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October 16, 2009

Charlottesville Planning Commission approves slopes waivers for YMCA and new fire station

Reader comments (0) By Sean Tubbs
Charlottesville Tomorrow
Friday, October 16, 2009

Should the City of Charlottesville be held to a higher standard than other applicants seeking a waiver of the critical slopes ordinance? That question figured prominently in Tuesday’s meeting of the Charlottesville Planning Commission as they considered waivers for two projects on City-owned land. The Commission voted to grant waivers allowing for construction of a new fire station on Fontaine Avenue and the new Piedmont Family YMCA on the western side of McIntire Park.

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The critical slopes ordinance is in place to prevent soil erosion. Any project that will disturb more than 25% of the slopes on a parcel of land must apply for a waiver in order to proceed. 

The site plan for the new YMCA would disturb a half-acre of slopes on a 4.5 acre site. In contrast, the new City fire station will be built entirely on critical slopes adjacent to a site of a former restaurant.

One way the Commission can justify a waiver is by demonstrating that the public benefits more from disturbing the slope than from protecting it.

Former Mayor Kay Slaughter, a staff attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, called on Commissioners to lead by example when considering the two applications.

“In an urban environment like Charlottesville, most streams have been degraded by culverts, pipes and previous development,” Slaughter said. The former mayor also said that her review of previous waiver applications showed that almost all of them have been granted. Slaughter suggested the YMCA project be redesigned so as not to affect any slopes, and suggested that the City should commit to “daylighting” other streams in the Moores Creek watershed by removing them from culverts.

Staff had recommended approval of the waiver for the fire station as long as the City conformed to several conditions, including the creation of an erosion and sediment control plan. Planning Commissioner Bill Emory made a motion reflecting staff’s conditions, but added a requirement that the City follow Slaughter’s recommendation. He asked that the City plan to daylight at least “254 linear feet of other portions of culverted streams in the Moore’s Creek watershed.”

“The City has made a very firm commitment over the years to environmental sustainability,” said Emory.

Deputy City Attorney Rich Harris said that Emory’s condition to require off-site mitigation would be hard to enforce without specifying exact locations.  Commissioner Genevieve Keller suggested that the Commission defer the consideration until specific mitigations sites were identified.

Economic Development Director Aubrey Watts appeared before the City Planning Commission
Aubrey Watts, the City’s Director of Economic Development, said the City is aware that the fire station site is problematic, but added the City has been looking for eight years for a site to improve response times in the Fontaine Road area. “We’ve wanted to make extremely sure that the City never applied for [a waiver] that would later come back and [the public] would say [the City was] held to a different standard,” Watts said. However, he said because the City is still in negotiations to purchase the site, they could not ask for a deferral because the deal would fall through.

“In spite of the steep slopes here, the station really does improve the response time in a very critical area,” Watts said.

Emory’s motion was voted down 4 to 3. One of the Commissioners who voted for it, Michael Osteen, said he wanted the City to be held to a higher standard.

“I think the City needs to be a leader not only in developing their own sites, but in administering their own critical slopes ordinance,” Osteen said.

Chairman Jason Pearson said he thought the City was a leader, but he saw no need to apply additional scrutiny to the fire station project. He said the increased response times outweighed the need to use a culvert to carry water off of the site.

“Sometimes you make hard choices and in this case it seems like the right hard choice to make,” Pearson said. “We have to do it because we don’t want people to die in a fire in their house.”

The Commission voted 7-0 to approve the waiver without Emory’s condition, but with similar language that urges the City to daylight more streams. Additionally, the Planning Commission will spend time in 2010 reworking the critical slopes ordinance.

Critical slopes waiver for YMCA approved on 4-2 vote

The City is playing no role in the design of the new Piedmont Family YMCA aquatic center under development in McIntire Park, but Kay Slaughter had also called on the Planning Commission to enforce a higher standard of development.

A site plan of the Piedmont Family YMCA which depicts critical slopes in purple (Click for a larger image)
The YMCA must use the area of McIntire Park set aside in the ground lease signed in January 2008. That location contains a man-made hill that was formed when the existing picnic shelters and the driveway to the baseball fields were constructed. Such hills still are protected by the critical slopes ordinance.
Under the site plan, one of the building’s walls is being suggested as a retaining wall to capture stormwater runoff from the slopes. The plan’s architect is proposing a series of gardens and swales wall to help filter the stormwater runoff.

