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June 10, 2008

City leaves land near Timberlake-Branham house unprotected; Councilors favor design review district for all of Woolen Mills

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The Charlottesville City Council has endorsed a process which could place development in the Woolen Mills neighborhood under the design review of the Board of Architectural Review (BAR). If the neighborhood can successfully apply for the status, it would give the BAR the ability to scrutinize any future projects in the neighborhood.

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At its meeting on June 2, 2008, Council considered a resolution to initiate a pre-emptive rezoning of  vacant land adjacent to the property known as the Timberlake-Branham house (built in 1886).  The property owner, Preston Coiner, is opposed to the rezoning. In placing the item on the agenda, Mayor Dave Norris was responding to concerns from Woolen Mills residents who felt the entire property should be subject to the “individually protected property” designation, which would require any structures built upon it to be subject to the design review of the Board of Architectural Review. Neighbors continue to dispute the ruling by Charlottesville’s Zoning Administrator that only the portion of the property with the historic home is protected. 

In introducing his staff report, Jim Tolbert, Director of the Department of Neighborhood Development Services, said it was difficult to give a full background on the property’s evolution. 

“What we do know is that at one point, all of this was one tax parcel… we do know that in 1989 it was subdivided by the property owner, and cut into two parcels. We know that in 1993, a portion of it was designated as an individually protected property by the City Council. And I say a portion of it because when it was subdivided in 1989, it in fact became two parcels. Some of the confusion arises because [the property] was under the ownership of one property owner, our assessor’s office never divided it on the tax maps as had been done with the recorded subdivision.”

TbThe Timberlake-Branham house is protected as an "individually protected property" although land surrounding it is not (Source: Virginia Department of Historic Resources)

The confusion was compounded in 2003, when the City Council enacted a new zoning ordinance for the entire 10.4 square miles of the City. Tolbert said NDS staff tried to “clean up” all of the City’s individually designated properties to match them with the correct tax parcel number. In the case of the Branham-Timberlake property, NDS staff used the tax parcel number containing the house to identify the individually designated property, which meant the other vacant parcels lost that status.

Tolbert said he believed this reflected the original intent of the property owner, and he said the Board of Zoning Appeals upheld this view. The neighborhood sought to overturn this interpretation, but the suit was thrown out in Charlottesville Circuit Court.

Tolbert said Council could decide to initiate a process to grant individually protected status to all of Coiner’s parcels. That would involve first referring the matter to the Board of Architectural Review, and then scheduling a joint public hearing with the Planning Commission. Tolbert recommended against this step because the property that currently lacks the status is vacant land.

“I’m not sure what we would hang our hat on as being significant about it to designate it as an individually protected property,” Tolbert said. He then offered the alternative of the architectural design control district, and said NDS staff is currently surveying the Woolen Mills neighborhood as part of the process to obtain state and federal historical protection.  Some of that work could go into the application process.  However,

Tolbert warned that protection would not necessarily stop development of the property if the current owner chooses.

“All it would do is provide for design review of any development that occurred, and the underlying zoning that’s on it would govern what’s built on it,” Tolbert said.

Councilor Satyendra Huja said he had worked with Tolbert to try to identify the property, and also publicly acknowledged he was involved with the decisions made in 1989 and 1993.

“I signed the subdivision plat myself,” Huja said.

Councilor David Brown asked Huja if there was any way that both parcels could have been intended for designation in 1993. Huja said the property was divided in 1989 in order to clear the way for part of the property being designated. “That’s the only reason it was divided,” he said. Tolbert agreed and said that was his interpretation.

Councilor Brown said he had entered Council Chambers with the thought that a mistake had been made. “But after hearing Mr. Huja speak and Mr. Tolbert speak… it sounds like it was intentional, that the property was divided in order to avoid having to undergo BAR review.”

Brown asked how long it would take for the historic district survey to be completed. Tolbert said it would be completed within 60 days, possibly sooner.

Councilor Holly Edwards said she supported the architectural review district because it would give the Woolen Mills neighborhood a voice in whatever occurs in their neighborhood.

Earlier in the meeting Council received a history lesson of sorts from Jane Leitch whose relatives once owned the property. She currently lives in Greensboro, North Carolina, but traveled to Charlottesville in order to address Council.  Leitch said the property contains a lot of history, both personal and related to Woolen Mills.

“Someone had said that it is not a unique property,” Leitch said. “It is very unique… My aunts and my mother lived there and then they started the historical preservation thing and they were so excited when they got it because they thought that their property was going to be saved. And I think it’s a shame that what happened was that a mistake was made.  I know the back part has been developed, but I would like for you to not let it proceed any further.”

Kay Slaughter was a member of City Council from 1999-1998 and was heavily involved with historic preservation efforts in Woolen Mills.  Slaughter wrote the Board of Zoning Appeals in April 2007 and stated that:

"I was cognizant of the implications of the designation of the Timberlake Branham property, # 56-40.4, in Fall 1993.  When Council voted to designate this property as an individually protected property, the entire property was considered historic, not just the portion on which the house stood…. [T]he neighborhood and council understood that any new housing built on the property would need review by the Board of Architectural Review (BAR).  This was very important to the neighborhood and Council in 1993."

By not acting on the proposal to rezone Coiner’s parcels, the City has opted not to address what it has acknowledged in the past were “technical mistakes” related to the tracking of the land, but it has opened a new chapter for Woolen Mills by directing staff to explore the design control district.

Sean Tubbs and Brian Wheeler

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