Clifton Inn co-owner Mitch Willey. He told the Planning Commission that the proposed expansion of the Inn has been called "an example of what historic preservation should look like in the context of new buildings."

Albemarle County is considering changes that would allow expansions to historic buildings with inns and restaurants.

“What we are talking about is expansion and new construction on sites with historic buildings formerly used as a restaurant or inn,” principal planner Elaine Echols told the Albemarle Planning Commission at a work session earlier this week.

County staff sought guidance from the commission for the drafting of a zoning text amendment that would “allow for new construction and expansion of historic buildings without opening the door for destination-based lodging and dining throughout the rural area,” according to their presentation.

Currently, inns and restaurants are only allowed by special-use permit in existing buildings in the rural areas that are historic landmarks and have been home to inns, restaurants or both in the past.

There are three properties that have such special-use permits: the Clifton Inn, Keswick Hall and Michie Tavern.

The proposal for amending the ordinance goes back to September, when the owners of the Clifton Inn submitted a zoning text amendment that would allow them — and owners of other historic buildings — to expand their uses beyond existing buildings.

The owners of the Clifton Inn want to add to structures currently used for guestrooms on the site to meet growing demand, but cannot proceed with submitting site plans until the zoning ordinance is amended.

The Planning Commission previously has adopted a resolution of intent to pursue a zoning text amendment and the Board of Supervisors supported this resolution.

At Tuesday’s meeting, Echols said that any discussion of changing the zoning ordinance should consider impacts to the rural area, which represents 95 percent of the county’s land area and is intended to be protected from levels of development found in the county’s designated growth areas.

“We want to ensure that anything we are doing in the rural area is in keeping with the other rural area policies,” Echols said. “Something that has been said throughout the Comprehensive Plan work was that we don’t want the rural area to become a destination for dining and lodging.”

Staff recommendations were that any expansions of historic buildings “must not negatively impact the historic and architectural significance of the property” and “should be proportionate to the setting and have minimal impacts on the rural area.” County staff also said they want to see additional public input.

Echols said staff wants to increase opportunities for historic preservation and ensure historic buildings can retain their federal or state historic landmark designations with any approved expansions that could come out of a zoning amendment.

Managing the amount of lodging and dining that might appear in the rural area as a result of a zoning text amendment could be a major challenge, Echols said.

Staff identified 28 known properties in the county that could be eligible for expansions.

Timothy Keller, chairman of the Planning Commission, noted the amount of time that the Clifton Inn expansion has been put on hold.

“Is there a way that we could almost address this one as some sort of exception?” Keller asked.

County Attorney Greg Kamptner said the county couldn’t create regulations for one particular parcel and not others.

“That gets a little difficult because of the uniformity requirement,” Kamptner said. “It becomes problematic if we tailor something specific to a single piece of property.”

Commissioner Karen Firehock said she would like to see regulations for expansions of historic buildings that consider the massing of additions relative to the existing structure.

“The idea here is that this place is in operation, it is not something that somebody dreamed up that we should do,” said Katurah Roell, speaking on behalf of Clifton Inn’s owners. “It is a unique setting and something that deserves to be enhanced in our county.”

Mitch Willey, co-owner of the Clifton Inn and a historic preservationist, said the Virginia Department of Historic Resources offered praise for his proposed additions, which were designed by architect Hank Brown.

“They came back and said this is an example of what historic preservation should look like in the context of new buildings,” Willey said.

Commissioner Pam Riley asked if an amendment could be limited to just buildings with existing dining or lodging operations in hopes that it would primarily apply to just the three existing restaurants with special-use permits.

Kamptner said it could.

Firehock asked if that might include historic homes currently being used as Airbnbs or that provide similar services.

“It probably would include them because even though we use the term Airbnb, some of them may be lawfully operating under our current different type of transient lodging regulations in the rural area,” Kamptner said.

The commission ultimately expressed consensus during the work session for staff to work on a draft zoning text amendment that would allow additions to historic structures currently operating as restaurants or inns as long as they maintain their historic landmark status.

Commissioner Jennie More was not present at the meeting.

Keller said he hopes this will expedite the process for the Clifton Inn and lead to a more comprehensive look at regulations for expansions of historic buildings in the rural area.