New development

Recently, the developer scaled back the proposal from 1,180 to 952 residential units, in the form of condos, townhomes, duplexes, and single-family homes.  Also part of the new plan is 167,000 square feet of commercial space, as well as several amenities such as walking trails, an athletic field, a swimming pool, and a playground.  Called a “lifetime project” by its developers, Walker’s Ridge could take 25 years to materialize in final form.  Because of that, it has three distinct phases in which it will be constructed.

Speaking with enthusiasm about the project, Smith noted its potential to positively impact the local economy: first through significant spending on its construction, then by the residual spending of those who come to live there.

In a presentation, Planning Director Allyson Finchum reviewed first the facts and then the projected impacts of Walker’s Ridge.  One potentially problematic impact concerns the existence of sufficient groundwater for both the new project and the existing homes in the area.  It is the developer, she stated, who must demonstrate the groundwater’s sufficiency.  “Mitigating this [groundwater usage] impact on surrounding property owners is of utmost importance, especially in any discretionary zoning action,” she said.  “Fluvanna citizens have major concerns with groundwater availability.”

Another significant impact of the proposed development is the number of children – projected to be 416 to 772 students – it will add into the school system.  At Fluvanna’s current expenditure per student, the county will see an estimated increase of $3.7 to $6.9 million in annual school costs.  The amount Walker’s Ridge has proffered to help mitigate school costs, $3,000 per residential unit, does not amount to even one year of increased expenses.  At this, Supervisor Don Weaver noted “the possible need for a new school to accommodate this growth,” while Supervisor Mozell Booker reminded the Board that this influx of students would be spread over ten or more years.

Rezoning requests first go through the county’s Planning Commission.  Summarizing the Commission’s unanimous recommendation against Walker’s Ridge, Finchum touched on several objections, which included opposition to the idea of deliberately worsening Fluvanna’s business-to-residential ratio.  County attorney Fred Payne chimed in, praising the Commission for its diligence and noting that “Chairman [Barry] Bibb did an extraordinary job of going down the ordinance requirements and asking ‘Where is this?  Where is that?’ and when he got done, I think the commissioners unanimously didn’t consider that they had the information they needed to resolve the issues…[standing in the way of] approval.”

During the public hearing 22 citizens spoke against the development.  Rick Kelly, candidate for Rivanna district supervisor, told the Board that Lake Monticello, with its thousands of residents, has trouble supporting the businesses outside its gates, and warned that the idyllic pictures painted by the developer should really depict empty storefronts with “for lease” signs in the windows.

In phase one, the developers plan to build 308 residential units and 37,000 square feet of commercial space – commercial space that will help to provide sorely needed tax dollars to the relief of the homeowner.  Judge Al Talley compared the impact of the 308 new residences to that of the 37,000 square feet of commercial space.  “What is that?…Do the math,” he said.  “A small service station and a fast mart.  That’s the commercial space you’re guaranteed out of this.  That’s what your return will be.”

When Dennis Holder spoke, he returned the conversation to the lack of required information.  “If you’d been at as many of these Planning Commission meetings as I was,” he said, “you would have been amazed at how many times [Chairman] Bibb…said to this developer, ‘Where are various documents that are required by the ordinance?’…That’s not ambiguous, the ordinance lists a bunch of things you have to have in order to have a completed application.  Mr. Bibb over and over said, ‘Where is it?  It’s required by the ordinance.’”

Summing up the opposition, Molly Suling urged the Board, “Picture a line of cars piling onto Rt. 15 each morning to drive away from Fluvanna to work and shop, while Fluvanna bears the costs of providing their requisite services… The Planning Commission, the Board’s right arm in these matters, den[ied] this rezoning request… We ask that you uphold their decision, give this rezoning proposition an unequivocal no, and be done with it.”


After the public hearing, the discussion resumed.  Picking up on a point made by Elizabeth Franklin, candidate for Columbia district supervisor, Supervisor Joe Chesser voiced his concerns about whether the county would have to bail out the development’s water and sewer system, should it fail.  In response, Smith noted that the system would be tightly regulated by a service company.

Supervisor Bob Ullenbruch stated that the county is currently “picking up slack” from other developers’ private roads and wondered if Fluvanna would end up being in the same situation with Walker’s Ridge.  Smith assured the Board that the development’s homeowners’ association would be responsible for maintaining the roads, as in Lake Monticello.

“So basically we’re talking about another Lake Monticello,” Chesser remarked.

