At a meeting where the audience filled nearly every seat in Charlottesville City Council Chambers, the Planning Commission unanimously recommended allowing a Belmont church to build affordable apartments on its property.

Hinton Avenue United Methodist Church is calling its 15-unit apartment project Rachel’s Haven after the pastor’s late wife, Rachel Lewis, who ministered to the developmentally disabled.

Roughly a third of the apartments would be for people with developmental disabilities, a best practice, according to church representatives.

The church’s proposal to rezone the property from Low-Density Residential to the Neighborhood Commercial Corridor zoning type initially raised flags for neighbors. To assuage concerns, the church had struck all non-residential uses, aside from educational and child care facilities affiliated with the church, from its request.

“We have tried to make it as easy as possible to choose in favor of our gift of Rachel’s Haven,” Kim Crater, of the Charlottesville District of the United Methodist Church, said at Tuesday’s Planning Commission meeting.

A minimum of four of the apartments at Rachel’s Haven would be affordable, but all 15 would be affordable if the church wins federal low-income housing tax credits for the project.

Most of the audience — with representatives of churches and nonprofits and advocates for affordable housing and for people with autism — supported the rezoning.

Mike and Mary Anna Dunn said that they support Rachel’s Haven because they are looking for a place where their son, who has autism, can live independently with support. They said that they cook for their son and drive him where he needs to go and that Belmont would be the perfect neighborhood with its quiet character and proximity to downtown.

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“Every morning, I look in the mirror and I see the lines deepening in my face,” Mike Dunn said. “When I’m gone and my wife is gone, what will become of him then?”

The rezoning proposal does not match the vision of the land use map in the city’s Comprehensive Plan. However, because the church has now proffered size restrictions to roughly match the size of the church building, city staff recommended the rezoning on the grounds that it served the overall goal of providing quality housing opportunities for all.

Belmont neighbors opposed to the rezoning expressed concerns about noise, traffic and parking. The main concern appeared to be the zoning type, which has been associated with the restaurants and traffic in Belmont that have been unpopular with some residents.

“This NCC zoning application comes after a long, 15-year history in Belmont of constant manipulation and distortion of the NCC designation catering to developers rather than neighbors,” said Kimber Hawkey, who was elected president of the Belmont-Carlton Neighborhood Association in April.

“We have always been pro-disabled housing and we also insist that development be appropriate for the neighborhood in size and scope,” she said.

Hawkey asked those who agreed with her to stand up. Approximately 17 people did.

One neighbor concerned about the rezoning, Amy Gardner, challenged the commission to write better zoning ordinances, saying that no zoning category quite fit the project.

The city currently is finalizing a request for proposals from contractors to complete an update of the Comprehensive Plan, write a comprehensive housing strategy and rewrite the city’s zoning ordinances.

After discussing how the city enforces proffers and noise regulations, the commission recommended approval of the Hinton Avenue rezoning. The anticipated date of the City Council hearing for the rezoning is July 1.

Kim Crater of the Charlottesville District of the United Methodist Church speaks at Tuesday’s Charlottesville Planning Commission meeting while audience members stand in support of the Hinton Avenue rezoning. Credit: Credit: Ézé Amos/Charlottesville Tomorrow Credit: Credit: Ézé Amos/Charlottesville Tomorrow

Emily Hays grew up in Charlottesville and graduated from Yale in 2016. She covered growth, development, and affordable living. Before writing for Charlottesville Tomorrow, she produced a podcast on education and caste in Maharashtra, India.