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January 30, 2011

State kicks off Biscuit Run State Park planning effort as deal remains under scrutiny

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By Brian Wheeler
Charlottesville Tomorrow
Sunday, January 30, 2011

Early ideas are being discussed that could help shape the future Biscuit Run State Park in Albemarle County.

At the same time, state officials are reviewing the series of transactions that took the property from a one-time proposal for a massive housing development to a sale of property to the state and subsequent tax credits for the developers.

“The Biscuit Run matter is being reviewed by appropriate parties,” said Brian Gottstein, director of communication for Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli. “I cannot say any more than that without potentially compromising an investigation.”

The Biscuit Run property in Albemarle was sold to the state for $9.8 million in December 2009 by Forest Lodge LLC, a company that had paid $46.2 million to acquire the land for development.

In 2007, the Albemarle County Board of Supervisors approved a rezoning for developer Hunter Craig that would have allowed the construction of up to 3,100 homes on the property. Craig is also founder and vice chairman of Virginia National Bank and a member of the University of Virginia Board of Visitors.

However, the poor economy prompted the landowners to work with the state on a deal that involved selling the land below market value in exchange for Virginia Land Preservation Tax Credits and federal charitable deductions. However, the $87.7 million land appraisal that was the initial basis for the tax credits continues to be negotiated between Craig and the state.

“The appraisal value of the Biscuit Run property has to be agreed upon,” Craig said in an e-mail to Charlottesville Tomorrow. “We are currently in negotiations.”

Craig was asked to confirm whether the December 2009 appraisal by Patricia O’Grady Filer, which valued the property prior to sale at $87.7 million, any charitable gifts claimed from the transaction, or any land conservation tax credits were being investigated by state or federal officials.

“We are not aware of any state or federal investigation in relationship to any of the above,” Craig said. “Having a state park in the Charlottesville area has been a goal of the Virginia Outdoors Plan since 1966. With the donation by Forest Lodge LLC … the Department of Conservation and Recreation is able to fulfill that long-term goal, one that will be a great public asset.”
 
Park master planning
 
Planning for the future park moved forward last week when a new advisory committee tasked with developing a master plan was briefed by a delegation from the Department of Conservation and Recreation.

Joe Elton, the state parks director, said the 27-member committee would meet four times in 2011 to develop the plans for Biscuit Run’s almost 1,200 acres. There will also be two public input sessions.

“Generally speaking it takes about a year to get through the planning process,” Elton said. “We are one of the few states that actually require a comprehensive master plan before we develop anything on the site.”

Danette Poole, the DCR’s planning division director, said she would be working with the community to develop the park’s master plan, including an inventory of natural and cultural resources.

“I am really thrilled to see the turnout tonight,” Poole said at last week’s meeting. “So many of you have interests that are varied and really reflect the community. … All of you have vision and ideas about what Biscuit Run should be … and this process is going to pull that together and hopefully create something unified that’s going to be really great for the community.”

In addition to the committee members, the audience included numerous Albemarle County staff, local officials and area residents, the latter representing interests including bicycling, horses and nature preservation. The largest contingent of residents, however, included four advocating for accommodation of music and dancing in the park’s plans.

“I don’t remember the last time dancing was brought up in an advisory committee meeting,” Elton said. “That’s not to say there aren’t things that can happen within a state park that are complementary. I think dancing, for example, [could be accommodated] if we have pavilions in the park.”

When Biscuit Run was slated to become the county’s largest residential development, Albemarle was anticipating receiving numerous proffers related to trails, greenways, and a district park.

Craig also promised a “championship field,” which he valued at $330,000, to support area lacrosse and soccer activities. DCR officials said fields were unlikely to be included in the plan.

“Generally we don’t get into ballfields so much because those types of recreational facilities are provided by the localities,” Poole said in an interview. “Fields are typically not put in state parks.”

Elton noted after the meeting that Biscuit Run presented attractive opportunities for people to come to the park without driving their vehicles.

“When you think about this place, and its proximity to the urban center and to people that live and work in Charlottesville who could walk or bicycle to this park, it gives it a dimension that we don’t have in our rural parks,” Elton said. “In terms of the numbers of people that could access the park without the use of an automobile, well in this day and age with the high cost of gasoline, I think that’s highly attractive.”
 
Breeden’s ‘donut hole’
 
One Albemarle County resident currently has no trouble accessing the park.

Elizabeth Breeden, whose family sold the land to Hunter Craig’s investment group in 2005, now finds her home’s 36-acre parcel surrounded on all sides by state land.

“I received a parcel when the dust settled [on the sale] … but it still has zoning by right for 100 units [of housing],” Breeden said. “I am stuck between trying to get the state park or the county to make a plan that will tell me what I might be facing when I seek to subdivide the property.”

Breeden said she is open to swapping her “donut hole” for other property on the park’s perimeter. However, Elton said negotiations can’t happen until the General Assembly passes legislation to allow the transfer. Del. Watkins Abbitt, I-Appomattox, is sponsoring legislation (HB2167) to facilitate the discussions.

“Most people at face value would recognize that eliminating the ‘donut hole’ makes the planning process easier,” Elton said.

Breeden emphasized that she wants a solution that is in the best interests of all Albemarle residents.

“I want the ability to sit down and discuss the best land use practice, and the only way to do that is to have the opportunity to swap the land, that’s what is allowed by the legislation,” Breeden said.
 
Schedule and funding
 
The state is committed to finalizing the Biscuit Run master plan by the end of 2011. Left undetermined is when that plan would have necessary state funding to be implemented. Elton said it would take an infusion of funding like the bond referendums of 1992 and 2002.

“The natural cycle would be to look at this in 2012,” Elton said, noting it has been almost 10 years since the last bond referendum for state park acquisition and development. “After we acquire land and the community becomes aware of the potential, of what’s out there for them, and what we’ve found is that people are far less patient today, and there is usually pressure to get things moving sooner rather than later.”

The next meeting of the master plan advisory committee will be March 7. The first public input opportunity will be June 6.

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