“Yeah, on a smaller scale…but with all the same issues,” Ullenbruch replied.  He went on to describe how two ideals, landowner rights and the good of Fluvanna, are competing for dominance in his mind as he determines his vote.  “I’m a landowner rights kind of person until it hurts someone else… I just can’t think of one good thing this is doing for the county, and I’m trying to find one, because of landowner rights…and I just can’t find one.”

At that point, Payne spoke up.  Calling the Board’s attention to the fact that phases two and three of Walker’s Ridge require public water and sewer, infrastructure currently lacking in the Palmyra area, he asked, “What happens if the developer comes in five years from now, ten years from now, whatever it might be, and says, ‘You don’t have public water here, I can’t afford to bring the water, so I can’t make this work’?”  By law, landowners must have “a reasonable use” of their property, Payne said, which means that the developer could very well use the court system to constrain the county to make a zoning change.  Very possibly such a change could result in no zoning at all for the property, which would allow the developer to act at will.  “One thing I think you have to satisfy yourself is that…this project can be completed the way it’s proposed,” he said.  “And I think this record doesn’t show that.”

At that point, Payne drew the Board’s attention back to the lack of required information.  When pressed for concrete water and sewer information, Walker’s Ridge engineer Justin Shimp has said many times that the developers will provide this information later, in the site plan.  But that, according to Payne, is “insufficient.”

Rather, the Board has a positive duty under the ordinance to make a finding that the proposed use of the Walker’s Ridge property shall not adversely affect the use or value of other properties.  But that has not been established, Payne said, because no studies have been done to discover the effect on local groundwater from the development’s proposed large-scale usage.  “There is nothing to show that this water exists,” he said.  The ordinance “puts the burden on the applicant to establish to your satisfaction, that you’re able to find, that it won’t adversely affect [other] properties.  If you can’t make that finding, I judge that you cannot issue these special use permits.”

At that, Supervisor Shaun Kenney wondered if the commissioners were aware of that issue.

“Sure, that’s one reason they denied it,” Payne replied.

“This is what’s a little bit frustrating to me,” Kenney responded.  “Here we are at the eleventh hour…and this is the first time that I have heard of this as a supervisor… No one has briefed us on this whatsoever…and now we’re hearing about a statutory concern.”

“The planning commissioners, primarily Mr. Bibb, asked these very questions,” Payne responded, “and they [the developers] said ‘we don’t have this information.’”

“Multiple times, not just one meeting,” Nichols added.

Displeased with the implications of Payne’s objections, Kenney declared, “This is not the first time where advice of this nature has come before the Board on a matter of policy that we know that members of staff have already formed an opinion on…  And so that’s my primary concern at this rate, is that again, at the eleventh hour we have the legal concern that comes before the Board to forestall something that there’s been months and months of conversation on and that concerns me greatly.”

“That’s not a fair characterization,” Payne protested, “because the Planning Commission specifically raised these issues, and the applicant had an opportunity to review them.”

“How can you ask the applicant to meet a standard that we’re not even aware of?” Kenney countered.

“If you’re talking about this section of the ordinance,” Payne said, “They were.”

“They recited it precisely,” Nichols agreed.

“Mr. Bibb’s questions were extraordinarily insightful,” Payne continued.  “He asked these questions in great detail, and the answers simply weren’t there, and when you say give the applicant an opportunity… It is inarguable to me that after the Planning Commission’s discussion and its action – this applicant knew what the problems were, it had to, because you couldn’t sit there in that room and not know what the problems were.”

When called upon to give her opinion, Finchum stated, “I’ve been interpreting zoning ordinances for a quarter of a century, and I myself did not realize the seriousness of this.”

After more discussion, Kenney declared that he was in favor of remanding the issue back to the Planning Commission in order to give the applicant a “fair chance” to address the issue.  Nichols responded that the process itself was the fair chance.  Finchum suggested that nothing would change, as the Planning Commission would say the same things it said before.  Consensus seemed to exist that whether anything new came to light would be up to the applicant.

So Kenney asked Smith his opinion, and he replied, “I would like the opportunity to defer this… We could conceivably have a hydraulic report back in 30 days.”

With that, the Board voted 4-1 to remand the issue back to the Planning Commission (Booker dissenting).  After the meeting, Booker explained her dissenting vote by saying, “I don’t see what more we can say to them.  I read through the comments that the planning commissioners came up with, their concerns.  I saw that they probably could have been answered.”

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