Historic conservation at center of controversy

Though a number of residents want to preserve the historic character of their neighborhood, Woolen Mills is already home to many modern houses. Matteus Frankovich / Skyclad AP Though a number of residents want to preserve the historic character of their neighborhood, Woolen Mills is already home to many modern houses. Matteus Frankovich / Skyclad AP

A proposed historic conservation district in Woolen Mills has the neighborhood divided. While some residents are pushing for a neighborhood association-requested ordinance that would promise protection of their historic assets, others say the drafted rules concerning additional construction in the area—for both big and small projects—would require them to jump through too many hoops.

The neighborhood, named after the Woolen Mills factory that produced a combination of wool, cotton, flour and lumber from 1830 to 1962, is home to an array of millhouses dating back to that era. Today, about 475-500 homes exist in the neighborhood, and 82 properties owned by 68 residents are located within the proposed conservation district, according to John Frazee, chair of the Woolen Mills Neighborhood Association.

Frazee has lived in the neighborhood for 12 years and spent five years on the neighborhood association board. He lives two houses outside of the proposed conservation district that namely protects properties on Chesapeake, Riverside, Steephill, Franklin and East Market streets.

“Personally, I feel that the concept of a conservation district is a positive one for a neighborhood like ours,” he says. “I feel it affords a reasonable amount of protection for the integrity of what comprises our neighborhood, even though it is very mixed in terms of architecture and history.”

He says the largest point of contention for some residents is the proposed ordinance, which as currently written, and if interpreted strictly, would require them to receive approval from the Board of Architectural Review before building anything onto their properties. And doing so comes with a price tag.

“This has been a working-class neighborhood since its inception,” says Barry Umberger, a Woolen Mills resident of 35 years who lives in the proposed conservation district. He says building any type of addition is already costly—and if the ordinance passes, hiring an architect to draw plans and having them reviewed and approved by the BAR, a step that would cost from $125 to $375, are an added burden.

Additionally, he says the overlay of the proposed district is arbitrary—his house, and those surrounding it, are nearly identical, though both he and his neighbor are included in the proposed perimeter and the four houses behind him are not.

“I think we should have the right to opt out,” he says.

Eric Hurt, who also resides in the proposed district, agrees. “The only real compromise is for people to do what they want with their own property,” he says. “I just don’t think neighbors should be vying for rules on other neighbors. The city does that and we don’t need more of it.”

Mary Joy Scala, the city’s preservation and design planner within the Department of Neighborhood Development Services, is aware of neighborhood concerns. She is currently rewriting the ordinance to make it more specific before City Council votes on whether to adopt it.

“It was ready to go to City Council for adoption in December and then some of the residents took a closer look at it and became concerned about exactly what was required or not required,” Scala says. “One of their big concerns, which I agree with, is that the ordinance was a little bit vague about precisely what required approval and what didn’t.”

For example, neighbors raised questions about whether they’d need approval for structures like birdhouses or chicken coops, and the answer, some residents say, seemed up to interpretation.

Louis Schultz lives in the proposed perimeter and is concerned that the city may not be operating legally in other historic districts because some property owners have been permitted to build without the required approval. He says, “It’s fine, in some ways, if [the ordinance] doesn’t really affect you because someone doesn’t enforce the law, but that’s not good government at all. Ignoring the law for my benefit is really not something that’s reliable in the long run.”

The proposed historic conservation district is intended to prevent the demolition of current structures and to review proposed new buildings and structures to “make sure they fit the character of the district,” Scala says.

Historic conservation districts—two of which already exist in the Martha Jefferson and Rugby Road neighborhoods—are similar to, but less intensely regulated than, architectural design control districts, of which there are eight, including North Downtown, West Main Street and the Corner.

Within the next five months, the proposed ordinance, which requires a zoning text amendment, will go to the BAR for recommendation. It will then be sent to the planning commission for a recommendation and City Council for the final vote.

“I think historic conservation districts are really useful and important because there are a lot of historic neighborhoods in Charlottesville where you would not want to see buildings demolished without any kind of review,” Scala says. “It’s a mechanism to protect a lot of neighborhoods without getting in there too much.”

Updated January 19 at 9:15am to clarify Louis Schultz’s remarks.

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