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July 17, 2009

County, City planners seeking updated plans for Fontaine-Sunset Connector; Sandridge says UVA will not contribute to road needs outside research park

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By Sean Tubbs
Charlottesville Tomorrow
Friday, July 17, 2009

2004-FS-Alt4
One of the alignments developed as part of the Southern Urban Area B Study. Click for a larger image.

In September 2004, Charlottesville, Albemarle County and the University of Virginia released the Southern Urban Area B Study, a step towards master planning the area in and around the Fontaine Research Park. The study depicted several potential alignments for a new road connection called the Fontaine-Sunset Connector which would provide increased connectivity to Albemarle’s nearby growth areas which currently funnel traffic through the Fry’s Springs neighborhood or onto Interstate 64 via Fifth Street. Since 2004, the road has remained in the planning stages with a growing disagreement among the parties about how and if it will be built.

Albemarle County considers the connector as one of its top priorities to receive secondary road funding from the Virginia Department of Transportation.  However, funding is not likely to begin accruing from that source for several years. As such, the road’s fate depends on what funding might come from the owners of the property on which it would be built. The County hopes that some of the road’s design and construction can be paid for from proffers from the University of Virginia and the developers of a 69.5 acre parcel of land known as the Granger property.

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Wayne Cilimberg, the County’s Director of Planning, sought to renew efforts to plan the road at the July 16, 2009 meeting of the PACC-Tech. That group, a subcommittee of the three-party Planning and Coordination Council, is the venue for information to be shared about infrastructure projects that affect all three jurisdictions.

Cilimberg began the conversation by updating the group on the University of Virginia’s application for a rezoning  to allow for expansion of its Fontaine Research Park. Specifically, the UVA Foundation wants to convert 54 acres at the park from commercial zoning to Planned Development Mixed Commercial, which increase the amount of allowed office and laboratory space from 565,000 square feet to 1,290,000 square feet. UVA would also build three parking garages at the site.

The County modified its Comprehensive Plan in 2007 to clearly signal the importance it attaches to the construction of the Fontaine-Sunset Connector.

“Provision of the road will be an expectation for any rezoning request in this portion of the study area,” reads the section of the Comprehensive Plan that deals with land use in Neighborhood 6. The Comprehensive Plan also says that the amount of expansion allowed at the Fontaine Research Park will be limited to “that which can be supported by the planned road network, and timed with the construction of the planned improvements to the road network which provide an adequate Level of Service to support development in this area.”

The rezoning application for the Fontaine Research Park has not yet been scheduled to come before the Planning Commission, but Cilimberg anticipated that would happen sometime this fall.

“We are obviously discussing with the applicant a lot of transportation issues,” Cilimberg said. “That would be probably the biggest of the matters that we need to get rectified as part of that rezoning.”

20090716-PACC-TECH
PACC-Tech members discuss the Fontaine-Sunset Connector

In the meantime, Cilimberg has recommended to the new Executive Director of the Thomas Jefferson Planning District Commission that the MPO-Tech Committee spend some time refining and re-evaluating the four alignments for the Fontaine-Sunset Connector recommended in the Southern Urban Area B study. He said knowing more about the costs of the project could encourage private developers with interests along the alignment to come forward with proffers to help pay for its construction.

The project is expected to be an expensive one due to steep topography and the need to cross build two bridges. One would cross a railroad while another would traverse a steep ravine.

“We’re talking about an extremely expensive road,” Cilimberg said. “The kind of fiscal and funding situation we have for roads, we need to figure out where we can do something that works and helps within very limited funds.”

However, UVA Architect David Neuman said at this week’s PACC-Tech meeting that he did not think the University would be building roads any time soon.

“Times have changed so much in the last few years that we have to be talking about transportation demand management (TDM) instead of just more roads,” said Neuman.  While the this project features three new parking garages, Neuman sought to focus on the University’s interest in reducing overall automobile use.  “There’s going to be more bang for the buck in TDM, and that’s the issue we’re going to be dealing with rather building more roads.” Neuman did not rule out the possibility of improving existing roads. TDM strategies could include telecommuting and moving to staggered shifts to reduce traffic during peak commuting times. 

At the May 21, 2009 meeting of the Planning and Coordination Council, Albemarle County Supervisor Dennis Rooker noted that the County wanted specific information on how the connector might be built. Leonard Sandridge, UVA’s Chief Executive Officer, said the University is prepared to build the road up to its property line, but does not want to commit to funding off-site transportation improvements.

“We certainly have not intended to cover the cost of crossing the railroad tracks,” Sandridge said. “That would be a major undertaking… We have been very clear that it is not feasible to go beyond our property. We understand you will have to consider that in the rezoning consideration.”

Rooker said that the rezoning is still in early stages, but that he hoped that the Comprehensive Plan would be adhered to not only by UVA but also by the owners of the Granger property.  The County secured significant transportation proffers from the nearby Biscuit Run Development when it was approved in 2007.  Once homes are under construction there, each unit will contribute to a $13 million fund for County capital improvements.  The Fontaine-Sunset Connector was specifically mentioned as one off-site project that could benefit.  Another $1.5 million proffer was secured by Albemarle to improve the City’s portion of Old Lynchburg Road.

Meanwhile, the back and forth between County and UVA planners continues. Before any public hearing, County staff and developers often negotiate details of an application in a series of letters. County Planners Elaine Echols and Claudette Grant wrote to Fred Missel of the UVA Foundation on July 2, 2009 to remind him that the County’s Comprehensive Plan expects any redevelopment of the Fontaine Research Park to contribute to the construction of the Fontaine-Sunset Connector.

“Our County Engineer has indicated that the ultimate alignment of the road needs to be more fully considered in your proposal,” they wrote. “The ultimate alignment is necessary in knowing exactly where the Fontaine/Sunset connector will cross the creek and the railroad and end up on the Granger property.”

If approved by TJPDC Executive Director Stephen Williams, Cilimberg’s call for the MPO-Tech Committee to study the Fontaine-Sunset Connector will provide more information for the community as all three parties continue to plan for redevelopment of the Fontaine Research Park and its impact on surrounding communities.

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