Amid a slew of public opposition, the Albemarle Planning Commission voted unanimously Tuesday, to recommend approval of two special use permits for a proposed campground and canoe livery on the bank of the James River in Howardsville.
However, heeding concerns over public health and safety, and preserving Howardsville’s tranquil way of life, the commission attached numerous conditions to the approval.
Of particular concern to Commissioner Thomas Loach was the presence of portable toilets in an area of regular flooding.
“I still have the same concerns that I did with the [MONU Soccer Field],” Loach said. “The water can rise and these things have the potential to be floating contaminates.”
The town of Howardsville has a history of flooding, and the proposed 48 tent-only campsites lie entirely in the James River’s Floodplain.
Campground manager Roger Nelson is working with a contractor in Nelson County who will remove the portable toilets in the event of flooding.
Howardsville resident Danielle Fuentes Johnson says that the location is a poor choice altogether.
“There’s flooding, a rail line, and a busy, high-speed road right there,” Johnson said. “It’s a tragedy waiting to happen.”
“This is probably one of the most dangerous spots on the river,” Howardsville Historical Society coordinator Tim Lewis added.
Due to the proximity of the CSX rail line running adjacent to the property, Commissioner Calvin Morris recommended relocating eight campsites that fell within 100-150 feet of the tracks.
Nelson said those sites were an oversight and that they would be willing to change the site plans.
In addition to problems at the site, residents noted that the lack of cell phone reception would make it difficult for campers to get emergency response services to the site.
“This is exhibit A,” Karen Firehock said, holding her brand new Verizon Blackberry above her head. “This phone doesn’t work in Howardsville, and it’s got extra ‘Gs’ and everything.”
“There is one spot on the James River Bridge that you can walk to and perhaps get a signal,” Firehock added. “In the event of an emergency, if you expect a camper to have a Verizon plan and walk to the middle of the bridge, then that is ridiculous.”
Commissioner Calvin Morris said that, at a recent visit to the site, he was able to make a phone call with no problem.
It would cost James Crews, the property owner, $7,000 to install a landline.
Sherry Fitzgerald took issue with how the campground would affect property values.
“If all we have to do is be cynical here, what’s the value of tax-revenue from the campground versus the depreciation of all of our homes,” Fitzgerald asked.
The campground’s disturbance to Howardsville’s tranquility also concerned residents.
“We chose to buy our forever home in Howardsville for its serenity and privacy,” Johnson said. “Had the campsite been here when I was looking to buy a house, I would not have bought my home in Howardsville,” Johnson added.
“125 parking spaces,” Marvin Ripley exclaimed. “125 of anything in Howardsville is too many.”
Commissioner Don Franco recommended decreasing that number to 100. Sixty-one parking spaces exist currently.
Johnson insisted that the presence of a campground of this scale would alter Howardsville’s unique character and lead to other disturbances.
“Reality is that heavy drinking and drug use go hand in hand and this leads to diminished impulse control and violence and crime. We are all at risk of being victims of these crimes,” Johnson said.
But Nelson said that these concerns are founded on fear, and disputed the proposed campground’s perception.
“We’re not opening a rodeo,” Nelson said. “We’re taking a family-oriented, environmentally-friendly approach.”
Conditions two and eight of the staff report prohibit amplified sound systems and the consumption of alcohol, respectively.
Given the division between the campground and the residents, Commissioner Bruce Dotson recommended a condition requiring the special use permits’ reevaluations after two years.
Commissioner Richard Randolph supported the permits, under the condition that a manager remain on-site day and night.
The Commission’s recommendations for approval will go before the Albemarle Board of Supervisors on a date to be determined.