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City planning commission recommends historic district status for Woolen Mills

The creation of a historic district for the Woolen Mills neighborhood came closer to becoming a reality this week as the Charlottesville Planning Commission endorsed the idea.

“Ever since I’ve been on the Planning Commission, the Woolen Mills has been coming to us to try to get a higher level of protection and interest in their neighborhood,” said Commissioner Genevieve Keller at a public hearing on the matter Wednesday.

“I think this is long overdue,” she said.

The Woolen Mills Neighborhood Association has followed the path taken by groups in the Martha Jefferson and Venable neighborhoods to officially ask for a historic district.

“The Woolen Mills village has been central to the city of Charlottesville’s history since the opening of a milling operation there in 1829,” said Mary Joy Scala, the city’s historic-preservation planner.

“As a company mill town, the brick and frame dwellings in a range of styles built during the mid-19th century through the early 20th century have come to define the village,” she said.

For much of that time the village was within Albemarle County until being annexed by the city in 1968.

Properties within conservation districts are subject to consideration by the Board of Architectural Review for new construction or renovations to existing structures. That body also must give approval for any demolition of structures considered to contribute to neighborhood character. 

“The purpose of the proposed zoning overlay district is to promote the conservation of buildings and structures having an important historic, architectural, or cultural interest,” said Kurt Keesecker, chairman of the Planning Commission.

A total of 86 parcels will be in the district if the City Council goes with the Planning Commission’s recommendation.

“The intent of the historic conservation district is to identify and preserve buildings, structures and areas,” Scala said. “Secondly, it is to protect a neighborhood’s scale and character. Third, to document and promote understanding of the neighborhood’s social history.”

The BAR recommended in September that the district be created.

The president of the Woolen Mills Neighborhood Association said only three property owners in the area oppose creation of the district.

“The owners have the additional zoning protection and design guideline benefits from the conservation overlay with very minimal restriction of their use of private property,” said John Frazee. “This respects the history and integrity of the neighborhood while at the same time not necessarily becoming an onerous restriction for property owners.”

Frazee said overlay district will offer a starting point for any conversation about a small-area plan that the neighborhood would like to conduct to guide its land-use future.

“With so much to remember and so much to look forward to, the conservation overlay district will help preserve the Woolen Mills and help position it for the kind of growth and the kind of future that will benefit all residents of the city who use the natural resources and appreciate the history,” Frazee said.

The district’s creation has the support of a local organization that promotes historic preservation.

“Our group has assisted the city and neighborhoods designated for architectural design control districts in Charlottesville and the two [existing] conservation districts,” said Jean Hiatt, president of Preservation Piedmont. “We enthusiastically support [this] designation.”

The Planning Commission unanimously recommended approval of the district. Keller said the district would allow property owners to apply for federal tax credits for historic preservation.

“Sometimes, people say that designating an area may make it less affordable but there are national and state statistics that show that sometimes the reverse can be true,” she said.