Walker’s Ridge


Walker’s Ridge was a proposed planned unit development (PUD) just north of Palmyra on Rt. 15 and Rt. 644. During the many meetings dedicated to analyzing this project, the public in attendance has spoken overwhelmingly against approval.

At full build-out Walker’s Ridge would have consisted of 952 units of housing; 652 of them would have been detached single-family units, and 300 would have been attached multifamily units.  Developers would also have built 180,000 square feet of commercial space.  Phase one of the project would have consisted of 306 residential units and 37,000 square feet of commercial space.

Citizens’ objections to the plan include concerns about groundwater availability, as the first phase of Walker’s Ridge would have relied upon wells.  Others have called into question the suitability of the soil for the development’s proposed drain fields, and have warned about pollution in the Rivanna River.  Still others have puzzled over the rationale behind placing 952 units of housing so far from employment centers and public transportation.  Many have commented on the expense of such a development, as residences produce a greater demand for services than they pay in taxes, at a time when Fluvanna is actively seeking to decrease its reliance on homeowner real estate taxes.  Some have also lamented the possible closing of successful Camp Friendship, immediately adjacent to the Walker’s Ridge site, declaring the nature camp and the high-density development to be incompatible.

Last June, after much research, the Planning Commission unanimously recommended denial for Walker’s Ridge.  Still, the final fate of the project remained largely uncertain, as some supervisors expressed support for the plan.  Last October, the Board was expected to make a decision, but instead remanded it back to the Planning Commission for further review.  On Jan. 22, the Planning Commission again unanimously recommended denial.

At Wednesday’s meeting, though the public hearing had already taken place, 14 citizens urged the Board to deny the project.   Overton McGehee held up a bag full of clay, taken from the Walker’s Ridge site, and a bottle of river water.  “You can drink this and not get sick,” he declared, indicating the water.  “If you approve [this development] on an alternate drainfield system on very bad clay, this close to the Rivanna, we will not be able to drink water from the Rivanna, or feel comfortable swimming.”

Former supervisor Len Gardner reminded the Board of Sycamore Square, a development off Rt. 600 near Lake Monticello.  History shows, Gardner stated, that not all the promised commercial space in a development ever materializes.  Steve Pence raised the point that wells, which he said used to be 40 to 60 feet deep, are now being drilled 300 feet deep.  “We’re drawing down the groundwater,” he asserted.

“There have been no favorable comments from citizens about any aspect of this project, so it’s actually quite puzzling why this proposal is still alive at all,” declared Molly Suling.  Kathy Swenson Miller appealed directly to the Board: “However you vote tonight, I’d like to request that you publicly state your reason for your vote.”

Then deliberations began.  Supervisor Tony O’Brien started things off by calling attention to Fluvanna’s development process.  “Our county needs to recognize that it needs to be competitive in the process of permitting and application,” he stated.

“Fluvanna County is not hostile to developers,” County Attorney Fred Payne countered.

“I don’t think I was suggesting that it’s hostile, I was just suggesting that there is a question of clarity,” O’Brien rejoined.  “If the applicant wanted to show proof [that] there is sufficient water, what is the county requesting right now?”  He went on to explain that “trying to get clarity on those questions has really been a challenge for me from that standpoint.  And beyond this [project] – because I expect to see that, whether this gets approved or doesn’t get approved, that we will see requests of this type on a regular basis.  I’d really like to understand that process, and I’d really like to make sure that our county understands that process.”

“With another PUD application it’s going to look, feel, and smell different from this one,” County Administrator Steve Nichols replied.  “And the criteria we’re going to use, while broadly the same, are going to be narrowly focused on that property, those specifications… The frustrating part is the nuance… I wish this were clearer, but you’ve had a year of people that you’ve appointed to do this, the Planning Commission, look[ing] at this multiple, multiple times.”

Noting that Walker’s Ridge was proposed within a community planning area, which is designated for growth, O’Brien responded, “It’s an unfortunate position to be in where we say we want something and then say, well, maybe that’s not what we really want.”

“The real question here is adequacy of [water] supply,” Payne stated, explaining that if no public water exists, then the burden of the SUP ordinance falls on the developer to show that his system is adequate.  “That’s what you’re deciding when you review this SUP for these utilities.”

“What is it that I’m not understanding?” asked Chairperson Mozell Booker.  When she looked at the information the developer provided in support of having enough water, she felt satisfied, but saw when she visited the Planning Commission meeting that they did not agree.  “So I’m sitting here wondering: What do you need to supply?  Do you need to drill the wells?”

At this point Supervisor Don Weaver spoke up, asserting that the hydrogeological assessments provided by the developer are basically speculation.  “This is an easy decision for me to make tonight,” he declared, stating that he questions whether the groundwater exists and believes the soil to be unsuitable for drainfields.  “This is a monster development and it will change Palmyra historically.”

Supervisor Bob Ullenbruch chimed in.  “I will almost never vote against the Planning Commission when they vote unanimous[ly].  That’s like a slap in the face to the Planning Commission… They do this basically for nothing, for the county, to get it right… Residences don’t pay the bill, and that’s why we’re in the mess we’re in right now.”

At this point, Booker asked Supervisor Mike Sheridan for his opinion.  “We have three places where the Rivanna River is still in good condition,” he replied.  “That tells me a lot right there.”

“I think that we’re getting a little lost in the weeds,” O’Brien declared, “because the reality is that the county is going to grow.”  In the next 10 to 15 years, he asserted, Fluvanna may have another 13,000 or 14,000 residents.  “The question is: Where are all those people going?”

“Sprawl,” Booker offered.

“It’s great to say, oh, the only thing we’ll allow to happen in Fluvanna is basically just commercial growth,” O’Brien rejoined.  But the reality, he said, is that people are going to come in, and PUDs can help county government target where they go.

Demonstrating her leadership style, Booker announced, “Okay, I think we’ve answered some of the questions from the people sitting here [in the audience], and that was one thing that we wanted to do.”

The Walker’s Ridge proposal actually consisted of two separate requests: a request for an SUP to provide major utilities to a PUD, and a request to rezone two parcels of land from R-3 (residential) to PUD.  When O’Brien made a motion to defer the decisions and hold a work session, widespread groans broke out among the audience.  “I don’t have enough information,” he continued.  But without a second, the motion died.

Ullenbruch then made the motion to deny the SUP, which meant denying Walker’s Ridge, and Weaver seconded.  Ullenbruch, Weaver, and Sheridan voted in favor of the motion to deny, and curiously, no one voted against the motion.  O’Brien abstained, citing a lack of information, and Booker followed suit.  The motion passed 3-0-2.

Then Ullenbruch, Weaver, and Sheridan voted to deny the zoning request.  Booker and O’Brien voted against the motion, which passed 3-2.

When asked why she abstained on one vote and voted for Walker’s Ridge on the other, Booker responded that she thought the process has problems and couldn’t see where the applicant had failed to follow through.  O’Brien clarified that he had a lack of information to make the SUP decision, but had enough to judge on the rezoning.  “The application package from the technical perspective was more or less met,” he said.  “So since it met all the criteria, the zoning request was viable.”

Before the meeting ended, Booker publicly checked in with Swenson Miller, who had asked that supervisors explain their votes.  Swenson Miller indicated that she felt satisfied.

Keith Smith, Walker’s Ridge developer, had no comment on the decision.

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