ON ARCHITECTURE- Timber! Felled tree halts project
How important is a tree to the City of Charlottesville?
Before you scoff, consider that a multi-million dollar University-area development could be scrapped and one local developer could face criminal charges for cutting down a 48-inch beech without permission.
On Wednesday, August 23, after it was discovered that developer David Turner had removed the 150-year-old beech tree in front of his Watson Manor project on University Circle, the City issued a zoning violation letter and a stop-work order.
According to city officials, removing the tree was a violation of the developer's special use permit, which explicitly called for the preservation of the tree. Although Turner has been allowed to stabilize the old house, which is up on stilts, no other construction is being allowed. Meanwhile, Turner will be required to file an amended site plan with the Planning Commission, and, according to City sources, the City is considering filing criminal charges against Turner.
To say that Planning Commission members– who granted Turner the permit which allowed him to put a research center in a residential neighborhood– are upset would be an understatement.
"I made the motion to approve that project," says Planning Commission vice-chairman Jon Fink. "And one of the conditions we had was the preservation of that tree. This is the most egregious violation of a special use permit I've ever seen."
Commission chairwoman Karen Firehock was similarly outraged. "We were extremely adamant and clear that that tree should remain," she says. "They willfully disregarded the instructions in the special use permit."
The permit instructions required Turner to do everything in his power to preserve the tree, and only if it died of natural causes as a result of the construction could he remove it.
On August 17, however, three months after Turner says he told the city the tree was a problem, and a week after he says he faxed the city a letter from an arborist who said the tree would not survive the construction upheaval, he took matters into his own hands. When asked if he knew the felling of the tree would cause such a stir, Turner nods grimly in the affirmative. Still, he stands by his decision.
"I felt I made every reasonable effort to save that tree," he says. "I spent thousands trying to save it."
As Turner points out during a site tour, the approved site plan required him to build a below-ground parking area behind the building with an entrance on to University Circle. The entrance– which was supposed to weave around the tree– had to be cut eight feet into the ground only a few feet from the tree, well below its root system. In addition, a retaining wall had to be built even closer to the beech.
"Could we have built the wall without taking down the tree?" asks Turner. "The technical answer in a perfect world is, yes, I could have done that. But here is the problem: with half of its support structure gone, the tree was in danger of falling. My superintendent said ‘I'm not going to work on this site if you don't cut down that tree.'"
Still, as city officials and Planning Commission members point out, the provisions of the special use permit were unequivocal: save the tree.
"It's about more than a beech tree," says former Planning Commission chair Cheri Lewis. "There are no special permit police. We rely on the good faith of the applicants to do what they say they're going to do. "Lewis sees the destruction of the tree as a challenge to the authority of the City and the Planning Commission.
"There is no greater power we wield than the special use permit," she says. "We're already allowing exceptions to the existing code. If we permit this applicant to do this, we'll set a precedent where applicants won't take us seriously."
Fink says he would support the filing of criminal charges against the developer. In fact, he suggests that Turner may have had no intention of saving the tree. "I believe the applicant had an elastic relationship with the truth," he says.
Turner denies the charge. "It was always our board's intention to save that tree," he says.
The Planning Commission apparently believed in the multi-million dollar project, which will create a new home for the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, a UVA interdisciplinary research center that studies, among other cultural dynamics, the "way that public life is understood and organized." In addition to restoring the original 1883 house, plans call for 8,000 square feet of new construction on the .55 acre site, 15 below-ground parking spaces, and extensive landscaping.
But now the Commission seems willing to block the whole project to make a point.
"I'm sorry they didn't take us seriously and decided to make a mockery of the city," says Firehock. "We really need to come down hard on this, and we intend to."
"We're going to suggest that the special use permit get pulled," says Fink. "Even if it kills the project."
Not everyone is as worked up as the Planning Commissioners.
University Circle resident Dan Friedman, who's also a member of the neighborhood association, says he's troubled and saddened by the loss of the "spectacular" beech tree, but he thinks the long-term success of the project is more important.
"It's going to be so much better than it was," says Friedman of the 123-year old Watson Manor, which had served as a run-down boarding house for years.
Friedman says that Turner worked closely with the neighbors for two years. In fact, it was the neighborhood association's wish, Friedman says, to locate the parking behind the building. As Turner points out, granting that wish required him to jack up the old building and excavate beneath it, adding a considerable cost to the project.
"They did a good job, not selling us a plan, but showing us a plan," says Friedman.
"Turner is a good man, not a liar." Still, Friedman understands the outrage over the tree. "I knew there'd be consequences if it was removed," he says, "but I would hope they could work around this. The tree is gone now, and it's a good project."
That may have been the attitude that Turner was hoping for when he made the fateful decision to remove the tree– initial sadness or outrage, but then an acceptance of the longer-term benefits of the project. However, he may have miscalculated what that old beech meant to city planners when they approved his project.
"They should be fined a $1,000 for every year that tree was alive," says Fink. "It was irreplaceable. I'm deeply saddened and angered."
At press time, Turner was still waiting to hear from the City about the fate of his project.
"I did what I thought was right," he says, staring up at the old house perched on stilts. "I did not do this in the dark of night. I told the City about this problem. I'm just trying to build what was approved."
The Watson Manor project site on University Circle, minus the 150-year old beech tree the developer defiantly cut down without permission. PHOTO BY DAVE MCNAIR