Developers, environmentalists, and government officials journey to Chapel Hill

By Brian Wheeler
Charlottesville Tomorrow


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How far will the Piedmont Environmental Council (PEC) go to ensure good ideas get on the table for new developments in Albemarle County? Today they went to Chapel Hill, NC.  PEC board member Tony Vanderwarker filled a Cessna Citation III jet with a Charlottesville-Albemarle delegation eager to learn about neighborhood model developments in Chapel Hill that successfully integrate public transit.  The objective was to bring home good ideas for Biscuit Run and other area developments.

The passengers included Mr. Vanderwarker, Biscuit Run developer Hunter Craig, Albemarle County Supervisors Lindsay Dorrier and Sally Thomas, City Planning Commissioner Michael Osteen, PEC Field Officer Jeff Werner, and Susan Payne with Payne Ross (the public relations firm representing Biscuit Run).  Charlottesville Tomorrow was invited to report on the trip (In the interests of full disclosure, Mr. Vanderwarker is also on the Board of Directors of Charlottesville Tomorrow). 

Located two miles outside of Chapel Hill, the Meadowmont neighborhood has a lot of the features on Albemarle County’s wish list for new developments.  Street trees, bus stops, sidewalks, town centers, mixed uses, and a variety of housing types.  A former dairy farm, Meadowmont has about 1,050 homes on 435 acres with 200,000 sq.ft. of commercial/office space.  It took ten years to get approved and was built between 2000 and 2007.  By comparison, Biscuit Run is proposed to have 3,100 homes on 828 acres with 150,000 sq.ft. of commercial/office space.

(L to R) Lindsay Dorrier, Sally Thomas, Hunter Craig, Tony Vanderwarker, Jeff Werner (hand visible with map), and Michael Osteen

During the 30 minute flight from Charlottesville, Michael Osteen commented on his priorities.  “Transportation is one thing that needs to be solved on a regional basis.  We need the County, UVA, and the City all on the same page.”

City Planning Commissioners like Osteen have recently received a lot of feedback about transportation, particularly since Biscuit Run took the public stage.  An architect who also serves on the City’s Board of Architectural Review, he admits transportation wasn’t originally at the top of his policy agenda.  That changed when Osteen was recently appointed to the City’s Street Car Task Force.  Now he is giving a lot more thought to how the University and downtown Charlottesville are connected.

Meeting the group at the Raleigh-Durham airport was Meadowmont resident and realtor Phil Patterson.  Patterson, a friend of Susan and L.F. Payne from when he worked with the couple developing Wintergreen, spent sixteen years in Charlottesville and was quite adept at comparing the various aspects of the community to things familiar to the group back home in Virginia.  Other experts there to offer advice included former Chapel Hill Mayor Rosemary Waldorf (1995-2001) and resident Gail Ross and her dog Madison.

On the drive from the airport to Meadowmont, Tony Vanderwarker outlined his group’s interest in working with Hunter Craig to achieve quality growth in Albemarle.  “In recent years, [the PEC has] been becoming aware that to fulfill the county’s comprehensive plans, growth areas have to be thoughtfully planned out in order to absorb population that would otherwise go to the rural areas.”  With respect to the Biscuit Run development, Vanderwarker said, “Hunter engaged us a couple months ago and asked for our point of view and perspective. We have been talking ever since.”

The first stop on the tour was a retirement community known as The Cedars integrated into Meadowmont.  Similar to Charlottesville’s Westminster Canterbury, it has a front yard more like the lawn at UVA adjoining a town center with a Harris Teeter within walking distance.  This was not Hunter Craig’s first visit to The Cedars and he says a similar facility will likely be a design element in Biscuit Run.

“This is a market we are going to target,” said Craig.  “Looking at the 55+ age group, they want efficient and attractive transit.”  The Cedars has shuttle buses which take residents to the town center and Chapel Hill.  As part of the Biscuit Run development, Craig has proffered up to $1 million in cash towards public transit operations.  Craig said he has already spoken to UVA’s Leonard Sandridge about making use of the University bus stops for shuttles coming out of Biscuit Run.  Until the University participates in an integrated transit system, Craig wants the decision makers in Albemarle to know he is serious about helping residents choose to leave their cars at home.  “This trip is about a regional discussion on transportation, and is not just about Biscuit Run,” said Craig.

