The four newest members of the Albemarle Board of Supervisors signaled last week that they want the Planning Commission to play more of a role as rezoning applications proceed through county government.
Supervisors voted 4-2 to send a rezoning proposal for Hollymead Town Center back to the Planning Commission because developer Katurah Roell had modified the proposal after commissioners saw the project plan in late July.
“I need the Planning Commission to look at the changes and let me know as a group if they are comfortable or not so I can make a better or informed decision,” said Supervisor Brad Sheffield.
Roell is seeking permission to amend the terms of the 2003 rezoning of a portion of the Hollymead Town Center to allow for townhouses to be built in a spot that had been designated for a parking lot and commercial buildings.
“When this was first conceived in 2001, it was thought [Hollymead] would be more like the Downtown Mall by now,” Roell said at a Sept. 10 public hearing. “At this stage, that land has sat vacant for that period of time.”
The Planning Commission recommended approval of the proposal July 29, as long as certain conditions were met. Among the panel’s requests was that five units be removed in order to create more green space.
Before the supervisors’ public hearing, Roell slightly altered the plan but only eliminated three of the lots to accommodate the open-space request.
County planning staff could not recommend approval because it did not meet the commission’s conditions for approval.
“The proposed open-space system shown on the proposed application plan is not consistent with the commission’s recommendation,” county planner Claudette Grant said.
County attorney Larry Davis said it was within the commission’s purview to make that recommendation, but approval or denial is at the supervisors’ legislative discretion.
“The Planning Commission just makes a recommendation,” Davis said. “The open-space issue is a basis on which they can recommend [supervisors] deny the application.”
Sheffield said he had no problem with approving what Roell asked for, but he could not support voting for the Planning Commission’s recommendation.
“In situations like this I’m looking for the Planning Commission to give us a little bit more clear direction,” Sheffield said. “I’m not entirely comfortable when things are not clarified at the Planning Commission level and [applications] come to us in transition and they’re still being modified.”
Sheffield said the Planning Commission should have seen the application a second time.
But Supervisor Kenneth C. Boyd had an alternative view.
“The Planning Commission is not an elected body,” Boyd said. “They are to advise us on what to do. The buck stops with [the supervisors].”
Boyd said applications frequently change between the commission’s deliberation and the board’s consideration. He also said the commissioners should not inject their personal preferences into their recommendations.
Supervisor Ann H. Mallek also defended the practice, saying that members of the public have a first shot to weigh in at the commission’s public hearing.
“There are often good ideas that get incorporated in the time between the two hearings …,” Mallek said. She added that more time before the Planning Commission could extend the time it takes for a developer to can get the approval to move forward with a project.
Roell said he first submitted his application in the summer of 2013.
Supervisors Diantha McKeel and Liz Palmer agreed with Sheffield, saying the Planning Commission’s scrutiny was required to make sure issues such as traffic congestion are addressed. They were elected with Sheffield last November to four-year terms.
Jane Dittmar took her seat on the Board of Supervisors in November after winning a special election for a term that expires at the end of 2015. She asked Roell why he decided not to return to the Planning Commission after modifying his plan.
“I chose to show [the Board of Supervisors] an alternative of what [the Planning Commission] had approved because I did not agree with their thought process,” Roell said. “Staff did recommend my plan. I did meet the requirements. The commission chose to think more green space was needed.”
Dittmar said that if the supervisors want to change the planning process, they should not do so at Roell’s expense.
“I want to make sure that we don’t use this [rezoning] as a way to communicate with our Planning Commission,” Dittmar said.
Roell said that he continues to disagree with the commission.
“I simply wanted to give you the option to something I thought was a better approach towards this,” he said. “I know they will deny it so I don’t care to waste another 30 days to go back and show them that plan.”
After some discussion, Roell said he would be willing to resubmit a plan that relocated two lots to further extend the green space. Under that scenario, staff would review the plan to see if it meets the Planning Commission’s recommendations.
But Sheffield pressed Roell to return to the Planning Commission anyway with the plan that only eliminates three lots.
“You have a chance of getting three eliminated, but your fall back is you would do five,” Sheffield said.
The commission voted to refer the matter back to the Planning Commission. It is expected to return to the Board of Supervisors by Oct. 8.