Kurt Keesecker

In the past two months, the Charlottesville Planning Commission favorably reviewed a spate of applications for Planned Unit Developments—one in Belmont, another on Elliott Avenue, and a third in Johnson Village.

A number of concerns have surfaced during the process, however, prompting the commission to reexamine its PUD ordinance in a Tuesday evening work session.
One concern is how natural resources and neighborhood trust are lost when a development begins one way, and then ends up going another way. Commissioner John Santoski pointed to the recently approved Stonehenge development as an example.
“One of the problems I had with the whole Stonehenge thing was that it was a by-right development where they…started clearing land and then decided they wanted to go PUD,” Santoski said. “There are things that you can’t undo. You can’t replace the trees that have been taken down, you can’t replace the land that’s been disturbed.”
However, city planning manager Missy Creasy said it is within a developer’s right to apply for a PUD at any time.
Commissioner Michael Osteen said that leads to a breach of trust between developers and those who will live next to the final product, particularly if large trees are removed.
“[The developer] at that point has lost his major amenity and also a lot of goodwill in the community,” Osteen said. “But he might think that’s his best course of action.”
Enacted in the late 1990s, the city’s PUD ordinance outlines a pathway for developers to plan a project in collaboration with the city in return for greater design freedom. Few applications are denied, and Charlottesville now has more than 20 PUDs.
Suggested ordinance changes included a potential new requirement that PUD applicants submit a concept diagram of their site early in the application process.
Commissioner Kurt Keesecker hoped this would reduce the ambiguity of applications and make it easier for developers to communicate their ideas to the community.
“I think that process of [making a simple diagram] in the context of your neighborhood…will lead to a conversation at the preliminary stage that will be informative as the design matures,” Keesecker said.
Another suggestion was to arrange a meeting between the applicant and the neighbors impacted by the proposed development.
“It seems like there’s a step before our informal meeting which is the one where we ask [the applicant], have you met with the neighbors yet?” said Keesecker.
Commission chairwoman Genevieve Keller agreed.
“Options could range from informal talking over the fence, to an official facilitated neighborhood meeting, to an official work session in a forum like this,” Keller said.
Commissioners also discussed whether the PUD was still the best tool for encouraging better development.
“I’m really glad that we’re looking at the PUD ordinance, but I think…there are a lot of other problems that we’re trying to deal with,” Commissioner Natasha Sienitsky said. “What other things are we putting in our toolbox to help us make the kind of development that we want?”
The commission’s next step will be to delve further into reassessing the standards of review for PUD approval. At least one more work session on the topic will be held later this summer.