Warrenton planners open way for 207 more homes in town
John Foote, attorney for Warrenton develop Jeff Rizer, defends Rizer's request for 72 homes off of Winchester Street. - Times Staff Photo/Mark Grandstaff
After six months of delays, the Warrenton Planning Commission held their noses and gave their blessing to 72 new homes off of Winchester Street.
They also cleared a zoning hurdle to place 135 homes in a development named for a Confederate colonel next to a black neighborhood on Oliver City Road.
A thunder storm brooded and boomed outside of the town hall Wednesday, fitting the somber mood of its occupants.
About 25 residents watched the commissioners try to find some reason to deny Winchester Chase, the formal name of the development Jeff Rizer wants to build on the east side of Winchester Street.
In the end, they couldn't. They voted 5-2 to recommend approval of a preliminary design. Commissioners Ali Zarabi, John Harre, Elizabeth Scullin, W. Hunt Cheatwood and Lowell Nevill voted for the plan. Susan Helander and John Kip voted against it.
Kip started a motion to deny the application, but withdrew it when he couldn't articulate a legal basis for doing so, despite prompting from Whit Robinson, the town attorney.
“I cannot accept an entrance on Winchester Street,” Kip said. “I think it is a potential hazard. It defaces the existing community on Winchester Street and there are opportunities to interconnect the property in two other directions.”
Harre lamented that the preliminary plan doesn't connect to the North Rock subdivision on the other side of the hill, except for an emergency access road.
A connecting road was present in an earlier design, but the town didn't like the idea that motorists would use the two neighborhoods as a shortcut to and from Old Town.
“It's unfortunate that this is what was presented to [us],” Harre said.
Nearly everyone who spoke Wednesday night used the word “unfortunate.” It was unfortunate, they said, that Rizer did not map out Winchester Chase in a way that conforms to the town's comprehensive plan document, which espouses neighborhoods connected to one another and affordable housing.
It was unfortunate, Robinson said, that the planners could not use the comprehensive plan as a basis to deny Rizer's preliminary plan. If Rizer had to re-zone the land for his plans, then the plan would have some legal power, Robinson said.
But Winchester Chase is a by-right development. Rizer owns the land, and the land is zoned for what he wants to do to it.
What's more, Rizer commissioned a traffic impact study. Seventy-two homes worth of families turning in and out of Winchester Street would pass muster, amounting to a service level “B” as reckoned by the Virginia Department of Transportation, said Rizer's attorney, John Foote.
Even Foote struck a remorseful note while arguing the case for Winchester Chase before the commission.
“I understand the pressures and the sensibilities of a planning commission faced with considering something it wishes had never been zoned this way in the first place,” Foote said.
But the commission accepted the application was a legitimate one. Issues with the steep slope fronting Winchester Street and the wetlands discovered on site could be worked out between Rizer and the town's engineers in the months leading up to the town council's final vote on the subdivision.
In the end, Scullin, the chairwoman of the commission, did not relish voting for Rizer's plan.
“All of us, I think, are disturbed by the access on Winchester Street,” Scullin said. “But we need to make a decision based on what we can legally do, what are criteria are and what Whit can defend in court.”
“I think an hour and a half had demonstrated we were hoping we could find something,” Nevill said.
The commission met Mosby's Crossing with much less acrimony. They unanimously recommended the rezoning of land at the intersection of East Lee and Falmouth Streets to conform to the 135-home development's design.
The commission had already recommended Mosby's Crossing's preliminary design. But that design has changed in the intervening months. The changes, Robinson said, reflected the willingness of developer David Dobson to create something that better aligned with the town's comprehensive plan.
To that end, Dobson's designers laid out a plan that had 14 fewer homes than what was allowed by right. They removed an access point to Oliver City Road, a point of contention among residents of the neighborhood who did not relish 135 homes' worth of traffic going up and down a road with no street lights or sidewalks.
The commission recommended the zoning changes with several conditions: that Dobson creates a landscape buffer between Mosby's Crossing and neighborhoods on Oliver City Road and Falmouth Street; that no driveways will enter into the development's connector road, and that it will not in turn enter onto Oliver City Road or Old Mill Lane; and that the connector road will flow directly into East Lee Street as a “natural extension of Walker Drive.”
They also recommended approval on the condition that Dobson makes attempts to lessen the effects of added traffic around the neighborhood. The town has been discussing the idea of turning the intersection of East Lee and Falmouth Streets into a roundabout.
The town has $250,000 to spend for traffic mitigation on Falmouth Street, given to them by Walmart as a condition for their recent store expansion, Robinson said.
Still, the commissioners had lingering misgivings. Zarabi worried that the new neighborhood would be an island unto itself, insulated instead of part of the greater Old Town community.
Zarabi said that change would be inevitable for Oliver City Road, a neighborhood marked for protection in the comprhensive plan, but which has been boxed in by extended streets, the Eastern Bypass and now Mosby's Crossing.
And although Dobson promised the development's street names would take after prominent members of the Oliver City Road community, Nevill took issue with the name “Mosby's Crossing.”
“I feel that the name of the development is offensive,” he said. “I understand there's a lot of historic appeal to the name Mosby in this area, but I have to say, a Civil War figure right near a historically black neighborhood is a problem.”
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