ON ARCHITECTURE- BZA showdown: Felled tree, scorned neighbors

Not many folks would consider an evening with the Charlottesville Board of Zoning Appeals a hot date, but there could be some real fireworks at the October 21 session, as two of the year's most controversial planning issues go before the Board. 

First up is Little High Neighborhood Association prez Mark Haskins, who's been battling Region Ten to open to public scrutiny its Mews project, a 40-unit affordable housing complex for Region Ten clients on Little High Street. 

Next it's developer David Turner's turn. Abetted by lawyer Fred Payne, Turner will attempt to defend what many believe to be his indefensible decision to cut down a 150-year-old beech tree at #3 University Circle, a decision members of the Planning Commission called a "criminal act" and the "most egregious violation of a special use permit" they've ever seen.

If a tree falls...

Turner's problems started, he says, when the old tree began hampering work on his Watson Manor project, a privately funded multimillion-dollar center for UVA's Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture. As Turner told the Hook in August, the Commission's requirement that he construct an underground parking lot included a retaining wall that necessitated digging far below the beech tree's root system. 

"Could we have built the wall without taking down the tree?" asked Turner. "The technical answer in a perfect world is, yes, I could have done that." But Turner believed the tree was in danger of falling. He says he informed city officials of the problem, but instead of waiting for a response, he felled the tree on August 17, something expressly forbidden by his special use permit. 

The city's reaction was swift. Less than a week later, Turner was issued a stop-work order. 

At the Planning Commission's September 13 meeting, the issue overshadowed UVA architect David Neuman's presentation of the $105 million South Lawn project. Neuman even made a point of reminding the commission– as UVA vice president Leonard Sandridge had already done– that UVA had "absolutely nothing" to do with the privately funded Watson Manor project. 

Commissioners emphatically and unanimously condemned Turner's action, seeing it as a challenge to their authority.

"This is about more than a tree," said former chair Karen Firehock at the September 13 meeting, speaking for the entire commission. "This is a very emotional issue."

Indeed, the Commission's frustration escalated when they learned from City Attorney Craig Brown that Turner's decision to appeal to the BZA meant there was nothing they could do– such as recommend that his special use permit be revoked– until the appeals process was finished. 

Since then, the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, which has apparently been trying to distance itself from Turner, has tried to lobby the Planning Commission to amend the special use permit by allowing them to replace the tree with some nice landscaping. 

"I told the head of the Board of Directors who called me that I would not discuss any pretty landscaping plan as an alternative to the original special use permit," says commissioner Cheri Lewis, "so long as they were pursuing the appeal to the BZA, which is their right, but which I consider a waste of our City's resources."

Although directors of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture did not return phone calls by press time, it appears they don't fully understand the extent of the Planning Commission's feelings about the issue. If Turner's appeal is unsuccessful, and he doesn't make a further appeal to circuit court, which is also his right, at their November meeting the Planning Commission will almost surely recommend his special use permit be revoked– or worse. 

Mews or loose

Haskins and the Little High Neighborhood Association plan to appeal the definition of the Mews project as offering only "coordinating services," a change that would allow the project to move forward under its exisiting special use permit. 

Haskins believes the Mews will essentially be an "adult assisted living facility," a definition that would send it back to the drawing board.

"If we win," he says, "we'll ask for a public hearing on the Mews project, a Planning Commission Review, and a City Council decision," he adds. "If we lose, at least there will be a public record about this issue."

And what a record it is!  

The neighborhood has already taken Region Ten to court twice and elicited the help of the ACLU to obtain information about the social service organization's plans for the Mews. 

Because the neighborhood hadn't complained about the former owner's plans for the property or voiced any concerns before the original special use permit was issued, the sudden opposition to the project– now that Region Ten clients will be moving in– smacked of NIMBY-ism. But Haskins and other neighbors have always insisted that it's the poor design and planning of the project, not its intended use, that gets their goat.

"It stings when we're accused of being anti-public housing,"  Haskins told the Hook in April. "For us, this has always been a planning issue."

Region Ten agreed.

"There could have been better insight into the planning process," interim director Caruso Brown said in April. "I don't think we did justice to the Little High project."

However, as far as Brown is concerned, despite his partial agreement with Haskins over the planning, the train had already left the station.

"As Charlottesville grows," Brown said, "there are a limited number of places for people with special needs. Our job right now is to meet the needs of our clients."

Haskins, however, still appears to be waiting at the station, hoping the City will haul the plans back for further review.

Haskins says his group thinks City Council is "dodging" the issue.

But as far as Mayor David Brown is concerned, the Little High neighbors and Region Ten have no one to blame but themselves.

"The City really needs this type of housing," Brown says. "We already issued a special use permit for the property. By law, that special use permit was transferred to Region Ten when the property was sold."

Brown admits it's a complicated issue, but he believes much of the problem was caused by a failure of communication on both sides. "Everyone involved seems to be at fault," he concludes. 

The Little High Neighborhood Association has been battling Region Ten for over a year over the Mews project– a 40-unit affordable housing complex for Region Ten clients.