Growing pains: Developer sues Albemarle

When the Albemarle County Planning Commission voted down Richard Spurzem's plans to build a shopping center in an area on Pantops zoned for shopping centers, he'd had enough. Spurzem filed a lawsuit November 26.

"We've been working with the county for five years on this property," says Spurzem. Earlier, he tried to get the property rezoned to mixed use to meet the "neighborhood model" Albemarle is demanding in all new development. "They said it would never be approved unless the traffic problem is fixed," says Spurzem.

Traffic reared its head again as cause for the most recent rejection when Spurzem submitted a shopping center site plan on the 38-acre Hansens Mountain Road parcel he bought for $1.3 million in 1999 from the Worrell Land and Cattle Company.

"VDOT did not feel there were sufficient or appropriate conditions for a commercial entrance," says Albemarle spokeswoman Lee Catlin. "They said they would not approve that."

The county had to respond to Spurzem's complaint by December 20– after The Hook had gone to press. But Catlin offers some clue as to what that response would be: "We feel the Planning Commission was correct in their denial and that it was appropriate."

"There is probably is going to be more to the story," says Spurzem, neither confirming nor denying reports he intends to seek $10 million in damages.

He calls the suit a property rights issue. "You cannot stop someone from doing something with their property through county regulations."

In Albemarle's 1980 Comprehensive Plan, the county rezoned the property to Planned Development Shopping Center. "It was the county that did that," says Spurzem. "Whether it's bad land planning– that's on the back of the county."

"His situation right now is a grand-fathering situation," says Catlin. She calls the shopping center zoning "an old designation."

Pantops is one of the county's growth areas. "We want to see developers reflecting the neighborhood model principles," says Catlin. That includes incorporating residential, office and retail, with a heavy emphasis on the pedestrian friendly.

"That was not the case with his site plan," says Catlin.

Spurzem contends he did try to meet the neighborhood model. "After years of trying to do something with that property and having roadblocks thrown up, we decided to do the only thing we could by right."

He's not the first developer to take the county to court. In 2001, United Land Corporation owner Wendell Wood sued when the Board of Supervisors turned down his plans to build a Home Depot on U.S. 29 North– to no avail.

Wood declines to comment on Spurzem's suit, but he does reveal his latest plans for the parcel destined never to become a Home Depot: a shopping center. "It's already zoned Highway Commercial," says Wood, which allows gas stations and fast food. "We've filed a new site review."

To get approval for his Hollymead Town Center, Wood had to add a turn lane on 29 North and satisfy other VDOT and county concerns about traffic.

Spurzem says traffic problems on Pantops are not of his making. "We have a by-right use that would generate more traffic."

"Traffic issues are very important in that corridor," says Catlin. "If VDOT determines the site plan is insufficient, we would consider that a valid reason for denial."

Spurzem has hired attorney Fred Payne, who successfully defended razor-wire stringer Shirley Presley against the City of Charlottesville.

"Obviously our allegation is that we have the right to use the land," says Payne.

And will Spurzem be seeking financial damages to the tune of $10 million? Says Payne, "No comment."

Richard Spurzem files suit against Albemarle County for its refusal to approve his Gazebo Plaza shopping center plans on Pantops.