Slippery slope: Site work irks neighbors

If Charlottesville cohousers were dead, they might be rolling over in their graves. That's because the five-acre parcel they used to own at the end of St. Charles Avenue now resembles, they say, a clear-cut.

Some neighbors of the site fear that the steep grading and tree-cutting on the long ravine leading down to Meadow Creek will spell disaster for the Creek's fragile ecosystem.

Where the Charlottesville Cohousing Association once hoped to build 25 ecofriendly dwellings and a community center, Southland Homes is making way for 24 new houses. Southland purchased the site from the cohousers back in July for $650,000, after the cohousers had built one model home. Cohousers' costs had climbed so high that finding buyers in the $250,000-300,000 range who wanted to share maintenance chores and sup together wasn't feasible.

Southland is aiming for that same price range and plans to demolish the model house– after perhaps letting the fire department burn the structure to practice their skills.

Calhoun Street resident Garnet Mellen says she and her fellow Locust Grove Neighborhood Association members are frustrated by the way the project has unfolded. A wide expanse of red clay has replaced the lush greenery of the hill the cohousers once dreamed of living on.

During the recent overhaul of the city's zoning ordinance, she says, her association pushed to add development restrictions on steep slopes, widen setbacks along streams, and add protection for the Rivanna Trail.

Those provisions didn't make it to the ordinance, but Mellen has been named to the City's Stream Protection Task Force.

"Most of City Council and the candidates running have expressed their support of the amendment," says Mellen. "I personally feel calmed by their reassurance that they will not let this happen again."

Southland Homes owner Rich Carter did not return The Hook's calls by press time. However, Jim Tolbert, head of the city's zoning department, says Carter has "absolutely" followed the existing ordinance. He is not building in the flood plain, Tolbert says, and he has erected a silt fence to help catch erosion during the construction process.

Mellen and Association president Sarah Peaslee, once a cohousing member, say the silt fence is insufficient protection for Meadow Creek.

"The next big rain will blow out the fence," says Mellen, "and erosion will go down the hill and into the stream."

Peaslee says the neighborhood was assured that a "bio-filter"– a fancy drainage system to prevent chemical and debris runoff from entering the creek– would be part of the project.

But Tolbert says Carter still plans to put the filter in place as part of the final site plan. And while Tolbert acknowledges the silt fence could easily be washed away, he insists the city inspects it twice a week and would require Southland to replace it should it be damaged.

As for the status of the Rivanna Trail, things could be worse.

According to Rivanna Trails Foundation president Diana Foster, a new detour around the St. Charles site over an island in the creek was created a week ago. And while that detour might force some hikers to get their feet wet during a rainy season, it allows the path to continue uninterrupted.

Foster adds that Carter has worked with her group and is allowing the Trail to make its way back up onto the new subdivision.

"I think this is a new experience for him, having public trails close to his property," Foster explains. She says she thinks Carter's initial reluctance to let hikers use the land stemmed from his safety concerns about having them near large construction equipment.

"I think in time he will see that it's an amenity to the neighborhood, and that if we have to move the trail closer, he might be agreeable," she says.

While Mellen and Peaslee acknowledge it's too late to do anything about the present project, they both hope this will be the last time a development is built without stream protection laws in place.

But that hope doesn't remove all the sting– especially for would-be cohouser Peaslee.

"Cohousing was very environmentally attuned because they were going to cluster houses and preserve most of the woods," she says. "The point was not to do a lot of land moving– it totally wrecks the environment."

Paradise lost?