2018-05-23 / Featured / Front Page

Infill project ignites protest on Woolridge

To plan for future, county must navigate the ‘dream’ homes

Foxfire residents Donald Delegge (left) and Gerald Ebert are among many citizens concerned about the impact of a proposed Woolridge Road development on water quality in the Swift Creek Reservoir. 
JAMES HASKINS Foxfire residents Donald Delegge (left) and Gerald Ebert are among many citizens concerned about the impact of a proposed Woolridge Road development on water quality in the Swift Creek Reservoir. JAMES HASKINS An otherwise uneventful meeting of the Chesterfield County Planning Commission turned contentious last week as more than a dozen citizens argued vehemently against a proposed mixed-use development adjacent to the Swift Creek Reservoir.

Several speakers received loud, sustained standing ovations from supporters in the audience after asking the five commissioners to defer the zoning case for further study if they couldn’t vote to deny it outright.

Representing the applicant, Woolridge Investment Co., local landscape architect Andy Scherzer maintained the project will be “a good neighbor” to two adjacent, upscale single-family residential communities.

His plea fell on deaf ears among residents of Foxfire and The Landing at Swift Creek, several of whom cited concerns about negative impact on traffic along Woolridge Road, the nearby Woolridge Elementary School, water quality in the reservoir and their own property values. They also expressed frustration about the county’s willingness to grant exceptions to zoning ordinances and “shoehorn” the development – which includes up to 215 mostly age-restricted townhomes and cluster homes, a three-story assisted living facility and as much as 15,000 square feet of office space – onto a 120-acre parcel surrounded by existing single-family homes.

“I want you to think long and hard and make sure this project is looked at very closely, because we live here. It’s beautiful and we want it to stay beautiful,” said Angel Goff, a 28-year Chesterfield resident who moved with her husband from Bon Air to build their “dream home” in The Landing at Swift Creek.

Following a public hearing that lasted nearly two hours, the Planning Commission recommended approval of the zoning case by a 3-2 vote. Its fate ultimately will be decided by the Board of Supervisors, perhaps as early as next month.

Noting that he had attended “no fewer than eight community meetings” on the Woolridge Road development, new Matoaca District planning commissioner Craig Stariha said he considered all public input before deciding to support it.

“When I weigh it out and look at it in balance, I think it’s a good project,” he added.

Still, less than three weeks after widespread citizen opposition derailed a proposed industrial megasite in southeastern Chesterfield, the latest case again underscores the challenge facing local leaders as they attempt to manage long-term growth in a heavily developed, increasingly diverse and rapidly aging county.

“Political pressure is present-day oriented – people only care about what is happening right now – but really good public officials have the ability to think about the future,” said Tom Jacobson, a former county planning director who now teaches land-use planning at Virginia Commonwealth University.

“It’s not easy,” he added. “When people stand up at a meeting and say, ‘I want you to vote no,’ that’s a lot of pressure. It takes a person of real integrity and leadership to say this is what’s best for the community in the long term.”

Since the end of the Great Recession of 2008, county officials have been focused on promoting “infill” development – projects located in parts of Chesterfield that already have adequate roads, schools and other public infrastructure capacity to serve new residents.

They’ve learned painful lessons from the explosive growth that occurred from the late 1970s through the early 1990s, when the county spent millions of dollars struggling to keep up with new residential developments in the far-flung western suburbs.

They’re also trying to appeal to growing senior and millennial populations by encouraging projects that offer increased density and a mix of residential and commercial uses in a pedestrian-friendly environment.

“Infill development done right can strengthen neighborhoods,” Jacobson said.

According to County Administrator Joe Casey, attracting new commercial development is critical to shedding Chesterfield’s reputation as the “bedroom community” for the Richmond region and reducing its longstanding reliance on residential property taxes to fund public services.

But as county economic development officials discovered after they announced last August plans to rezone 1,675 acres of residential property in south Chester for use as an industrial megasite, people who enjoy living in quiet suburban cul-de-sacs will often resist – loudly – if they think that lifestyle is being threatened.

“When the county government begins to assert its vision, based on its own personal or political aspirations, sometimes it does run into this: people live here because they don’t want to live in the west end [of Henrico County]. People relocate here from Northern Virginia because they don’t want [problems that can accompany increased population density],” said Gerald Ebert, a Foxfire resident whose property is directly adjacent to the proposed Woolridge Road development. Ebert and neighbor Donald Delegge have been among the most vocal critics of the project, arguing its reduced lot sizes, increased density and office/commercial uses don’t fit the nature of the adjacent communities.

“Rules have been bent and twisted to suggest the project is in compliance with the comprehensive plan,” Delegge said. “I think part of the problem is the county does not have an arm’s length relationship with [real estate] developers. It’s too cozy. It’s too pandering and supportive of each other.

Delegge noted that county staffers meet quarterly with members of the local real estate development community to discuss their concerns and solicit feedback on ways to improve the planning process, then wondered aloud why they don’t hold similar meetings on a regular basis to seek citizen input.

“Why isn’t there a level playing field?” he asked.

Phil Lohr has been asking the same question for the better part of the past 15 years. Lohr, a leader of Chesterfield Citizens for Responsible Government, is a ubiquitous presence at community meetings on zoning cases – attempting to counter what he claims is developers’ outsize influence on local decision-makers.

“Doing infill the right way doesn’t always mean the developer makes the most money possible,” he said. “This Board of Supervisors seems set on increasing density, and that’s not appropriate in all parts of the county.”

Lohr worked with another citizen group, Bermuda Advocates for Responsible Development, to protest the county economic development authority’s plan for creating an industrial megasite in the middle of a densely populated residential area.

Members of the EDA’s board of directors cited the vehement citizen opposition when they voted earlier this month to withdraw the rezoning application.

In the wake of that action, Planning Commission Chairman Gib Sloan acknowledged that new development proposals are challenging the “traditional norms” as the county continues to grow and evolve.

“We need to go through the process and decide whether these different types of development warrant a different kind of thinking,” he said, “or are we happy with what we have?”

Clover Hill District Supervisor Chris Winslow said county leaders will remain aggressive in pursuing commercial and mixed-use development because creating jobs and balancing the tax base is critical for Chesterfield’s future growth.

“There is a way to approach development in collaboration with the community and I look forward to doing that,” he added. ¦

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