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September 04, 2008

Wendell Wood seeks expedited review process for buildings near military base

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20080903-NGICx2
Photo shows the first building under construction in the Boulders Office Complex.  Albemarle County is evaluating whether the revised plans for the basement will require additional parking.

A request to expedite approval of design changes for local developer Wendell Wood’s project to build offices adjacent to the Rivanna Station Military Base was considered by the Albemarle County Board of Supervisors at their meeting on September 3, 2008.  Chairman Ken Boyd (Rivanna) brought up the request under other matters from the Board.  The Supervisors devoted almost 40 minutes of their meeting to Wood’s request to amend his August 2007 “NGIC Expansion” rezoning. The item did not appear on the agenda nor was there a written report from staff for the Board’s consideration. 

Two weeks ago, Wood asked the County to allow him to change the layout of two four-story office buildings in the Boulders Office Complex.  What was to be basement storage with low ceilings Wood would like to be basement space with ceilings closer to height of a typical office floor.  Storage space, however, is required to have ceilings no taller than 6 feet 6 inches.  County staff told Charlottesville Tomorrow that it appears the basement of one building under construction has already been readied with bathrooms and HVAC in anticipation of future use.  With ceilings placed higher than the storage space maximum, the basements become a new floor on the buildings that could be occupied for future offices, thus requiring Wood to build 200 additional parking spaces, or seek a waiver from that standard.  Wood has requested a reduction in the parking requirements, presumably because the taller space will still be used for storage needs of his tenant and not for employees needing parking.

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What is going to happen in the basements of these two office buildings and why does it need a fast track approval?  Those are the two key questions that couldn’t be answered in the Supervisors’ discussion.  County staff reported that they were waiting for more information from Wood who was not present at the meeting.  Supervisors Boyd and David Slutzky (Rio) said they had enough information to request that Wood’s changes be expedited.

20080903-NGICx3 Wood’s commercial office complex is developing independent of the nearby military base expansion projects.  Ground was recently broken on a $58.5 million Joint Use Intelligence Analysis Facility (JUIAF) located on about 47 acres of land the federal government purchased from Wood.  JUIAF will join the National Ground Intelligence Center (NGIC) as part of the growing military base.  Wood’s commercial project has been described by the military as something that would support the work at the base by, for example, providing space for private military contractors.

Albemarle County’s Director of Community Development, Mark Graham, told Charlottesville Tomorrow that when Wood submitted his building permit in March 2008, County staff noticed that the ceilings were too high at the basement level.  Wood was asked to drop the ceilings to six feet six inches and he submitted a revised building plan showing that change to be in compliance with his rezoning.

Boyd told the Board that the General Services Administration would be renting Wood’s building and that they had requested changes to the floor plan.  Supervisor Dennis Rooker (Jack Jouett) said he had met with NGIC officials and that they told him they did not know anything about the proposed use of Wood’s buildings.

“I don’t mind supporting [an expedited review] if the government needs the building…but I would like us to make certain we understand the reasons behind why it needs to be accelerated over, perhaps, some other project,” said Rooker.  “I would support it if we were in receipt of some kind of documentation from the user that they in effect needed this done sooner rather than later to meet hard deadlines for occupying the building…In the absence of that, I wouldn’t support it.”

Boyd and Slutzky shared that they thought security precautions and procurement red tape would prevent the government tenant from quickly responding to a request for more information about their needs.  County staff said they did not have any information yet from Wood beyond a request to authorize storage space with higher ceilings.  Slutzky suggested the tenant might move elsewhere in the County if this was not resolved quickly.

A zoning map amendment requires public hearings before both the Planning Commission and the Board of Supervisors.  County staff told Charlottesville Tomorrow that Wood has not officially requested the first public hearing yet, but Supervisors made it clear they had been contacted by Wood and by Chairman Boyd and asked to expedite the process. 

20080604-NGIC-JUIAF
Location of Wendell Wood's office complex near
the Rivanna Station Military Base


Supervisor Sally Thomas (Samuel Miller) said she was disappointed in the Army’s response to the County’s concerns about the environmental and traffic impacts of the base expansion. “I would regard this as a two-way street.  If they want special consideration and speed in approval, they should, I believe, realize that…there has not been a very good response to our recognition of their environmental impact in some areas.  I would be interested in their being more responsive in those areas.”  Thomas acknowledged the distinction between the Army’s project and Wood’s project, but said the two parties “talk to each other” about these matters.

Supervisor Ann Mallek (White Hall) joined Rooker in his desire for more information about the request.  “The plans were for some crawl space or something instead of a full basement.  It is a confusing trail of decisions and recommendations which we are as a County are involved in and that concerns me.  My wish for the future would be [that] things are written down and all these things are anticipated.”

After further discussion by the Supervisors, Thomas said, “I have no interest in expediting this.  I think it’s our staff that may be overworked at this point and if so it is because of our taxation decisions. I believe our staff works expeditiously on all the processes that are put in front of it so I don’t think there is any reason to pick out this particular one.”

After reviewing the matter for more than ten minutes under other matters in the morning, County Executive Bob Tucker suggested the Board delay a decision until the end of the day when staff would be available to answer more specific questions.

Mark Graham joined the meeting in the afternoon and provided the Board with additional information about Wood’s request and the review process.  “Everything we have [heard about the use] is anecdotal right now, quite frankly….Because we have heard storage is actually laboratory space as well, so we are trying to get a better handle on what the real use of this space is,” said Graham.

Boyd and Slutzky emphasized that, while they didn’t know exactly what the space was going to be used for, they believed Wood would be willing to accommodate the County’s requirements for additional parking, or for a proffer that would limit the use of the basements for storage.  They encouraged staff to identify those needs quickly and expedite the review process since Wood was working in good faith on the project.  Graham said his staff was waiting on Wood for more information.

Earlier in August, the Board of Supervisors endorsed recommendations from its staff to improve the overall development review process in the County.  A key practice in the revised process is to ensure public hearings are only scheduled upon the applicant’s request and only with plans and proffers finalized before staff prepare their report for the Planning Commission and Board of Supervisors.  The goal, in part, is to have developers and staff iron out differences before information is sent to the public and decision makers, and thus avoid unnecessary deferrals by the applicant. 

Expediting Wood’s request would require an exception to the new process.  Graham asked the Supervisors if they would be comfortable with that approach since it would mean advertising a Board public hearing before the Planning Commission had even made a recommendation.  It would also set back public hearings on other projects.

“This isn’t just about expediting NGIC this is about delaying the other ten people in the queue,” said Graham. “I am going to make ten other people mad by making this one person happy.”

County Attorney Larry Davis and Graham explained to the Board about the requirements for storage, parking, and the possibility that certificates of occupancy could be issued on a floor by floor basis.  Graham suggested this would allow use of the building on the schedule desired by Wood while information is collected on the exact plans for the basement.

Afterwards, Graham summarized where he thought the Board was in their deliberations.  “You are not seeing a need to accelerate this unless [Wendell Wood] provides us some written evidence that there is a contract that requires this space to be occupiable in that December-January timeframe, and that would require a higher ceiling height.”

Rooker said the information provided by staff made him comfortable with this approach.  “Given the ability to get occupancy permits to occupy the floors, the various floors, as they are ready, I don’t see the nature of the emergency here if all they were going to use it for is storage.” 

Absent a compelling written request to fast track a revised plan, Wood’s project could come before the Board of Supervisors in January 2009.

Brian Wheeler

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