Some Commissioners echoed Slaughter’s comments that the site could be redesigned to avoid the critical slopes, but were told by architect Todd Bullard of VMDO that he did not think that was possible in part because the critical slopes were right in the middle of the ground lease area.

Staff recommended approval of the waiver with several conditions, including the development of a rainwater harvesting system in order to ensure that the YMCA would not generate more stormwater runoff than existing conditions. Bullard said his calculations showed that such a system would take 28 years to pay back its investment, so he was reluctant to accept that condition. In exchange, he said that the proposed mitigation was to slow down the speed of runoff leaving the site to half of the existing rate. That would have the effect of minimizing erosion.

Bullard also said that the garden wall would be a feature along City walking trails.  New trails are being proposed in the McIntire Park master plan to connect the YMCA with Charlottesville High School.

Commissioner Osteen said it appeared to him that the site would create more critical slopes than were there previously. He was skeptical that Bullard’s mitigation plan would work. Commissioner Keller said the experience of McIntire Park should be respected and the slopes should not be intruded upon.

Commissioner Bill Emory asked if the steep slopes ordinance had been mentioned  when the master plan for the western side of the park set the parameters of the ground lease. Staff said it had been noted that the slopes were present.

Commissioner Rosensweig said he served on the park’s master planning committee, and that he had sympathy for the work Bullard had done to mitigate the slopes.

“The limits of the development in the ground lease were carved out specifically to be on a slope so that the building profile could be reduced,” Rosensweig said.

Commissioner Osteen said he could approve the waiver as long as he could be guaranteed the Commission would get another look at the walking path. He made a motion to approve the waiver, backing off of the requirement that the project must not produce any additional stormwater. Instead, the staff of the Department of Neighborhood Development Services will determine an appropriate level of mitigation.
The Commission voted 4-2 to approve the critical slopes waiver for the with Keller and Emory voted against.


  • 01:00 - Public commenr from former Mayor Kay Slaughter
  • 05:00 - Ebony Walden
  • 10:10 - Commissioner Dan Rosensweig asks for clarification on criteria for granting waivers
  • 12:30 - Commissioner Kurt Keesecker asks about the second phase of environmental review for fire project
  • 16:50 - Commissioner Bill Emory makes a motion, adds one condition
  • 22:15 - Deputy City Attorney Rich Harris questions whether Emory's condition could be enforced
  • 25:30 - Deputy City Engineer Sujit Ekka says he does not have concerns about erosion
  • 31:45 - Chairman Jason Pearson says Slaughter's comments have likely created greater scrutiny for these projects
  • 33:15 - Planning Manager Missy Creasy says waivers are usually approved because unfavorable wants don't proceed to Commission
  • 35:30 - Rosensweig says he is satisfied with mitigation that will be done for fire station, but says he can support Emory's condition
  • 38:30 - Economic Development Director Aubrey Watts comments
  • 43:15 - Keller asks Watts if he would accept Emory's condition
  • 46:00 - Keesecker suggests City look for streams that could be daylighted
  • 49:15 - Pearson says Emory's condition is overstepping the bounds of the Planning Commission
  • 51:30 - Commissioner John Santoski asks for a vote on Emory's proposal
  • 52:10 - Emory's motion fails on a 4-3 vote against
  • 53:00 - Commissioner Michael Osteen explains why he voted for the motion
  • 57:40 - Commissioner John Santoski makes a motion to pass waiver without Emory's condition
  • 1:00:00 - Rosensweig asks Harris if he can suggest language to
  • 1:02:45 - Motion to approve waiver passes 7-0
  • 1:03:00 - Commission takes up slopes waiver for YMCA with report from Nick Rogers
  • 1:18:00 - Todd Bullard of VMDO Architects appears before Commission to discuss design, request for waiver
  • 1:29:00 - Commissioner Rosensweig makes his comments
  • 1:32:00 - Commissioner Emory asks if the Planning Commission has ever seen the YMCA project
  • 1:34:90 - Commissioner Keller expresses her concerns with the plan
  • 1:36:30 - Alan Franklin of the Water Street Studio discusses the volume requirements
  • 1:46:30 - Piedmont Family YMCA CEO Denny Blank comments on the walking trail
  • 1:48:45 - Commission begins taking a straw poll to assess where they stand on the waiver
  • 1:51:00 - Commissioner Santoski makes motion to approve waiver


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