The group walks past several of the 30 affordable homes designed for Meadowmont.

While public transit was a focus of the visit to Meadowmont, the residents the group met said they did not actually use the bus system themselves very often, if at all.  Interestingly, the bus routes initially looped through the interior of the development until neighbors complained about the noise.  The transit service was pushed out and the bus stops moved to the spine roads.  Residents now have a 4-5 block walk to the nearest stop.  Chapel Hill Transit has been fare free since 2002 and the University of North Carolina contributes heavily to its operation.  Working in Chapel Hill’s favor is the fact it already has a unified town-university transit system.  UNC is also famous for having very little parking and a master plan that seeks to eliminate even more parking in favor of infill development accessed by transit. 

The fact that the Charlottesville Transit System (CTS) receives federal funding has been cited as an obstacle to integration with the University of Virginia.  Federal funds come with restrictions on the use of transit equipment.  Hunter Craig said our community should be able to overcome that challenge.  “I think we need to work together and get the laws changed if necessary,” said Craig.  The University of Virginia’s Director of Parking and Transportation, Rebecca White, says, “That would be fabulous.”  White was not on this trip, but reports a delegation from UVA is also heading to UNC on June 14th to talk with their colleagues about sustainability.  “We do not receive federal funds and my understanding is equipment purchased with federal money cannot be used for charter services,” said White. 

White said there are other universities that have worked around this problem by carving out fleets not supported by federal dollars.  UVA needs to have buses for parking lot shuttles, graduation, sporting events, and field trips.  According to White, last year CTS said it would no longer be able to allow its fleet to be used for UVA’s graduation because of the City’s interpretation of federal law.

Meadowmont resident Gail Ross and her dog Madison with Albemarle County Supervisor Lindsay Dorrier.

Her curiosity piqued, resident Gail Ross observed the Charlottesville delegation walking through the Meadowmont Town Center and she introduced herself and her dog Madison to the group.  “I walk to Harris Teeter.  I walk to the wellness center,” said Ross.  “I live here because of the convenience of this lifestyle.”  Supervisor Lindsay Dorrier asked how she got her groceries from the store to her apartment.  Ross responded, “I don’t get a lot of groceries on each trip because I go by there all the time.” 

Rosemary Waldorf was mayor of Chapel Hill when the Meadowmont development was approved.  “This is a community that doesn’t take change easily,” said Waldorf.  “People went berserk when Meadowmont was submitted.”  Supervisor Sally Thomas asked how well the community worked now that it was fully built out.  “I have lived here three years, and it functions unbelievably well as a community,” said Waldorf.  “People who chose to live here like this lifestyle.  People try and support the retail here too.”

A question raised about Biscuit Run is whether there is enough commercial and retail use being included in the development.  As a largely residential development in the current plans, Biscuit Run is anticipated to have a negative fiscal impact on Albemarle County.  More non-residential activity leads to increased tax revenues, fewer students in public schools, and more internal vehicle trips “captured” within the town center development.  “I am concerned Biscuit Run will be the bedroom community to the retail on 5th street,” said Thomas.  The 5th Street-Avon Center project, also under review in Albemarle, will add a large home improvement store and grocery store just North of Interstate 64.

It appeared each member of the delegation saw something in Meadowmont that they liked and hoped could be brought to new developments back home.  Thomas said the best thing she saw all day was the full bike rack at the Rashkis Elementary School.  Students were taking advantage of the safe streets and trails to get to their neighborhood school.  Hunter Craig like the “rolled curbs” and driveways with grass median strips in the residential area.  He asked each Supervisor to consider the benefits of this curb system that allowed driveways to be placed anywhere along the roadway, which is built first, without the need for a curb cut later.  “I hate when we have to put in a driveway and a new curb with concrete that doesn’t match.”

Back in Charlottesville, the PEC’s Jeff Werner and Hunter Craig agreed that co-operation in Charlottesville-Albemarle can put our community ahead of Meadowmont and Chapel Hill.  “In many ways we are ahead of where they are.  There are some design elements we can take away for use in Biscuit Run,” said Craig.  “Our transit will be better.  We will have more bike lanes.”  Werner agreed on the potential to come out ahead of Meadowmont, but said, “We can’t answer all the questions by next Tuesday.”  Biscuit Run has its next public hearing before the Albemarle County Planning Commission on May 29th.