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Panel backs controversial housing development near Forest Lakes

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A proposed apartment and townhouse development that would provide 190 affordable units near Forest Lakes in Albemarle County took a step forward Tuesday night.

The county Planning Commission recommended approval, 6-1, of a request for a rezoning of a 19.5-acre property near the intersection of U.S. 29 and Ashwood Boulevard from R-1 Residential to Planned Residential Development for RST Development to build 254 apartments and 78 townhouses.

Commissioner Rick Randolph cast the lone dissenting vote, citing the need for a pedestrian crossing at U.S. 29 and transit issues, as well as concerns about road and amenity maintenance costs.

“I don’t see how people are going to be able to afford at 30% [area median income] and even 50% AMI ... these higher-cost amenities,” he said.

Originally, RST Development proposed a maximum of 370 units, but reduced the request to a maximum of 332 units. The project was deferred at a March Planning Commission meeting, where commissioners questioned the amount of green space and transit stops, and wanted more specifics about affordable housing.

On Tuesday, most commissioners said the developer had made many improvements, and they were supportive of the proposal.

“I did receive a number of comments by email from the public, some of them were stating that we were just giving the developer a pass because they had affordable housing,” Commissioner Karen Firehock said. “I don’t think that’s the case at all. I think that we gave them a very thorough review the first time around, and they did a lot of work to bring this development to what I feel and I believe they feel ... a much higher-quality development.”

Neighbors from Forest Lakes came out against the proposal in March and on Tuesday, citing concerns about traffic, green space, schools, views and the environment.

Paula Grazzini, who lives in Forest Lakes, said the proposed concentration of affordable housing with the proposal is “unprecedented.”

“The jump from 15% to 75% affordable units was just offered by RST at the March Planning Commission meeting and has not had adequate time to be fully considered alongside the input of other community groups interested in a regional collaborative approach, such as the city of Charlottesville, this county, [the University of Virginia’s] newly formed [housing] task force and other groups,” she said. “More discussion and exchange of ideas needs to happen before making any decision on this particular application.”

The application plan, which is legally binding, proffers 75% of the apartments as affordable rental units for 30 years. The units will be available to households earning between 30% and 80% of area median income, and the average level for all of the affordable units in the project will be 60% of AMI.

Current household area median income is $93,700, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Eighty percent of AMI ranges from $52,500 for an individual to $74,950 for a family of four, while 30% of AMI ranges from $19,700 for an individual to $28,100 for a family of four.

The application plan says that rents for the units cannot exceed HUD’s Fair Market Rents. Current Fair Market Rents for 2021 range from $949 for an efficiency unit to $1,965 for a four-bedroom unit.

Fair Market Rents for 2021

The Fair Market Rents from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for 2021.

Efficiency 1-bedroom 2-bedroom 3-bedroom 4-bedroom
$949 $1,077 $1,266 $1,575 $1,965

Randolph questioned how people making 30% of AMI would be able to afford homeowners association fees to pay for the maintenance of amenities.

Scott Copeland, with RST Development, said there will be no HOA fees and that RST, as a management company, will be responsible for maintaining the amenities.

“The property pays for it,” he said. “If the pool needs to be repaired, the property pays to have the pool repaired. If the roads need to be repaved, or the park equipment needs to be replaced or roof needs to be replaced or a sink needs to be replaced, just like any other rental community, the landlord is responsible to do that.”

The proposal includes five apartment buildings closer to the front of the development. Three of the buildings are proposed to be four stories, while two would be five stories.

The townhouses at the back of the property are proposed to be two-over-two units, with one two-story townhouse stacked atop another.

Two rows of townhouses were removed from the development, and each of the remaining six rows now has a building stepback near its border with the adjacent townhomes on Ashland Drive. The reduced-height endcaps would be single three-story townhomes rather than stacked townhomes.

A 20-foot tree buffer along the rear of the development was upped to 40 feet. Valerie Long, an attorney with Williams-Mullen who is representing RST Development, said all of the townhouses would be 88 feet away from the property line.

With the removal of some of the townhouses, more greenspace was added, including a 17,000-square-foot recreation area and a nearly 14,000-square-foot dog park. Other spaces that previously had been labeled as an amenity or greenspace now include more specific sizes and uses, such as a tot-lot and a pool.

In addition, three potential options for transit stops are proposed. While there is not currently a bus route near the parcel, an ongoing feasibility study and implementation planning effort is looking at expanding transit service along north U.S. 29.

RST Development also requested a special exception to waive the stepback requirement for the fourth story of each apartment building, but it will provide stepbacks on the fifth story of the two five-story buildings. The commission also recommended approval of the special exception request.

In Albemarle’s Places29 Master Plan, which is part of the county’s Comprehensive Plan, most of the property is shown on the future land use map as Urban Density Residential, which recommends density of between six and 34 units per acre. A small portion of the property along U.S. 29 is designated as open space.

The updated proposal has a net density of about 17.85 units per acre and a gross density of 17.02 units per acre.

Albemarle’s Comprehensive Plan includes a policy to focus development into designated growth areas, while maintaining the rest of the county as rural areas. That results in about 95% of Albemarle kept as mostly rural land and 5% of the county for growth.

County staff recommended approval of the development and the special exception request. However, two unfavorable factors staff cited were additional enrollment at area schools, including Albemarle High School, which is already over capacity, and that five stories is higher than the four stories recommended in the Places 29 Master Plan, but they did note the stepback.

Commissioner Jennie More said AHS is already going to be over capacity regardless of this development.

“In general, it’s a concern I think we all share and we need to get to an answer with that,” she said.

During the public hearing, Jennifer Brannock, who spoke in favor of the project, said it was time to put the needs of workers and their families ahead of the comforts of those who already live in Albemarle.

“According to the county’s housing website, 59% of people who work here in Albemarle County cannot afford to even rent an apartment here,” she said. “These are the people who work in our retail stores, our restaurants, they deliver our packages, they teach our children, and they keep our homes safe — the foundation of our community lies in their labor. These families deserve the same access to the things that my neighbors and I already have, like our parks, our shorter commutes, our proximity to good hospitals. And their children should be able to attend our excellent schools.”

Multiple residents from nearby Forest Lakes, Hollymead and Ashland said they were still concerned about multiple aspects of the proposal, including the density, that it would be mostly rental units, potential light pollution and potential traffic.

“At the last hearing, the applicant deferred its application and then slightly revised it by a reduction in overall units of approximately 10% to the 332 presented,” said Nancy Trudel. “But then it actually increased the proposed heights of the facility so that the development will still be grossly dense, overbuilt and fail to provide a reasonable place to live, not only for the surrounding area, but for the residents who reside within the property.”

A public hearing before the Board of Supervisors has not yet been scheduled.

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