When Hurricane Camille dumped 10 inches of rain on Charlottesville in August 1969, folks were spotted rowing their boats up and down Nassau Street.
Now, developer Justin Shimp has proposed to build an urban farm and residential complex on the same floodplain. The project, called Hogwaller Farm, is in compliance with the city’s safety and environmental guidelines. But when Shimp went before the city’s planning commission December 11 to request the special-use permit and zoning change he needs to build it, the commission voted 3-2 against it. City Council will make the final call next year.
Shimp’s nine-acre development, which includes two multi-story apartment buildings, a greenhouse, a farmstand, and farmland, would straddle Charlottesville and Albemarle. The residential buildings and structures would be on the city’s side, with the county’s land saved for agricultural use. This is likely because Albemarle does not allow residential development in the floodplain.
The dangers of building in such an area are well-documented. A November 29 article in Slate, titled “How We Built Our Way into an Urban Flooding Epidemic,” says the country has seen approximately 3,600 instances of urban flooding over the past 25 years, or about one every two to three days. And it’s largely a result of man-made landscapes of asphalt, concrete, and iron.
“If you fill in a floodplain, the water is going to be pushed on somebody else,” says Kimber Hawkey, a community member who has advocated against the approval of Hogwaller Farm for mostly environmental reasons.
City floodplain administrator Tony Edwards says the city now receives between five and 10 applications to build on the floodplain each year, because that’s where the available land is. The city generally approves these as long as developers meet certain requirements meant to minimize the risk.
Shimp, as he told the planning commission, has already met the city’s requirements by demonstrating his project won’t raise flood elevations or cause erosion. He’ll use compacted soil that he excavates, or “native soil from the area,” he says.
The developer has had a fill permit for about a year, and he’s only recently started to hear any opposition to it, he adds.
“The floodplain thing never really came up,” Shimp says, adding that neighbors were previously “very concerned” about the potential for existing contaminated soils on his site.
“I spent a couple thousand bucks doing soil tests,” he says. The lab results came back clean, except for one test near the drainage output, which returned higher levels of hydrocarbons. Shimp says he’ll run more tests at that location before growing any vegetables there.
Community members are also concerned about the impact new development could have on nearby Moores Creek, which is already considered “impaired” by the city. The marshy Hogwaller site has long acted as a natural sponge and filter, which absorbs stormwater runoff and cleans it before it enters the creek, and eventually, the Rivanna River.
For this reason, Hawkey says the construction of Hogwaller Farm won’t jive with the city’s comprehensive plan, which has specific goals of protecting the riverine system and water quality, and managing stormwater runoff.
While planning commissioner Lyle Solla-Yates says the development would go against a land-use map (which he says is outdated), it does address a number of needs discussed in the plan’s housing chapter and an updated housing needs assessment “that we are not succeeding at.”
Hogwaller Farm’s apartments will include three units—10 percent of the total—of designated affordable housing. Shimp is requesting a rezoning from residential to highway corridor, because that’s the only type of zoning that would allow him to build a greenhouse. And he’ll need a special-use permit to build the apartments.
“Three units is not really gonna move the needle on the affordable housing crisis,” commissioner Taneia Dowell said at the meeting.
While Dowell voted against recommending Hogwaller Farm, Solla-Yates was one of the two commissioners in favor of it. He says city planners get “very few” opportunities to use special-use permits, and though they don’t get much housing out of issuing them, it’s one of the only tools they have for building affordable housing units.
“I know there are people in the city who have real concerns with projects like this in the floodplain, but we are out of land and out of options,” says Solla-Yates. “If we can’t use the tools we have, and we don’t have new tools, our problems will get even worse.”
Environmental review has been a priority for council for years, and the city is “amazingly well-staffed” for it, according to Solla-Yates.
“We have the resources to do floodplain development safely and responsibly,” he adds. “We paid for that, but if we don’t trust our staff to carry through we are wasting that public investment at a time when every dollar counts.”