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Charlottesville calls Rachel's Haven petition 'arbitrary and capricious' in court filing
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Charlottesville calls Rachel's Haven petition 'arbitrary and capricious' in court filing

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Rachel's Haven

COURTESY JJM DESIGN In August, the City Council unanimously voted to rezone 750 Hinton Ave. from residential to neighborhood commercial so Hinton Avenue Methodist Church could create a 15-unit apartment building known as Rachel’s Haven.

The city of Charlottesville is calling a petition to overturn a rezoning for an apartment complex that would include housing for people with disabilities “arbitrary and capricious,”according to court documents.

The city filed a response to the petition seeking to reverse the rezoning for Rachel’s Haven in Charlottesville Circuit Court on Thursday.

The city’s response to the petition refutes its arguments point-by-point, citing numerous examples of case law and legal precedent.

Thirty-one people are signed onto the petition, which is similar to a lawsuit, but does not seek monetary compensation. It originally contained 30 names but, since then, seven have been removed and eight have been added.

Opponents of the rezoning have reiterated that they support the church’s mission but say they are concerned with ramifications from a commercial zoning.

In their petition, which names the City Council and councilors individually, the group of mostly neighbors alleges that the city didn’t properly notify the community of public hearings or changes to the proposal and canceled and resched- uled hearings with little notice.

The petitioners also say the rezoning is improper because it violates state law and the city’s Comprehensive Plan, and because some city officialshave said the commercial zoning isn’t appropriate. They also argue that two Planning Commission members should not have voted on the project.

On Aug. 5, the City Council unanimously voted to rezone 750 Hinton Ave. from residential to neighborhood commercial so Hinton Avenue Methodist Church could create a 15-unit apartment building known as Rachel’s Haven.

The rezoning came with several caveats that eliminated all nonresidential uses other than for an educational or daycare facility associated with the church.

Other conditions, or proffers, say that at least four units would be available as affordable housing. The church has said that four to six units will be set aside as independent housing with developmental disabilities, but that is not included as a proffer.

The city says the petition doesn’t meet legal standards because it isn’t signed and the petitioners don’t state where they live to establish that they are affected by the change.

Not all of the plaintiffs live in Belmont, but they are listed in the petition as city residents who “fear the effects of a precedent set by this faulty rezoning decision.”

Opponents say that other properties regularly violate proffers, which are typically enforced passively via complaints, with no sanctions from the government. They’ve also raised questions about financial backing for the project and the future of the property if funding isn’t secured.

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The city says these factors cannot legally be considered by the court or the council in a rezoning decision.

The petition also claims “personal bias” of Planning Commission members Gary Heaton and Rory Stolzenberg.

Heaton is a minister of a different Methodist church, and Stolzenberg came under fire for comments made online to neighbors who opposed the rezoning.

The city says the petition doesn’t allege violations of the Virginia Conflict of Interest Act and therefore the claims don’t hold legal standing.

The petition says meeting notice requirements weren’t met, but, in its response, the city provides receipts and copies of advertisements that ran in The Daily Progress. The filing also says that state law doesn’t require localities to erect a sign on a property to provide notice of a zoning request, although some governments adhere to that practice.

One sticking point in the petition is the May 14 Planning Commission meeting agenda. The proposal was slated for that day, but removed the day before. Petitioners say it put “undue expectations” on residents to change their schedules for the hearings.

“No provision of the Code of Virginia establishes a timeframe to cancel a public hearing for a land use matter,” the city’s response says.

The city also targets a “generalized statement” that “adjacent and across-the-street residents” didn’t receive required written notices, saying that the claim doesn’t actually name anyone who wasn’t notified. The response says the petition also would have to prove that someone who didn’t receive notice didn’t participate in public hearings on the rezoning.

The city provided a notarized letter signed when a staff member mailed 121 notices to property owners.

The petition argues that the rezoning violates state code because it makes substantial changes to the property’s use.

The city’s response notes that in its argument on lot size, the petition cites an incorrect section of state code that instead deals with public notice requirements.

The petition also cites violations of the city’s land-use plans and Comprehensive Plan, which is a guiding document and not legally binding — a point the city hammers home.

“A Comprehensive Plan … does not carry the authority of a zoning ordinance,” the city’s response says. “The Comprehensive Plan is a set of ‘guidelines and not requirements’ which a legislative body is free to [either] apply or follow another reasonable approach in arriving at its legislative decision on a rezoning application.”

As is standard in most such court filings, the city asks that the court order the plaintiffs to reimburse the defendants for costs associated with fighting the petition.

No court date has been set, but the petitioners, who are representing themselves, have asked for a hearing to be held at 2 p.m. Oct. 21.

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City hall reporter

Nolan Stout is a reporter for The Daily Progress. Contact him at (434) 978-7274, nstout@dailyprogress.com, or @nstoutDP on Twitter and Facebook.

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