

As Charlottesville is largely built out and does more of adjusting current transit routes, a “one size fits all,” approach can’t be used in the area, he said.

“The county is where we’re seeing more transit services being instituted,” Sheffield said.

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What about rural northern Albemarle?

Not all northern Albemarle commuters drive south. Major sources of employment cluster near the UVa Research Park, the National Ground Intelligence Center and the airport. The research park alone accounts for more than 1,500 jobs.

Instead of subdivisions, Places 29 North Advisory Committee member Jerrod Smith passes farms and forests on his way to work.

“The research park is helpful and convenient and great, so I get that part of the development,” Smith said.

But Smith’s heart is in Barboursville, where he was born and continues to live. Barboursville is divided among Albemarle, Orange and Greene counties, and Smith lives on the Albemarle side of the county line.

“Would I like to own my own small business in Barboursville? The answer would be absolutely yes,” he said. “I would open a store — nothing crazy — geared towards selling organic fruits and vegetables, so I can support farmers. People can go there, rather than to a county store, and get something healthier.”

While neighborhoods along U.S. 29 worry about overcrowding, rural areas like Barboursville have experienced a population decline. The dispersed living is by design, and Scott said he loves the quiet, blue-collar feel of his home. But the slow emptying of the landscape can feel like abandonment.

“An entrepreneurship tax break in the county would be great. … [A tax break] allows people to write off their first investment,” Smith said. “What’s the goal? To maximize tax dollars? Or to strike a balance between tax dollars and income equality?”

It is true that the county’s nascent economic development plan does not focus on rural areas.

“The community has said, ‘Let’s stay in the development areas and focus on that.’ I work for the community, so that’s what we’re going to do,” said Roger Johnson, Albemarle’s director of economic development.

Johnson moved to the area from Greenville, North Carolina, in April to take the economic development position. The economic development office was created in 2015 but was without leadership for months after the first director left.

For Johnson, the focus of the office is to bring new wealth into the community. He offered the example of WillowTree Inc, a mobile app designer which recently finalized a contract with the county to move into the historic Woolen Mills factory at the end of East Market Street.

“The money flows in through [General Electric] or HBO, or whichever customer they’re charging, back into our economy,” Johnson said.

Such businesses lessen the tax burden on residents required to provide county services, like public education and transportation.
Johnson said that his office largely redirects potential consumptive business owners to other resources, like the Central Virginia Small Business Development Center and the Charlottesville Business Innovation Council.

“If they came here, we’d help them, but there’s a couple of groups here locally that focus on helping those types of businesses,” Johnson said.

As the county continues to develop its economic development plan, Adventure Farms enjoys the best of northern Albemarle’s rural and development areas. Growth along the U.S. 29 corridor has allowed the family to expand into winemaking and pumpkin patches while offering the slower pace that so many on the corridor desire.

“People come up and thank me,” Matheson said. “It’s not a subdivision, it’s still a farm. That’s what our goal is — to keep it as an open space.”

Pumpkin patch at Adventure Farm
Credit: Eze Amos

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.

Emily Hays grew up in Charlottesville and graduated from Yale in 2016. She covered growth, development, and affordable living. Before writing for Charlottesville Tomorrow, she produced a podcast on education and caste in Maharashtra, India.

Elliott Robinson has spent nearly 15 years in journalism and joined Charlottesville Tomorrow as its news editor in August 2018 through 2021. He is a graduate of Christopher Newport University.