Faulconer foiled: Cops at hearing not undercover

Ivy residents turned out 200 strong on February 4 to keep Faulconer Construction out of their neighborhood. For now, at least, it worked.

After hearing 52 speakers, the Albemarle Planning Commission voted to deny three waivers Faulconer had requested. It was a "critical slope" waiver that concerned commissioners the most, and they voted 5 to 1 against it.

Commission vice-chair Tracey Hopper, who made the motion to deny, says that one official test of a waiver is to ask if it "makes things better for the community."

With schoolchildren and parents arguing against the construction company's plan to set up shop down a narrow country road from a preschool and elementary school, Hopper didn't think that waiver met the test.

Commissioners split 3-3 on two other waivers for "curvilinear parking" and one-way circulation on the 27-acre property in Ivy Industrial Park.

"We asked the applicant to agree to a deferral," says Hopper. "The applicant agreed and will come back to us."

Had the planning commission voted to deny the site plan, Faulconer could appeal to the Board of Supervisors.

One option is that Faulconer could change its site plan so it won't need waivers, says Hopper. "I think they could if they scaled back."

Others aren't so sure. "They're trying to squeeze a very large operation on a relatively small parcel," says Ivy Community Association president Tom Hutchinson. "That's the perception of all of us who have walked the property."

The Association staged a demonstration in front the County Office Building before the meeting and presented a phalanx of speakers, including a toxicologist, among other experts.

Seven children spoke, and Hopper mentions one "adorable" first grader.

"He brought his Lego set and said, 'This road is 18 feet wide. This bus is nine feet across. This [construction equipment] is 11 feet across. These two vehicles are not going to pass on this road,'" she recounts.

Faulconer's attorney, Rick Carter, says he's disappointed with the planning commission's decision, and expects the company will submit a new site plan "in the next month or two."

Hutchinson prefers a different use for the property, for which Faulconer paid $335,000. "Our hope is [Faulconer] decides this land is not suitable and goes some place else," says Hutchinson. "We'd like to raise money to pay what they paid for it and make it a park."

After the meeting, well-known county watchdog Charlie Trachta touched off a brouhaha of his own. A regular at government meetings, the former New York City cop fired off an email newsletter saying he was surprised to pick out four "undercover officers" sitting in the audience at the Faulconer hearing.

"Are the people from Ivy to be feared, or is it all the Public?" Trachta asked in his email. "Should we, the Public, be wondering who we are sitting down next to?"

"That's something that's gotten blown out of proportion," says county spokesperson Lee Catlin.

Because of the large number of people at the demonstration before the meeting, the presence of children, and rush hour traffic, Catlin says, one plainclothes officer was assigned as a safety precaution. "It was what we'd do with any large number of people and children in the building."

And Catlin emphasizes that "plainclothes" is very different from "undercover" in police lexicon.

Trachta saw Captain Crystal Limerick at the meeting in uniform. He says that when she left, he heard her remark, "I have people there."

He describes it as an "old cop thing" that he sat in the back of the room where he noticed a guy carrying an officer's gun. "I'm looking around and there's one, there's two, there's three, there's four. That's strange," he says.

Almost as soon as Trachta hit the "send" button on his newsletter, he heard from people in Ivy who told him that two of the officers had been working with the Ivy Community Association on traffic issues on Morgantown Road and were there in case the planning commission had questions.

Another of the plainclothes officers lives in Ivy, says Catlin, and "his trainee was there with him" before going to work later that evening. Catlin denies any nefarious plot to infiltrate or surreptitiously survey the Ivy Community Association.

"We are very respectful and supportive of the public's right to speak freely without censorship or surveillance," she says.

"It was a misundertanding," says Trachta, who met with Albemarle County Police Chief John Miller on February 10. "He bent over backward to explain things," Trachta adds. "They were there legitimately."