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December 09, 2009

Biscuit Run may become state park

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20091209-BiscuitRun Map used with permission of The Daily Progress

By Brian Wheeler
Charlottesville Tomorrow
Wednesday, December 9, 2009
 
Biscuit Run, the largest development ever approved in Albemarle County, may instead become a state park. Forest Lodge LLC, fronted by local developer, builder and banker Hunter E. Craig, is in discussions with the state to donate the 1,200 acres it owns between Route 20 and Old Lynchburg Road.

The land includes about 800 acres rezoned in 2007 on which Craig had planned to build up to 3,100 homes. Craig had proffered an additional 400 acres in the county’s rural area for use as a local park.

Craig and his investors bought Biscuit Run for a reported $46.2 million from the Breeden family in 2005. The property has an assessed value of almost $44 million.

Craig referred questions to a local public relations firm. Representatives there declined to comment on the record. An attorney representing the project said in January that development of Biscuit Run had stalled, though he said work continued behind the scenes.

“The business climate is such that it’s not in the investors’ best interest to proceed with development at this stage,” attorney Steve Blaine said at the time.

Albemarle County Supervisor Dennis S. Rooker said in an interview that he would be disappointed to see the Biscuit Run development plan abandoned.

“This plan was approved after a lot of time and effort by all the parties involved,” Rooker said. “Everyone recognizes that the current economic conditions make it difficult to execute a large development plan.”

“On the other hand, it is always nice to see additional land go into permanent protection,” Rooker said. “Assuming the transaction is completed, we would be very interested in working with the state to maximize the value of the property to our community.”

The Board of Supervisors approved the development unanimously in September 2007 after two years of work and controversy. Many residents had opposed the project adamantly, fearing its effects on roads, schools and the area’s quality of life.

In considering the impacts of the potential donation of Biscuit Run to the state, officials with the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality last month asked Albemarle to provide feedback for an environmental review.

Mark Graham, the county’s director of community development, responded with a four-page letter. Graham raised concerns about both the financial impact of the move and its inconsistency with local planning efforts.

Graham said that “locating a state park within the development area portion of this property is not consistent with the growth management goal of the county’s Comprehensive Plan.”

“The 825 acres of this property located within the development area, particularly now that it has been rezoned consistent with the land use plan, constitutes a very important area in achieving the growth management goal and its loss could place pressure on other parts of the county to absorb future development (either through development area expansion elsewhere or by-right development in the rural areas),” Graham wrote.

With respect to financial issues, Graham noted that the property generates more than $325,000 per year in property taxes for Albemarle.

“While the removal of this property reduces anticipated demands for infrastructure, it also eliminates critical improvements and funding sources,” Graham wrote. “The proffers associated with the Biscuit Run rezoning were evaluated by staff and found to provide a value in excess of $38 million.”

One of those proffers related to construction of a road connecting Route 20 to Old Lynchburg Road. The “Southwood Connector” was envisioned to pass through not only the Biscuit Run development but also a redeveloped Southwood Mobile Home Park.

Habitat for Humanity purchased Southwood in 2007 and has 350 residential sites there, according to the group’s executive director, Dan Rosensweig. Habitat has a separate agreement with Forest Lodge related to the redevelopment project, and Rosensweig said he continues discussions with the developer about Habitat’s plans.

“Our deal involves them granting us some easements and them agreeing to purchase a road easement from us for $1 million,” Rosensweig said in an interview. “We have always considered this a key financial component to jumpstarting the Southwood redevelopment project.”

Pat Mullaney, Albemarle’s parks director, also provided feedback for the DEQ’s environmental impact report. Mullaney described Albemarle’s existing park resources and encouraged any new park plan to include consideration of the city and county needs for new athletics fields.

“While I believe local residents will certainly enjoy the availability of a state park, the need for a traditional state park in this region is not an urgent one due to the availability and character of our local park system,” Mullaney wrote.

The Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation notes in the report that the donation would allow for “recreational facilities in a region of Virginia not presently served by a state park.”

“In addition,” the agency continues, “the acquisition of this property will result in the protection of approximately 1,200 acres contributing toward the governor’s goal to preserve 400,000 acres of new historic and open land by the end of the decade.”

According to Nikki Rovner, deputy secretary of natural resources, 365,170 acres had been protected in Virginia as of Nov. 16. Rovner said in an interview that any property donated for a park would count toward Gov. Timothy M. Kaine’s land preservation goal, though she declined to comment specifically on the Biscuit Run property.

Virginia has 35 state parks open to the public and at least four others in development. If the donation of Biscuit Run goes through, the project would see a second phase of environmental reviews and a master plan would be developed for the public use of the property.

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