Legal action: Belmont residents file petition against church rezoning plan

Reverend Robert Lewis of the Hinton Avenue United Methodist Church appeared before City Council on August 5 to express his support for the apartment project. (Photo: Eze Amos) Reverend Robert Lewis of the Hinton Avenue United Methodist Church appeared before City Council on August 5 to express his support for the apartment project. (Photo: Eze Amos)

A dispute over the rezoning of a Methodist church that wants to add affordable housing units reached Charlottesville Circuit Court on September 5, when a group of city residents filed a petition for the plan to be thrown out.

Thirty-one people, including Belmont/Carlton Neighborhood Association president Kimber Hawkey and Quality Pie owner Tomas Rahal, are requesting that a judge overturn City Council’s August 5 decision to unanimously approve the project, citing a lack of sufficient notice for public discussion and violations of the city’s Comprehensive Plan. But at least one of them, local filmmaker Brian Wimer, says he never signed the petition.

“It was a misunderstanding,” Wimer said in an email. “My wife was involved in the petition. I really know very little about the petition and the project.”

Petition organizer Mark Kavit submitted an amended version of the document Monday, adding eight new names to the list and removing five, including Wimer. Kavit says names were originally listed on the petition based on responses to an email distributed by Hawkey. Some of the individuals who asked to be removed, he says, did so because of public “shaming by people that don’t understand what this is about” on social media.

Hinton Avenue United Methodist Church is hoping to build a 15-unit apartment complex, with several rented out at 80 percent of the area’s median income, along with four to six units reserved for intellectually disabled occupants. The project is named Rachel’s Haven after pastor Robert Lewis’ wife, who died in 2016 from breast cancer.

“The…neighborhood is not against the concepts that Hinton Church wants to provide,” Kavit said in an email. “[Their] concern is with the commercial zoning place on the property instead of residential. Zoning stays with the property. The neighborhood wishes success to the church for what they would like to accomplish.”

Originally scheduled to be heard by the Charlottesville Planning Commission on May 14, the rezoning proposal was at first put on hold for the church to address neighborhood concerns by  including restrictions of all nonresidential uses of the property outside of its daycare facilities and educational efforts. While it’s still seeking a neighborhood commercial zoning designation–the only zoning available that would allow for apartments to be built–the church’s proposal is written with the intention of preventing potential future owners of the property from using it as such.

But the proposal still received pushback after the amendments were made. Twenty-eight Belmont residents co-signed a letter requesting that commissioners Rory Stolzenberg and Gary Heaton recuse themselves from voting on the proposal when it was presented June 11. Neither commissioner did, and the plan was approved unanimously—albeit without the presence of commission chair Lisa Green.

“It was a unanimous vote with everyone acknowledging it was a less-perfect proposal, but it was one of those situations where perfect is the enemy of good,” says Heaton, who’s the minister at First United Methodist Church on East Jefferson Street. As for the petition, “I don’t think we have to get volatile…I think it’s [part of] the process we have, and the process is good.”

Kavit notes that there’s a nationwide trend of churches closing down, and says he still fears another business assuming the property and ignoring its proffers. Violations of proffers aren’t monitored by the city and, for the most part, aren’t addressed unless local residents submit a complaint.

He points to other Belmont businesses like Southern Crescent Galley & Bar, which met with Neighborhood Development Services in June to discuss proffer violations—playing amplified music and installing two cabanas without a permit—but received what he says was “a slap on the wrist.” NDS prohibited Southern Crescent from playing amplified music moving forward and assessed “a penalty fee for the [cabana] violation which could require double payment of the permit fee,” according to meeting notes compiled by NDS Director Alex Ikefuna.

The court has yet to establish a date for the hearing. Although the plaintiffs aren’t seeking any compensation other than the plan being overturned, all five members of City Council, as well as the council itself, are listed as defendants.

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How quickly the ages-old ‘White Supremacy’ ideology rears up among the affluent ‘progressives’ of Charlottesville. That Supremacy ideology, codified in early 20th century ‘progressive era’ law in Virginia, included abridgement of the rights and liberties of people of color, people of multiple races, people with mental illness and developmental differences, and others. The Eugenical Sterilization Act abridged rights and liberties and quality of life of so-called ‘feeble minded’ – in which group the proposed residents of the Hinton/Belmont project would have been included – in the same year that the Racial Integrity Act abridged rights and liberties and quality of… Read more »