Site prep for future Wegmans shopping center scrutinized

Developers hope to start construction of the Fifth Street Station shopping center—which will include a Wegmans grocery store—as early as the end of this year. Image courtesy of River Bend Management. Developers hope to start construction of the Fifth Street Station shopping center—which will include a Wegmans grocery store—as early as the end of this year. Image courtesy of River Bend Management.

Plans for a shopping center with a Wegmans grocery store just south of Charlottesville are marching forward, despite recommendations of caution from staff and the qualms of some neighbors.

Last week, the Albemarle County Planning Commission gave its stamp of approval to a special use permit allowing developers to fill in parts of the site that lie close to Moore’s Creek. As County Engineer Glenn Brooks explained it, the developers—a team headed by Coran Capshaw’s River Bend Management, Inc.—wanted local approval to add fill dirt to areas in the floodplain and floodway of Moore’s Creek, which surrounds the property on three sides.

Putting fill in the floodway is prohibited by zoning regulations, said Brooks. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has a stake in making sure it doesn’t happen, because the agency is in charge of the National Flood Insurance Program, and is on the hook for damage caused by poorly managed waterways. Those making a case to put dirt in the danger zone must convince FEMA, which determines where floodway lines lie, to amend its maps.

That’s what the developers plan to do, said Valerie Long, a Williams-Mullen attorney representing the 5th Street Station team.

“These maps are based on aerial topography,” Long said. “They give you a rough idea,” but they’re often imprecise or out of date, and FEMA knows it, so it’s typical to see developers petitioning the agency to update its definition of this floodway or that one.

The argument convinced the Commission to give the O.K., pending FEMA approval, and the fate of the plan is now in the hands of the Board of Supervisors. Developers must go through several more stages of project review before breaking ground in late 2013—a date Brooks called ambitious but not impossible. But those who live next door to the future shopping center want to let developers and officials alike know they’re watching closely.

Joan Albiston, a landscape architect whose home in the Willoughby neighborhood off 5th Street Extended backs up to the development site, said locals’ feelings on the new center are mixed. Some are eagerly awaiting the arrival of the promised high-end grocery store, and Albiston said the developers’ promise to line 5th Street to Avon Extended with a cut-through road—the Bent Creek Parkway—was welcome news for residents tired of having no direct route to Belmont.

Still, she said, “there are a fair number of us that like living here, and don’t complain about the lack of shopping. People have bought here because it’s close to town, and yet it’s got a lot of woodland around it, a lot of protection.”

The coming development promises to eliminate a lot of that tree buffer, she said, and some of the peace and quiet of the neighborhood, too. Many are concerned a much-used footpath owned by the Willoughby Neighborhood Association that follows the horseshoe bend of the creek all the way to what is destined to become Biscuit Run State Park will be more exposed, and may end up getting unwanted extra traffic.

“I do think that we’re going to get more light back there, more noise back there,” Albiston said. But she said she knew the land across the creek was destined for development when she bought her house four years ago, and she understands that progress is progress.
“I know if developers don’t make it work, then they’re not making a living,” she said. “I know that their intent is to do well. I just want them to constantly be aware that this is important to us—the well-being of Moores Creek and the well-being of our backyard.”

Some are pushing harder. Mike Meintzschel, a 20-year Willoughby resident, has posted a series of videos to YouTube with footage of the creek flowing through proposed fill areas. He pointed out one fill area includes a small, flowing tributary, and contends the development will negatively impact an already eroded and compromised Moores Creek. He’s passed along links to all his documentation to the Board of Supervisors, and hopes they’ll spark further discussion.

“The process needs to become totally transparent, so the Board can ask the right questions,” he said.

Brooks said county officials are in ongoing conversations with residents. But for now, the focus is squarely on FEMA and the floodplain. The project planning is, by nature, a piecemeal process, he said, “but certainly the environmental considerations will come into play.”