When Scott Wrightson saw that his neighborhood association signed a letter to the Charlottesville Planning Commission asking to extend the Future Land Use Map revision process, he was surprised, mainly because he didn’t know the association existed.
Wrightson has lived in the Venable neighborhood since 2017. He said that in four years, he’d never heard of the Venable Neighborhood Association and never received any communication from the association.
The letter, signed on June 9 by 11 neighborhood associations in the city, was sent to the Planning Commission, City Council and Cville Plans Together, a group of planners from Rhodeside and Harwell Inc. who are overseeing the revisions to the Future Land Use Map and Comprehensive Plan.
It asks for a six-month delay of the map drafting process “in which to reset and redesign a more thoughtful and inclusive process that elicits the views of all members of our diverse community.”
In addition to the Venable Neighborhood Association, the letter was signed by associations representing the Jefferson Park Avenue, Johnson Village, Kellytown, Lewis Mountain, Little High, Martha Jefferson, Meadowbrook Hills, North Downtown, Rugby Woods and Starr Hill neighborhoods.
“While the goals of Cville Plans Together are admirable, neither the planning process nor the draft recommendations reflect or forward those crucial priorities. The draft plan does not incorporate sufficient community input. The consultants hired to draft the updated plan were charged with conducting community engagement and considering input from residents. That process has been woefully inadequate,” the letter says.
“There were no open meetings during the pandemic and little, if any, effort to directly solicit community input until the very end of the process — after a draft Plan and land use map were proposed. The consultants did not engage with neighborhood associations, citizen advocacy groups, or businesses in the formulation of the plan,” the letter continues.
The Future Land Use Map is part of the city’s Comprehensive Plan, which is a guide for local land-use and other big-picture decisions. The plan was last updated in 2013, and the city’s zoning code hasn’t been substantially revised since 2003.
While the map provides a framework for potential zoning decisions, it is not zoning; it is a guide that informs the Planning Commission of what kind of zoning changes are possible.
Cville Plans Together held two Zoom webinars and six in-person pop-up events throughout the month of May to receive public input and answer questions about the draft map. The consultants extended the public input process to June 13 after receiving complaints from community members that the process was moving too quickly.
One of the concerns expressed in the letter is proposed increased density in various areas of the city in the Draft Land Use Map. The increased density was added specifically to allow for affordable housing development, such as duplexes and townhomes, Cville Plans Together representatives said in May. This was a change from an initial draft presented in March.
“Perhaps most significantly, the draft Plan does not indicate how increased density will lead to affordable housing as opposed to more expensive development,” the letter says.
While Wrightson said he personally disagrees with the views expressed in the letter and supports increased density, he was primarily concerned that an association he was unaware existed had signed the letter.
“I got more upset the more I thought about it. The VNA was using the size and the influence of the Venable neighborhood to amplify the concerns that I assume a couple of the board members had with the [Future Land Use Map] process and outcomes. I say ‘assume’ because I still don’t know who wrote it,” Wrightson said.
So he decided to write his own letter to the Planning Commission in response.
“There is a major problem about the VNA signing this statement,” Wrightson wrote in a recent letter to the Planning Commission. “Specifically, in the four years I have lived in Venable, we have never had a single VNA meeting! We certainly never had meetings to discuss the majority feelings of Venable residents about the [Future Land Use Map] and what communication, if any, should be sent to city officials.”
The group is recognized as an official neighborhood association by the city government. VNA has a website and a Facebook page that were both last updated in June 2020. There is no information about meetings or board elections posted on either site.
The Venable Neighborhood Association and its board members did not respond to requests for comment.
In an email sent to the Planning Commission obtained by The Daily Progress, Venable resident Jeana Ripple voiced concerns similar to Wrightson’s.
“There is a group claiming to be a Venable Neighborhood Association, and apparently signing petitions and attending meetings on behalf of the Venable neighborhood with regard to the proposed land use plan. Unfortunately, the group has not met with the neighborhood (at least for the past six years that I’ve lived here),” Ripple wrote. “Some neighbors are similarly upset about this misrepresentation and others are confused, not having known that such an association existed. For example, it seems that some people receive emails and many do not. There have not been mailers, etc. to try to collect contact information.”
Wrightson wasn’t the only Charlottesville resident surprised to see their neighborhood association sign the letter.
David Ramm, a resident of the Rugby area, said he had no idea that the Rugby Woods Neighborhood Association existed. After seeing the letter, he did some research and couldn’t find any information about the association.
The Rugby Woods Neighborhood Association is not recognized by the city government on a list of neighborhood associations posted on the city website, and there is no contact information available for the association. The city’s list was last updated in May. The association does not have any discernible online presence.
“Suffice to say I was never given an opportunity [to] offer the tiniest bit of input into something that pretends to speak for me. Whoever did this is completely shameless,” Ramm said.
“I live in the ‘Rugby Hills/Rugby Woods’ neighborhood and I would like to affirm that we do not have a formal association, nor have we had any conversation or consensus about the proposed Future Land Use Map,” Serena Gruia wrote in an email to the Planning Commission that was obtained by The Progress.
“Anyone who represents our neighborhood and presents the blanket statement about approval or disapproval of the [Future Land Use Map] does not speak for the neighborhood,” Gruia wrote.
In another email to the Planning Commission obtained by The Progress, resident Dan Stromberg voiced concern about the Rugby Woods association.
“Along with many others in this community, I worry that the opinions of some in my neighborhood are being expressed as those of all of us. I live in Barracks/Rugby, and have submitted survey responses consistent with SUPPORTING the COMPREHENSIVE PLAN AND LAND USE MAP. The so-called joint statements reflect the opinions of certain members of our neighborhood only, despite claiming to speak for the neighborhood at large. For Barracks/Rugby in particular, we do not have a neighborhood association to even allege to speak for the entire group,” Stromberg wrote.
Some neighborhood associations have been working to engage residents in discussions about the Future Land Use Map.
Ned Michie, president of the Greenbrier Neighborhood Association, said the group’s board decided not to sign the letter as there was no way to take a stance that would represent the opinions of all residents.
“We had a robust discussion about the Future Land Use Map and what, if anything, our response as a neighborhood association should be. Ultimately, and decisively, the committee concluded that we would stick with our traditional stance for issues that divide us … the Association, as such, would take no stand either way regarding the divisive issue but would instead send out information about it and encourage our residents to speak their own minds to the decision-makers,” Michie wrote in a recent email sent to all residents of the neighborhood.
“We know that some of you will be disappointed that we are not at this time taking a position (i.e. your position), but keep in mind that you would be even more disappointed if we took a position that was not yours and acted as if we were speaking for the neighborhood,” Michie wrote.
Peter Gray, a member of the Lewis Mountain Neighborhood Association board, said the association has a democratically elected board voted on by residents. The LMNA board decided to sign the letter after engaging with residents and gathering their perspectives over email, Gray said.
“We have been sending regular updates and providing information about the Cville Plans Together process, and we have been inviting people to express their opinions to us,” he said.
“In this process, not a single individual communicated to us a belief that the process had been progressing as it should, and many expressed significant concerns that it had been progressing too quickly,” he said.
Gray said that when the LMNA was approached to support the letter requesting that the process be delayed, the group’s board reviewed the letter and voted on whether they should support it.
“There was unanimous board support. Given the fact that none of our neighborhood residents had communicated satisfaction with the speed of the process and many had communicated concerns about it happening too quickly, we believe this was an appropriate step to take,” he said.
“We are elected specifically to represent our neighborhood to the best of our ability. It would not be possible for the board to hold a referendum on every single thing we do just to make sure that every single community member agrees,” he said.