Not until after midnight did anyone bring up the scheduling issue. “Is this how we want to make major decisions about the future of our city and county, late at night after many hours and hours?” asked Jennifer Conner, a teacher at Living Education Center, of the Board of Supervisors at 12:16am on Thursday, September 13. “I just don’t know that it’s possible to take this in and think critically in this situation. So I question this process.”
Supervisors had little but praise in the end for the county largest residential development to date, Biscuit Run. Supervisor David Slutzky called Biscuit Run "a poster child for how development can make its way through our process and add value to the community.
The decision to be made was whether to rezone 828 acres of county land to allow developer Hunter Craig and his cohorts to build up to 3,100 housing units and 150,000 square feet of commercial space in southern Albemarle—the project known as Biscuit Run. Developers bought the property for $46.2 million in October 2005.
But for the supervisors, who have had two work sessions as well as notes from 13 Planning Commission meetings, the decision seemed to have been made before the 6-0 vote of approval was cast. After a lengthy public comment, the Board’s discussion was little more than a coronation ceremony of Biscuit Run as the best “neighborhood model” development the county has yet seen. County staff had a few last-minute questions about “the most complicated set of proffers we’re ever going to be asked to administer,” in the words of Community Development Director Mark Graham. But none of those questions posed a serious risk to the project.
“We didn’t just go to meetings, but we listened,” said Craig after thanking a score of folks for their input on the project. “I think this will be the gold standard for the neighborhood model plan. I’ve been told that by several of my fellow developers, and not in admiration or appreciation.” (It ought to be the gold standard—it was planned by Torti Gallas, the same firm that the county hired as consultants to come up with the neighborhood model.)
The cynic could wonder at the meeting’s schedule, with Biscuit Run put at the end of a long agenda with opening acts that outplayed the headliner. After Supes spent four hours discussing the Pantops Master Plan and the Hollymead Town Center’s final portion, the crowd had thinned considerably.
But 34 people did stick around to voice their opinions.
Some spoke for the project, including many of those neighboring the property. “The reason I’m supporting it is, I know it’s going to be developed, you know it’s going to be developed,” said Forrest Marshall, for 25 years a cattle farmer who owns land just south of the project. “I’m personally delighted there’s going to be a park back of my property, because it’ll alleviate some of the discomfort I may have had about my cattle getting over somebody’s front yard.”
A sizeable number of speakers, led by the Sierra Club, asked for an environmental impact study. “Biscuit Run would increase traffic and air pollution, lower water quality and reduce wildlife habitat in surrounding rural areas,” said John Cruickshank, chair of the local Sierra Club. “However, the full effects of building this development on surrounding natural systems have been little studied.”
The split ultimately came down to those who think growth can be stopped versus those who think growth inevitable—and by whose logic Biscuit Run is better than a thousand McMansions sprawled over its 1,200 acres. The latter camp is where the Board of Supervisors fell as well. And when it was their turn to speak, they didn’t have a three-minute restriction.
“I’m usually regarded as the person who’s most concerned about and most opposed to growth, and I was determined that I wanted to make this development one that I could vote for,” said Sally Thomas. “If the neighborhood model that we’ve developed has any value, it’s particularly here that it has value. …It is well proven that there is more degradation of the environment with sprawled development than with compact development.”
Lindsay Dorrier spoke of shooting skeet as a teenager on or near the Biscuit Run property. “I grew up when [Avon Street Extended] was a dirt road, and Lake Reynovia was over there, and now it’s a subdivision. So change has occurred all through these years and it’s still occurring. …I feel real comfortable with the developer in this case, because it’s Hunter Craig, and he’s a local person and he’s always been a man of his word with me.”
Dennis Rooker, in contrast, laid out the numbers to explain his “yes” vote: He’s voted “no” on six of nine recent rezoning requests. Fifteen hundred people move to the county each year. The county is getting $40 million worth of proffers from the developer. There are 40,000 development rights out in the rural area to keep from being exercised. This isn’t a one-night process, but a process that’s lasted two years.
“I’m one of those people who prefers that [1,500 people] didn’t come [each year],” said Rooker. “But I know of no way to stop them.”
David Slutzky called Biscuit Run “a poster child for how development can make its way through our process and add value to the community.” Ken Boyd said, “It’s not the perfect project, but it’s probably one of the best to come along in a very, very long time.”
During the public meeting, one speaker alleged that Craig is a front man for a large corporation. “He uses the word ‘we’ pretty frequently, but hasn’t identified who that ‘we’ is. The community would like to know who this ‘we’ is.” Rumors had swirled in the fall of 2005 that the Fortune 500 company Toll Brothers, which calls itself “America’s Luxury Home Builder,” was investing in the project. Craig never confirmed that rumor.
After the meeting, Craig told reporters he would “absolutely” continue to be involved and that the investors are all local, though he declined to specify who they are. “There is no big corporation, unless you call me and several other local investors a big corporation,” Craig said.
The crowd at the County Office Building melted into the cool early morning, knowing at last after two years of wait what’s coming over Charlottesville’s southern horizon.
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