Somerset Farm concept plan, June 2011 Credit: CREDIT: Collins Engineering

The Albemarle Planning Commission has provided significant support to a proposal from local developer Wendell Wood to move more than 317 acres along Route 20 south of Charlottesville into the designated growth area. If ultimately approved after further study, the project would represent a significant change for Albemarle’s Comprehensive Plan.

Somerset Farm sits south of Interstate 64 on the eastern side of Route 20 between Carter Mountain and the neighborhoods of Mill Creek and Lake Reynovia. Wood has requested that Albemarle change its Comprehensive Plan to allow the land, currently in the county’s rural area, to be developed for up to 1,902 new homes, plus significant retail and office development.

“Mr. Wood seems really willing to work with us and provide some commercial development in an area where there is none,” Commissioner Linda Porterfield said. “My biggest concern is that we need to figure out how much more capacity can we handle in Albemarle without diluting the services provided to existing residents in the development areas.”

“When I look at that area down there … it just seems to me if we are going to make an exception, this might be the one we need to make,” commission Chairman Duane Zobrist said.

Julia Monteith, an ex-officio member of the commission representing the University of Virginia, pointed out the site had other attributes that needed to be considered.

“This is a designated state scenic byway, it is part of a historic district and it is an entrance corridor,” Monteith said. “These things need to be addressed from a qualitative point of view too.”

Albemarle Planning Commission chairman Duane Zobrist (center)

“I am sensitive to the historic aspects too,” Zobrist responded. “But we have already messed up the west side of [Route 20].”

Wood said after the work session that he thinks the commission clearly understands the proposal.

“I think they recognized that this property has a lot of merit,” Wood said. “It certainly is not ‘rural land’ with apartments, industrial businesses and the Kappa Sigma headquarters all across the street.”

Since the state acquired the nearby Biscuit Run property in December 2009 from local banker and developer Hunter Craig, numerous land owners have submitted proposals to Albemarle seeking to bring new land into the growth area.

Neil Williamson , president of the Free Enterprise Forum , said Tuesday that some restoration of the growth area may be appropriate.

“One could argue that the Comprehensive Plan designates 5 percent [of Albemarle as] development area and 95 percent as rural area, and thanks to unilateral action by state government, the current development area no longer meets the designation, and it needs to be updated,” Williamson told the commission.

Biscuit Run’s 800 developable acres, which were planned for as many as 3,100 homes, represented about 3.5 percent of Albemarle’s land targeted for growth. The Planning Commission was provided Tuesday with a list of 10 pending requests to move more than 740 acres into the growth area.

The Piedmont Environmental Council’s Jeff Werner said in an interview that he doesn’t understand the need to restore the lost development potential when so many other previously approved developments are sitting idle in the current housing market.

“If the demand was there for all this growth, then Biscuit Run wouldn’t be a state park right now,” Werner said. “If Albemarle wants to contemplate a growth area expansion, that should be a part of the whole planning process [the county] said they are going to do.”

Albemarle County staff recommended to the commission that Somerset Farm, and the other proposals, all be evaluated as part of the major review of the county’s Comprehensive Plan taking place during 2011-2013.

Morgan Butler, an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center , echoed that advice and recommended additional data be considered before any of the 10 growth area expansions moved forward.

“This proposal definitely has some very positive characteristics, but it also has some negative characteristics,” Butler said. “A key first part [of that study] is revisiting the county’s needs and the holding capacity of our existing development areas, as well as getting an inventory of what has already been approved.”

Wood said after the meeting that he had hoped the commission would move forward on a faster schedule. Zobrist said the commission would act further on the request in the fall once staff had provided additional metrics as part of the Comprehensive Plan review.

“We asked staff to consider ranking the 10 projects they have because we all think that [Somerset Farm] ranks very high,” Zobrist said after the meeting. “The collective wisdom is we should study this because we want to see development south of the interstate.”