At their July 8, 2008 meeting the Albemarle County Planning Commission recommended conditional approval of a special use permit allowing St. Anne’s Belfield school (STAB) to expand their lower school campus to include middle school as well as elementary school students, raising the maximum number of students allowed on the campus to 550. Of the ten conditions the Commission placed on the approval, St. Anne’s objected only to a provision requiring construction of a new turn lane, and the stipulation that all new buildings would have to be LEED certified by the US Green Building Council as “environmentally responsible”.
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The Commission first discussed the permit application at an April 29, 2008 work session. County staff raised concerns before that meeting that the headmaster’s house, set to be demolished to make room for an additional playing field, could be a historically or architecturally significant building that should be preserved. In response, STAB submitted an evaluation by an architectural historian that the building did not fall into that category, and while staff expressed “disappointment” that the building could not be saved, they removed their objections to its demolition.
Both County staff and Commissioners were also concerned about the possible impacts increased traffic to the lower campus could have on nearby intersections. A Traffic Impact Analysis (TIA) submitted by STAB identified five intersections that would experience significant congestion in 2010 if the expansion was allowed; however, according to the TIA, all of these intersections would need improvements anyway by that time due to other growth in the area. The TIA identified two intersections that would be more significantly impacted than the others, and STAB offered to pay a pro-rata share of the construction costs for those two improvements, equal to approximately $13,000.
Joel Denunzio of the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) asserted in an email that while the planned increase in students would affect traffic levels at all five intersections, it would directly “trigger” the need for improvements at two intersections; a right turn lane extension at the intersection of the Route 250 off-ramp and Faulconer Drive, and a right turn taper at the intersection of Route 250 and Old Garth Road. Denunzio argued that the applicant should either be held responsible for constructing the two improvements directly triggered, or should pay a pro-rata share of all five affected intersections.
The cost for constructing the two improvements was estimated by the TIA at approximately $110,000; Mr. Denunzio was unable to provide the Commission with an estimate of STAB’s pro-rata share of all five intersections in time for the meeting. Staff recommended that STAB be responsible for construction of the two most directly impacted intersections. Richard Carter, lawyer for the applicant, objected to the suggestion that STAB should be responsible for constructing road improvements, imploring the Commission to recognize that “we’re trying to run a school, we don’t know how to build these roads.” He raised questions about who owns the land that a turn lane extension would require, and asked what his client should do if it turns out that they are unable to complete the construction.
Erick Strucko argued that since STAB accounts for almost all of the traffic at the 250 off-ramp Faulconer Drive intersection (left), but only a portion of the traffic at the other intersections, the fairest thing to do would be to require STAB to complete the right turn lane extension at that intersection, and leave the other intersections to VDOT. Commissioner Linda Porterfield introduced an amendment that would provide a solution in case STAB was unable to secure the necessary right of way to construct the improvements, allowing the school to pay VDOT to condemn the land and then construct the improvement itself. However, Commissioner Tom Loach objected on the grounds that if the applicant was correct that the intersections would be at failing levels of service by 2010, it would be irresponsible of the Commission to allow them to increase traffic and not ensure that the improvements were made. He was adamant that construction should not start until the transportation infrastructure was ready to support it. The amendment did not pass. The final condition was amended to require that, prior to the issuance of a certificate of occupancy, the applicant must build a turn lane extension for the Route 250 off-ramp.
St. Anne’s also objected to staff’s proposal concerning construction of the new buildings in keeping with the LEED environmental principles. STAB had set as a goal for themselves the achievement of LEED silver certification for all new buildings, a certification awarded by the US Green Building Council based on criteria that can change from year to year. What staff had proposed was a multiple step process to ensure that the school made a good-faith effort towards LEED compliance, but was not penalized if the effort was unsuccessful.
According to the condition as drafted by staff, prior to receiving a building permit, STAB would need to “submit a certification from a LEED certified architect” stating that the building plans, if followed, would result in structures meeting LEED silver certification criteria. Then, in order to receive a certification of occupancy, the architect would need to submit an additional certification stating that the buildings as constructed match the plans certified earlier. Commissioner Edgerton, a LEED certified professional, categorized the language as confusing, and not in keeping with the way LEED certification progresses in practice.
Calvert Bowie, architect for the applicant, explained that in his view the issuance of a “certification” that a building would meet LEED standards before it is actually built was not professionally responsible. Bowie explained that LEED certification takes into account the way in which materials on a site are disposed of, construction methods, and a host of other factors that the architect has no control over. He argued that “no architect really should certify…that a building is built to the full standards.”
St. Anne’s Belfield Head of School David Lourie, and from left, Attorney Rich Carter, Engineer Kurt Gloeckner, and Assistant Head of School Michael Waylett.
He characterized the condition as written as “very onerous to us, and would be to our insurer….Certifying is an act that our insurance company will do a backflip over.”
Commissioner Jon Cannon explained that the language was an attempt to avoid a situation where STAB failed to get a certification, and then was retroactively not in compliance. Commissioner Edgerton responded that he would be comfortable simply requiring the school to achieve LEED silver certification, and saying that “this special use permit would not be valid if they didn’t achieve that, and whether it takes them a year, two years, three years, I don’t care.” LEED certification is partly based on the use of the building once completed, and therefore a certification could not be received until after the building was occupied. Wayne Cilimberg, Director of Planning for Albemarle County, explained that permits that are retroactively invalid would be a major problem for the County’s enforcement division. Julia Monteith, a non-voting member representing the University of Virginia, suggested that they only require basic LEED certification, a less stringent standard, but encourage the school to strive for LEED silver. This suggestion was agreed to by the Commission.
The Commissioners were also concerned about how to resolve a potential conflict between LEED certification requirements and the guidelines of the Architectural Review Board (ARB). The condition as initially drafted by staff gave the ARB precedence over LEED requirements, but Commissioner Cal Morris saw “a real, real problem” with that, and Commissioner Marcia Joseph asked the Commission to examine its commitment to LEED. The commission came to a consensus that the statement about ARB precedence should be removed, which would, as Commissioner Jon Cannon put it, “have the effect of having this condition, meeting LEED certification, trump any inconsistent guideline imposed by [the ARB].” The final condition was reworked to require STAB to receive the basic level of LEED certification within two years of receiving their certificate of occupancy.
The Planning Commission voted 5-2 to recommend approval of the special use permit with the ten conditions laid out in the staff report, but with the changes to the conditions regarding traffic construction and building requirements. The permit request now goes to the Albemarle Board of Supervisors, at a date to be determined.