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ON ARCHITECTURE- More than a tree: Are planners<span class="Apple-converted-space">&nbsp; </span>out on a limb?

Architects can design a campus project, but only God can make a tree. That wasn't the literal message at the Charlottesville Planning Commission's September 13 meeting, but it might as well have been.

Although UVA architect David Neuman's presentation of the $105 million South Lawn project was billed as the headliner, it was the emotional discussion about the loss of an old tree that dominated the meeting. In fact, Neuman made a point of distancing the University from the University Circle brouhaha before the discussion began, saying UVA had "no involvement whatsoever" in developer David Turner's Watson Manor project that has been put on hold after he felled a 150-year-old beech tree. 

Neuman was reiterating what UVA vice president Leonard Sandridge had already said in a letter to the commission, that the project– a new home for  UVA's Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture– is privately funded.

Late into the evening of the group's first meeting since Neighborhood Development chief Jim Tolbert authorized an August 23 stop-work order on Turner's project, commissioners made it clear how they felt about the developer cutting down the tree that his special use permit, granted by the commission, had explicitly required him to preserve. 

In fact, if the commission were a dictatorship, Turner might have found himself hanging from a tree much like the one he cut down on August 17. Fortunately for Turner, due process seems to have saved him from the wrath of the commissioners, at least temporarily.

"This in my mind is a criminal act," said commissioner Craig Barton, "and this developer should not be allowed to build on this property."

According to Turner, the old tree had been impeding the progress of his multi-million dollar project, which involved the renovation of the original 1883 house at 3 University Circle, 8,000 square feet of new construction, and a subterranean parking area. When the tree became an issue, Turner– instead of negotiating with the Planning Commission, something commission chair Karen Firehock said the group had been willing to do– made the decision to Paul Bunyan the old beech. As the developer indicated in a Hook story August 31 ["Timber! Felled tree halts project"], it was a decision he knew would anger the commission. 

Turner maintains that he did all he could to save the tree. In fact, as the Planning Commission announced at the meeting, Turner has appealed the stop-work order to the Board of Zoning Appeals which has set a hearing for October. As he pointed out during a site tour several weeks ago, the approved site plan required Turner to build a below-ground parking area behind the building with an entrance from 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 root ball. 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?" he said. "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.'" 

Turner, who was not present at the September 13 meeting, declined additional comment on the issue of the tree while it is being legally contested, but said he would release his response to the BZA when it was complete.  

Dan Friedman, a University Circle resident and member of the Venable Neighborhood Association (who was not present at the Planning meeting), now believes Turner took down the tree purposely because he became impatient waiting for a reply from the City to his request for a meeting to discuss the tree. Friedman, who had previously been willing to give Turner the benefit of the doubt, now says his "outrage with Turner has become a prevailing passion. 

Friedman says Turner met with the neighborhood association on September 11 to offer a solution.

"What he offered was lame," says Friedman. "He offered to plant a 20-year-old beech tree in the other one's place, emphasizing that it would cost him $4,000. I have a suspicion he intended to take it down all along."

At the conclusion of that meeting, Friedman says, the neighbors voted to recommend to the Planning Commission that Turner's special use permit be revoked.        

Planning commissioners needed no convincing. Cheri Lewis called Turner's act a "willful" and egregious" violation of the special use permit. Fellow planner Kevin O'Halloran, who lives in the Venable neighborhood, said that Turner's actions "fly in the face of all we do." And planning chair Karen Firehock accused Turner of "blatantly violating the law. " 

"This is about more than a tree," Firehock added. "This is a very emotional issue." 

"There is no greater power we wield than the special use permit," Lewis told the Hook in August. "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." 

As Charlottesville faces the inevitability of continued growth, much of it increasingly dense, Lewis and others see any erosion of local government's authority to manage it as a serious threat.

Indeed, after City Attorney Craig Brown counseled commissioners on the legalities involved, he recognized the commission's frustration. "I understand that for the commission this is not just about a tree," he said, "but about a disrespect for the process."

Brown informed the commission that they did have the power to revoke Turner's special use permit, but only in the same way they issue one: they can discuss it, vote on it, and pass it on to City Council. But what about fines, criminal charges, and other restrictions? 

"The Planning Commission can suggest anything they want," says Brown, "but it's City Council that makes the final decision, and the zoning administrator [Tolbert] who enforces it." 

Brown also clarified how Turner's appeal to the Board of Zoning Appeals will affect the process. Until the BZA rules on the appeal, says Brown, there is nothing the Planning Commission or the City can do but call for a discussion and public hearing at the next meeting in November. 

However, should Turner successfully appeal the stop-work order, Brown says, the city's recourse would be to appeal the BZA decision to Circuit Court. Likewise, Turner can take the case to Circuit Court if his appeal to the BZA is unsuccessful. Although the stop-work order will remain in effect during the appeals process, Brown says, the city can enforce no further action against Turner until the process is completed. 

Clearly, considering some sort of police action against a developer is uncharted territory for the commission. In fact, Brown said he couldn't think of a similar incident in the 21 years he's been working for the city. Commissioners peppered Brown and Tolbert with questions about the extent of their authority. Commissioner Bill Lucy seemed particularly frustrated with the limits of that authority after Tolbert explained that a revocation of Turner's permit could simply send the project back to square one. 

It's worth noting that commissioners believed that the Watson Manor project, with its exceptional design for the renovation of the old boarding house, was a promising addition to University Circle. In fact, Lewis has said that it was one of the best projects they have approved. Still, it appears that's not reason enough to forgive Turner's transgression.

"This is a big step for us," said Lewis, clearly frustrated by the situation. "This was a great project. But we have to act."

In the end, the Planning Commission voted unanimously– indeed, emphatically– to move the discussion to a public hearing in November, pending the decision of the BZA on Turner's appeal. 

"I'll even come back in November for this," quipped Barton, who, along with Firehock and O'Halloran, will be leaving the Commission before the November showdown.   

"This in my mind is a criminal act," said Planning Commissioner Craig Barton, discussing developer David Turner's removal of a 150-year old beech tree on University Circle during the commission's September 13 meeting, "and this developer should not be allowed to build on this property."