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Stonehenge development in Belmont sent back to Planning Commission

The Charlottesville City Council has sent a housing development targeted for a steep and undeveloped slope in the Belmont/Carlton neighborhood back to the Planning Commission for further review. The commission recommended denial of the rezoning in February.

At their meeting Monday, councilors strongly encouraged developer Andrew Baldwin to work with the commission to come up with a better plan for the 29-home Stonehenge project. They said the alternative was an immediate rejection and a one-year wait for reconsideration.

“The commission that we charge with getting into the deep weeds on these sorts of things … and looking at what’s best for the city and what’s in compliance with the vision of the city has voted 6-0 in favor of a recommendation for denial,” said Councilor Kristin Szakos to Baldwin. “Generally, the council goes along with these recommendations; that’s why we have a Planning Commission.”

“The level of development of your plan, especially the first [application], is not really what we are used to,” Szakos added. “We were pretty shocked at what you felt was acceptable.”

Baldwin urged the council to support the Planned Unit Development because he said it would result in a much better project as compared with what would be allowed if he developed it by-right according to neighborhood plans dating back to the 1890s.

“[The Planning Commission] has not addressed any constructive things we did for this project,” Baldwin told councilors. “I understand the frustration level is very high, but … there were a lot of things we took into consideration for this, and a lot of money was spent on that plan, and a lot of attempts were made to get the Planning Commission to meet us to address these concerns.”

“We may have hurt your feelings a little bit, but that’s not the point,” Mayor Satyendra Huja responded. “The point is to do the best PUD you can do.”

The council has heard concerns from neighbors about the project’s lack of connectivity to the rest of Belmont, concerns about traffic and the developer’s preliminary clearing of trees on the site.

Belmont resident Katrina Hennigar voiced her concerns at the council’s neighborhood town hall meeting last week and she watched council’s deliberations on TV on Monday night with her husband.

“My primary concern was topography and secondarily pedestrian access,” Hennigar said.  “We walk and bike there frequently. We were concerned how isolated that development might be from the rest of Belmont.”

“The Planning Commission was very thoughtful and I would love to see the developer work with a landscape architect and address some of their concerns,” Hennigar added. “I do like the PUD plan much better than the by-right option and would like to see that happen.”

Interviewed the day after the decision, Baldwin said he had already heard from city staff who wanted to facilitate a new review process.

“They are reaching out to us in an attempt to do a few work sessions in a pretty tight time period,” Baldwin said. “They will appoint a committee for us to work with and we hope that can be productive. We will be forced to do the by-right plan if we can’t all come to an agreement in a reasonable period of time.”

“We feel like the PUD is more environmentally friendly,” added Baldwin. “It works more with the topography that’s there and we can approach the site with that in mind.”

A stream that runs through the property would be buried in a culvert if Baldwin opts for the by-right development.  

“The PUD saves a large amount of trees and stays out of the stream,” Baldwin said. “The by-right plan takes all the trees out.”

Jim Tolbert, the city’s director of neighborhood development services, said city staff would work further with Baldwin, and he noted it was one of the most challenging undeveloped sites left in the city.

“I would hope that we could take this plan and have him address a few of the issues the Planning Commission identified so he could get a favorable recommendation,” Tolbert said.

Tolbert also suggested Baldwin’s team may have been handicapped because they had not previously done a rezoning in the city and they did not commit to specific written proffers to mitigate the development’s impact.  

“Had they come in as they were advised with some of the things they said they would do as proffers, so there would be some assurance things would happen, the outcome might have been different,” Tolbert said.