Seventeen residents of the Little High Street neighborhood filed a suit against City Council July 5, and one of the plaintiffs includes former city councilor Bob Fenwick.
The residents object to how City Council approved a special use permit for Jefferson Place apartments at 1011 E. Jefferson St., and call it a “clear violation” of the process. They contend council “exceeded its authority and granted substantial changes” to the permit, according to the suit.
Gathering at the corner of Jefferson and 10th streets, where Jefferson Medical Building Limited Partnership and Great Eastern Management want to build 126 apartments on the 1.5-acre site that has housed doctors offices, the Little Highers held a press conference to voice their concerns about a “flawed process” and then walked their pro se—lawyer-less—complaint over to the Charlottesville Circuit Court clerk’s office.
The residents say that after the planning commission denied approval of the special use permit for a quadrupled density, four-story building October 11, 2016, the developer made substantial changes to the plans and submitted the application to City Council rather than back to the planning commission.
At the July 5, 2017, City Council meeting, the plaintiffs say they were short-changed their three-minute public comment time when, without advance notice, council reduced statements to two minutes. “This limited our right to petition our government for redress of our grievances,” says Little High Neighborhood Association President Kate Bennis.
At the same time, the developer had added a fifth floor to the project, which council approved 3-2, with Fenwick and Kathy Galvin voting against the special use permit, say the plaintiffs.
While objecting to the density of the 140,000-square- foot building, Bennis says affordable housing is “something this neighborhood wanted more of,” adding that Jefferson Place’s four proposed units is a “minuscule amount.”
Bennis also accuses the developer of adding 12,000 square feet to the plans after City Council okayed the permit.
“That’s not true,” says Great Eastern Management’s David Mitchell. He says he tried to add 2,500 square feet to turn a couple of units into three-bedroom apartments and that “would have added one more affordable housing unit.”
Says Mitchell, “We followed all of the city’s regulations and procedures over a two-year period.”
He doesn’t anticipate the lawsuit will impact the project because the special use permit, which has up to 7,500 square feet of commercial space, and preliminary site plan have been approved, and the final site plan conforms exactly to the preliminary plan, he says.
“If we don’t get it approved, I guess I don’t have a lot of confidence in the city’s process,” says Mitchell.
As for the plaintiffs suing without a lawyer, says Mitchell, “That’s all you need to know.”
Legal expert David Heilberg says a declaratory judgment is not complicated and doesn’t have a lot of discovery. “It’s just asking for a statement of rights,” he says.
He also says that the Virginia State Bar now allows lawyers to offer advice without representing a party, which is less expensive. “That’s new,” says Heilberg.
The plaintiffs are seeking a declaratory judgment that would send the permit back to the planning commission.
“We’re not anti-growth,” says resident Jon Rice. “We are not opposed to affordable housing.”
Mitchell says Jefferson Place has been unfairly painted as luxury housing. “We don’t do high-end stuff,” he says.
“The city needs to decide if it’s going to be a city or a town,” he says, because people are moving here and there isn’t enough housing. “It’s supply and demand.”