29 Express: New bus service draws average of three riders, lawsuit

Wendell Wood, pictured here in 2009, doesn’t think it’s fair he should have to pay $500,000 for JAUNT commuter service and has filed suit against Albemarle County. File photo Wendell Wood, pictured here in 2009, doesn’t think it’s fair he should have to pay $500,000 for JAUNT commuter service and has filed suit against Albemarle County. File photo

To much fanfare, JAUNT unveiled a commuter express service May 2 from the Food Lion on U.S. 29 north of town to UVA and downtown. Free for the first two months, the service seemed a boon for commuters traveling through major construction this summer as they headed into town.

To the man being called upon to pony up $50,000 a year for 10 years to pay for the service, Albemarle County’s interpretation of a proffer is “unreasonable” and far exceeds what any other developer has been asked to contribute to public transportation, according to Wendell Wood’s lawsuit against the county filed June 21.

Founder and president of United Land Corporation, Wood is a major property owner in the northern part of the county, and is the developer of Hollymead Town Center, the National Ground Intelligence Center and Walmart, among many other projects. He also built the gigantic house visible on top of Carter Mountain.

Hollymead Town Center is made up of several separately owned sections, and during the heyday of the real estate boom in 2007, the developer of the Kohl’s portion, HM Acquisitions Group, agreed to pay the county $500,000 over 10 years for public transportation to get that property rezoned.

Two years later, before ever developing anything on the property, according to the suit, HM Acquisitions defaulted, and Wood took back the land. In 2010, the Planning Commission agreed to reduce the proffer to $25,000 with a sunset date of 2012.

When Wood went before the Board of Supervisors in 2011, the county attorney told the board it couldn’t amend the proffer because it wasn’t part of the original application, but Wood could come back to amend it at a later date, according to the suit.

Instead, in November 2015, the board voted 4-1 to use the original proffer to help pay for the commuter route. Supervisor Brad Sheffield, who is director of JAUNT, recused himself from that vote, and former supervisor Ken Boyd cast the nay vote.

“There has to be some moral reason for what we do as members of the board,” says Boyd. “That proffer was brought by a different owner.” Boyd says he was surprised the former owner agreed to it in the first place. “It was a huge expense,” he says.

Another thing that bothered Boyd about the board decision to hold Wood to the pre-real-estate-crash proffer: “It seems to be quite often in politics to want to punish people who are successful,” he says. “Some of the conversations I heard from other board members left me believing they felt it was an obligation he had even though he had inherited it. We should put some ethics into our decisions.”

Wood’s suit contends the proffer was intended for Charlottesville Area Transit service, not a JAUNT commuter service that takes people to jobs in town, and doesn’t bring shoppers to Kohl’s. The suit also notes that JAUNT met with residents of Forest Lakes, who have nothing to do with the Kohl’s property and were looking for public transportation to work.

Other developments have been required to pay much less in transit proffers, the suit claims, and in the portion of Hollymead Town Center where Harris Teeter and Target are located, no transit proffers were required.

For CAT service to Wegmans, 5th Street Station will pay $100,000, says assistant county exec Lee Catlin. Stonefield has a transit proffer to pay $20,000 a year for five years, Martha Jefferson Hospital proffered $50,000, and before turning it into a state park, Biscuit Run developers had a $1 million transit proffer. Riverbend Development, which is working on the 800- to 1,500-unit Brookhill, has proposed a $500,000 transit proffer, says Catlin.

Since JAUNT purchased two buses for $81,622 each to run the express route twice a day, the service has averaged three riders a day, and has ranged from a high of 11 riders to zero riders, Catlin says. “The county is not surprised to see somewhat low numbers at this early point in the service,” she says, particularly as it is summer and UVA is out of regular session.

The $1.50 fare each way will contribute about $15,000 to the annual $113,000 cost to run the service, according to a JAUNT information sheet. It also noted $50,000 in matching federal funds from Wood’s proffer.

“We are working on a partnership with UVA to make it free to UVA employees,” says Sheffield, who anticipates that will begin in August.

He also reports that one of the passengers is concerned that Wood and his son are “surveilling” the buses and taking pictures of riders getting on and off. From the passenger’s own photos, “It’s clearly Mr. Wood,” says Sheffield, who says all he can do is advise the passenger to contact police.

Wood declined to comment for this article. His attorney, Pete Caramanis, says, “It’s basically just an overreach. This is not a developer trying to get out of a promise but, rather, whether the county’s demand is in line with what was actually promised and what is reasonable under the law.”

The General Assembly passed a law that went into effect July 1 that severely limits the proffers a local government can require for residential development, but it’s not clear that would affect commercial rezoning.