Village Gardens fails to win rezoning fight

By Heather Michon

A long-running drama came to an end at the Planning Commission on Tuesday night (Dec. 7), as commissioners voted 5-0 to deny a rezoning request for the controversial Village Gardens housing development.

This was the third time since Sept. 14 that the commission had devoted almost a full meeting to Village Gardens. Southern Development had managed to delay the final vote — which from the beginning seemed likely to end in defeat — with first a 90-day deferral, then a 30-day delay.

In a dramatic twist, Tuesday’s hearing opened with the news that Southern Development was no longer in charge of the project.

Jeremy Swink of Stanley Martin Homes told the commission that they were “partnering” with Southern Development on Village Gardens — although the term “partnership” seemed somewhat loose.

“We’ve reached an agreement to purchase the property, and not only develop, but also build the homes,” said Swink.

He said Stanley Martin Homes had been watching the project since it was proposed earlier this year and had been actively involved for about a month and a half.

Swink highlighted a number of changes his team had made in the effort to “make a better project than what was initially put forth,” he said.

The new plan called for 325 homes, a 10 percent reduction from the original concept. At least 35 percent of units would be single-level and geared towards older, “move-down” buyers who presumably wouldn’t contribute children to the county school system.

Buffers between Village Gardens and surrounding properties were made wider. Streets were made wider, and more parking areas were added.

An access point between Village Gardens and Lake Monticello was removed, and the end of Garden Lane was turned into a cul-de-sac.

With residents at the Villages at Nahor concerned new residents might detour through their neighborhood, Swink unveiled a new entrance design that would block any attempt to take that kind of shortcut.

A 9,000-square foot retail space envisioned in the original plan was largely deleted, although three acres would be available for commercial sale.

And then came what was meant to be the real sweetener.

Swink said their analysis of VDOT’s recent traffic studies showed that there had been 18 accidents around Lake Monticello’s nearby Monish Gate. Cars turning left into the gate are a well-known cause of traffic back-ups on Rt. 53 during peak hours.

His company was in the process of finalizing the purchase of 1.3 acres of land across from the gate and planned to invest $1.6 million dollars to work with VDOT in the construction of a left-turn lane into Monish and other improvements on that stretch of 53.

“My approach was that maybe I would have more impact by making significant off-site improvements versus removing trips because I think the magnitude of what we’re proposing offsite far exceeds the impact of removing maybe 50 homes,” Swink said.

But none of these changes assuaged the concerns of the commissioners over traffic impacts, stormwater management, and water infrastructure.

Public pressure against the project, particularly from Lake Monticello residents, has been intense. At one point, a commissioner asked that the audience be polled to see if there was anyone there in support of Village Gardens. No hands were raised. Public comments lasted for well over an hour.

At one point, Chair Barry Bibb asked Swink if he could come up with any “positive benefits” to the community from the project. Swink cited his commitment to investing in improvements at Monish Gate  and the general idea that “people become friends with neighbors.”

“I don’t think the property is ready,” said Commissioner Gequetta Murray-Key. “We have been giving and giving the opportunity to present the information that we’re looking for to make an informed decision.”

Murray-Key made the motion to deny the rezoning request, which passed by a vote of 5-0.

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