23 February 2017
The controversial proposed development that rocked Fluvanna County, known first as Walker’s Ridge and then as Poplar Ridge, is officially over.
The Fluvanna County Board of Supervisors approved Feb. 15 a request by the land’s owner, Hotel Street Capital, LLC, to put its 232 acres into a conservation easement.
“The effect of this [conservation easement] is to restrict land in perpetuity,” said County Attorney Fred Payne. “It’s a serious step.”
The land sits primarily on the western side of Route 15 at its intersection with Route 644 near Palmyra, adjacent to Camp Friendship.
According to the rules of the conservation easement, the land can no longer be subdivided. No temporary or permanent structures may be built, maintained or replaced on the property other than two single-family homes.
Right now “it’s basically just vacant land,” said Brad Robinson, senior planner. The conservation easement will keep it that way.
County Administrator Steve Nichols estimated that the final paperwork could be complete in 90 days.
Walker’s Ridge first went public in 2013 when the Planning Commission and supervisors had to consider whether to rezone the property to allow Hotel Street Capital to build 1,180 residential units, such as townhouses and condos, and over 165,000 square feet of business space.
“This is a monster development and it will change Palmyra historically,” said Supervisor Don Weaver at the time.
Dozens of Fluvanna residents spoke against the project at public hearings.
Detractors pointed to the money the development would cost the county in services such as schools and sheriff’s deputies.
The developers highlighted the money Walker’s Ridge would bring to the community through an influx of construction dollars. New residents who moved to the development would also spend their money locally, they said.
But the biggest concern about Walker’s Ridge – and ultimately, what likely doomed the project – was the availability of groundwater to supply that many homes and businesses. Although subsequent phases of the development would have required public water and sewer, the first phase would have relied upon wells.
In June 2013 the Planning Commission recommended denial of Walker’s Ridge. That October supervisors were expected to make a final decision on the project’s fate, but instead sent it back to the Planning Commission for further review.
In January 2014 the Planning Commission again recommended denial. The next month supervisors narrowly voted to ax the project.
Later that year, a new iteration of Walker’s Ridge was born in the form of Poplar Ridge, a scaled-back proposal from Hotel Street Capital that contained 317 single-family houses and a maximum of 74,000 square feet of commercial space.
In June 2014 the Planning Commission unanimously recommended denial based partially on the concern that not enough groundwater existed to support the development.
In August 2014 the matter came before supervisors for a final decision. Two dozen residents spoke against Poplar Ridge and presented a petition with over 1,600 signatures urging supervisors to vote against the development.
The land sits adjacent to Camp Friendship, a 50-year-old overnight nature camp that pulls campers from all over the world. Camp owner Chuck Ackenbom once owned the land Hotel Street Capital sought to develop.
When Ackenbom spoke against the project, then-Supervisor Bob Ullenbruch famously told him, “When you sold the land you gave up the right to bitch about what is done with that land.”
By a 3-2 vote, supervisors approved the development.
In the two and a half years since then, not much has been heard about Poplar Ridge.
Thomas Ross, a contact person for Hotel Street Capital, declined to comment to the Fluvanna Review as to the reasons behind the decision to abandon plans for the development.
“I imagine they couldn’t find water,” Jason Stewart, planning and zoning administrator, told the Fluvanna Review. “I haven’t heard anything directly from the developers, but I have heard from different sources that they were having a hard time finding a water source for the utilities.”
That very concern, Stewart pointed out, “was what many people were saying during the original public hearings.”
The conservation easement, which comes with big tax benefits for Hotel Street Capital, lasts forever.
“In effect, what you’re doing [by approving the easement] is locking this property into something that it pretty much is now,” said Payne at the Feb. 15 meeting.
Supervisor Tony O’Brien asked Jack Hanssen, attorney for Hotel Street Capital, if the group was planning to sell the land. Hanssen said he didn’t know if the owners had a “solidified plan.”
The conservation easement will remain in place regardless of whether the property changes hands.
Supervisor Trish Eager tried to clarify whether a 50-foot strip would be reserved for potentially widening Route 15 at some point. Since a conservation easement lasts forever, that kind of plan needs to be made now.
“It’s a legitimate concern that needs to be addressed,” Payne said. He said before signing off on the paperwork he would read it again to check if language needed to be “tweaked.”
Supervisors unanimously approved the conservation easement.
Because the conservation easement reduces the value of the land, Fluvanna County will pull in lower taxes on the property than in the past.
“We are going to lose a little bit of taxes,” Eager said. “But on the other hand, had this developed into 600 homes, we would be paying for a lot of children and services.”