The first piece of a planned expansion of a local, historic private school moved forward Tuesday.
The Albemarle County Planning Commission recommended approval 5-1 of a special use permit for The Miller School of Albemarle. Commissioner Julian Bivins was not at the meeting and Commissioner Tim Keller cast the dissenting vote.
The school has been open in its location north of Batesville since 1878, prior to the county’s zoning ordinance. The property is currently zoned Rural Area and private schools are permitted by special use permit in that zoning district.
If approved by the Board of Supervisors, the special use permit would allow the continuation and extension of the historic private school use, which is currently a non-conforming use. The school is also proposing to renovate and expand the Haden-Hart Dorm and increase the allowed maximum student enrollment from 195 to 225 students.
In the future, the school would like to add more dorms and a new gymnasium.
A maximum of 40% of enrolled students would commute. The rest will live at the school.
About 637 acres of the approximately 1,047 acre property are under a conservation easement held by the Land Trust of Virginia.
Three buildings on the property — Old Main, the main building; the Headmaster’s House; and Caton Hall, the mechanical arts building — are specifically identified in a National Register of Historic Places nomination.
Two proposed conditions from county staff were not supported by the majority of the commissioners — one requiring that the National Register of Historic Places nomination must be updated to address the entire subject property and another requiring all changes to existing structures that are listed or eligible to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and to the Haden-Hart building, shall meet the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards as determined by the Virginia Department of Historic Resources.
The Standards are a series of common-sense concepts about maintaining, repairing and replacing historic materials, as well as designing new additions or making alterations.
The school and its engineer for the proposal suggested making the two proposed conditions a single recommendation instead of a requirement, but county staff said making them recommendations would add confusion in the future.
Commissioner Jennie More said she felt like those two conditions were an opportunity that staff identified for the commission, but questioned if they were really addressing the impacts of a dorm expansion and more students.
“I do think it would be a benefit, having [the National Register application] done so long ago, to have a more comprehensive look at [the property]. I think it would be worthwhile,” she said. “But I don’t know that that’s for me to tell you to do that…. I can’t believe I’m saying that, actually, but I do feel that way about it.”
Commissioner Karen Firehock said that the school’s proposed location and design for new buildings will have a small impact on the overall property.
“I think that the county does need historic preservation ordinance … but I don’t think that it’s our purview to legislate a piecemeal solution to that by putting undue burden on the applicant,” she said. “And I think it also puts a chilling effect on our future ability to get a preservation ordinance by going about things this way.”
Albemarle County adopted a Historic Preservation Plan in 2000, but a county historic preservation ordinance was never enacted.
“I want more than anything for there to be more historic preservation and more robust requirements, but I feel like we’re taking advantage of most of their situation,” More said.
Commissioners Pam Riley and Daphne Spain both said they agreed with More and Firehock.
Keller said he supported the two conditions and wanted to add more and require all additions, alterations or renovations to existing structures and landscapes to meet the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards.
Ultimately, the commissioners also passed a separate motion recommending that the school make all additions, alterations or renovations to existing structures and landscapes to meet the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards.