ONARCHITECTURE- Twilight zoning: BZA procedure trumps reality


November 30, 1999: Lucile Branham Watson's ashes are scattered in the pasture behind the Timberlake-Branham house by her daughter, Jane Leitch. "We absolutely thought that the entire seven acres would always be protected," says Dorothy Hesselton, Leitch's cousin.
PHOTO COURTESY JANE LEITCH

A hotly contested recent meeting of the Board of Zoning Appeals was attended by a crowd of Woolen Mills residents, several lawyers, and one elephant. That elephant was the designation by City Council back in 1993 that the Timberlake-Branham property, a parcel that includes an 1890 farmhouse (now home to the Mary Williams Senior Center), was historic and should be protected.

As former City Councilor and Woolen Mills resident Kay Slaughter recalled in a March letter, when Council voted for the designation, they considered the entire seven-acre property historic, not just the portion where the house stands. However, when scrap-yard owner and BAR member Preston Coiner, who bought the property in 1996, proposed building the Woolen Mills Self Storage facility in 2000, City staff appears to have overlooked the property's historic status.

The issue didn't erupt until late last year after Coiner proposed another development, this time a 12-14 unit Planned Unit Development on the remaining property. This time, however, neighbors acknowledged the elephant. In fact, in e-mails to Coiner, one City planner wondered how Coiner erected his Woolen Mills Self-Storage– an apparently lucrative business in a largely residential neighborhood– without BAR review.

It turned out that, according to zoning administrator Read Broadhead, it was Coiner's subdivision of the property and the City's failure to update the zoning maps that allowed the giant pachyderm to lumber through Woolen Mills unnoticed.

"Everyone agrees a mistake was made," said Erik Wilke, lawyer for some Woolen Mills residents. "It's a typo mistake; why not fix it?"

However, in an apparent first for this body, the BZA hired a lawyer of its own to sort out its role in the controversy. And the BZA's lawyer pushed the matter over to Council.

"If a zoning mistake was made, the BZA does not have the authority to fix it," said the lawyer, Anne Cosby, during the May 17 meeting. "The BZA has no authority to go behind City Council."

"I have to agree... reluctantly," said BZA chair Kevin O'Halloran, giving the evening's only nod to the elephant, as public comment was not allowed.

Of course, Cosby's recommendations couldn't have been better news for Coiner's lawyer, Fred Payne, the only one in the room insisting there was no elephant, as he likened the arguments surrounding the case to "shooting woodcocks on a windy day, because the target keeps moving." He agreed with Cosby that the BZA had no authority to do anything.

"The statement that everyone agrees a mistake was made is absolutely wrong," said Payne, responding to Wilke. "We don't agree with that at all." However, moments later Payne said, "The only mistake that was made was that the city assessor didn't mark the parcel." 

That's something the decedents of Lucile Branham Watson, who owned the property when it was a farm, might contest. When Branham Watson's ashes were scattered on the property by her daughter Jane Leitch in 1999, it was assumed the property was protected.  "We absolutely thought that the entire seven acres would always be protected," says Dorothy Hesselton, Leitch's cousin, who says she spent her growing up years on the farm. "That's what my aunt had always wanted done with the property. If fact, she had hoped there would be a walking park there."  

"We're considering our options," says residents' lawyer Wilke, citing "pretty good evidence" that City Council wanted to protect the whole property.  "I think we'd have a pretty good shot it circuit court."

Still, Wilke admits a case like that could be expensive for Woolen Mills residents, and it's questionable what exactly would be gained. Another idea, says Wilke, is to petition City Council and see if they might be interested in correcting their mistake.

As the evidence suggests, its unlikely that Coiner would have been able to build his Woolen Mill Self Storage facility if the project had gone under BAR review. With 525 storage units that rent for $70 to $155 per month, it's a business that possibly generates between $40,000 and $70,000 a month in gross income.

Local real estate wags note that such storage parks make an excellent "place holder" for future development, as they can be quickly dismantled to make way for more ambitious developments. In the meantime, Coiner has a plan to build a PUD development on the land directly behind the Timberlake-Branham property, and as a result of the recent BZA determination, he will not be required to face the BAR.

As for the Woolen Mills residents, they have more late-night meetings and a potentially expensive court case to look forward to.

While an April 24 Daily Progress editorial let Coiner off the hook because he "wasn't the one who made the error," he certainly seems to be the one benefiting the most from it. 

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7 comments

Is owner Preston Coiner on the City's Board of Architecture Review? I thought so, and if so why is he opposing the BAR oversight? Isn't this conflict of interest worth mentioning (given the profits his self storage makes)?

Edward, yes he is on the BAR. That's the $24,000 question that's been asked by many: Why would Mr Coiner be so keen to insure that the rules he applies to others not be applied to himself? No answer has been forthcoming.

The article is in error when it states that the mini-storage could not have been built under BAR review. He easily could have done so with only some minor site plan revisions-- perhaps things like board fences instead of chainlink and razor wire, and motion sensor lights instead of lights that burn all night. These are all changes that would have made the facility a far better fit for the residential neighborhood in which it was built.

At the end of the May 17th hearing, BZA chairman (and former Planning Commission chair) Kevin O'Halloran strongly advised Mr Coiner that he would do well to go ahead and follow the BAR guidelines for any new development on the site, regardless of how this case plays out in the long run. That was wise counsel from Mr O'Halloran.

In all likelihood, this is probably easily fixable by our City Council with a simple amendement to the 2003 zoning ordinance. While they're doing so, they can then check to make sure that no other protected properties were accidentally de-listed in 2003.

If Council chooses to step up, Mr Coiner will continue to enjoy the generous returns on his investment, and the citizens will know that their local government is willing to right wrongs. It's a solution with no losers. If not, it becomes an expensive court case, and the citizens will bear the burden of the city's typographical errors.

Why is everyone bitching about low-land near the railroad tracks?

This neighborhood has a tradition of commerce co-existing with residence.

If storage/scrap/industry is not to be located here, then where should it be.

If you don't like it, get off your ass and make some of your own income so you can rezone your life to a nicer place like Farmington. Until then, deal with it.

Belmont/hogwaller, and all the below sea level areas of Charlottesville are suddenly being touted as some sort of hallowed ground. That's pure BS and its your fault for paying too much to live there.

As the Alman's say, It's the "High Cost, of Low Living!"

TRLSZM:
Wow, what did the "below sea level" areas of Charlottesville and the people who live there do to cause your lil' panties to get into such a twist? And what does your spastic outburst have to do with the issue at hand, which is the inadvertent de-listing of an historic property?

Try reading the several articles on the topic again. Repeat as needed until some spark of comprehension begins to penetrate your poor dense noggin. Until then, here, have a tissue.

As Council acknowledged at its Monday, June 4, 2007 meeting, there is nothing in the City's code to require the overlay district status of a parcel of land to be automatically conveyed with its subdivision. In this case, the historic overlay district designation is applied to the address which stays with the plat on which the house sits. Each of the new addresses would have to be listed by ordinance as minor historic districts in that section of the City's code "Sec. 34-273. Individually protected properties." to be found at http://www.municode.com/resources/gateway.asp?pid=12078&sid=46. The parcels in question are not listed and therefore, de jure, are not under design control. There was never any evidence of a typographical error and there is no evidence that, at the time of subdivision, it was the City's intention to place those new parcels under any kind of restrictions except for those inherent in its underlying zoning. Since there are other parcels on Market designated as minor districts, its up to the residents to pay attention and bring up these issues at the appropriate time with the Planning Commission. Also, Council can not pass an ordinance of re-zoning today and apply it retroactively. Whatever zoning that is in effect when the owner first submits his application is the basis for any future considerations.

It is strange that a person who sits on the ARB and worries about the yes/no aspects of an outside light, or the color of someones paint,or the appropiateness of a bush, could get this through our Urban Executive Government. Somewhere there is a stepdown or resignation in order. As a future confidence builder for those who have had our faith in government jaded!RRRrrr

Observer-
Council "acknowledged" no such thing. One hopeful statement by Kevin Lynch does not an acknowledgement from Council make. Listen to the meeting again.

Rule #1: subdivision does not alter zoning. To alter the zoning on a parcel, you must go through an actual process, not wave a magic wand at the parcel and think happy thoughts.

You state that Council made a conscious decision to leave some of the Timberlake-Branham parcels off the IPP list in the 2003 zoning ordinance. Do you have evidence that this conscious decision was made? Did they do this with any other historic properties in Charlottesville? If so, I'll bet the citizens would be interested in knowing that this happened without their knowledge.

And while you're at it, please share with us the process that Council went though to give themselves the power to de-list historic properties by merely leaving them off of the IPP list, thus completely by-passing the BAR and CPC.