Planning Commission votes to recommend Norge apartments

Staff writer

A proposal to rezone land to build an affordable housing complex in Norge cleared a hurdle Wednesday, when the James City Planning Commission voted to recommend the proposal.

Connelly Development has requested to rezone about 14.5 acres of agricultural land to multi-family residential to build Oakland Pointe, which would have up to 126 units. The complex would be located near Crosswalk Church and between Oakland Estates and Richmond Road.

The commission voted 5-2 to recommend the application, contingent on the Board of Supervisors’ acceptance of the easement included with the application. The board is scheduled to render a final decision on the rezoning application Jan. 8.

Supporters cited the parcel’s location inside the county’s primary service area as a defining factor in their judgement. The zone designates areas for development must have access to utilities or are intended to have utilities made available.

“To me, as far as the comprehensive plan [goes], it absolute fits in with it,” commission member Richard Krapf said. “This parcel is within the PSA. To me, that’s a real tipping point.”

While generally expressing concern about the project’s fiscal impact and effect on traffic safety, commission members also generally agreed there’s a value in providing affordable housing in the county.

“I think it is an investment that is worthwhile for the county to make,” commission member Julia Leverenz said.

Commission members Heath Richardson and Jack Haldeman voted against recommendation.

Richardson cited concerns the board wouldn’t accept the easement included with the application. The easement includes environmental mitigation, commitment to develop the property in line with the Virginia Housing Development Authority’s Low Income Housing Tax Credit Program and traffic improvements.

The commission questioned Tim Trant, the attorney who filed the application on behalf of Connelly Development, for more than a hour on topics ranging from the suitability of the project for the proposed location to how residents would be selected.

Haldeman wanted to know whether the applicant considered other parcels in the county, noting there is vacant land in James City with the requested zoning designation.

The applicant selected the land after what Trant characterized as a thorough search, though he didn’t elaborate on the scope of the search. The location is near workers who need housing, as well as near businesses that could employ the residents, he said.

Commission member Tim O’Connor inquired about the selection process for residents.

Trant said there is a process to ensure residents have a qualifying income and there will be criminal background checks.

More than 30 people spoke during the application’s public hearing. Most spoke against the proposal.

A familiar theme among critics was traffic safety and preservation of the area’s rural character.

“I believe we’re looking at a situation that will become dangerous,” Jack Lubore said of the area’s traffic patterns and how they could change with more cars on the road.

Trant said the applicant addressed traffic concerns with a new access road location — the initial application’s access road was at Richmond Road. The application recommended by the commission lists the access road at Oakland Drive. The application has been delayed several times this year while the applicant tweaked the proposal. The Richmond Road and Oakland Drive intersection would have the pavement in the median widened as part of the project. Turn lane improvements and signal adjustments are recommended for the intersection at Richmond Road and Croaker Road.

A number of residents feared the development would ruin the area’s rural character.

“It’s another step to change the very thing that people in the upper county moved there for,” resident Lee Alexander said.

Several speakers voiced concern about the negative fiscal impact the county said would result due to the project, pegging the impact at $463,425 annually.

Trant said the report wasn’t a full picture of the apartment’s economic output, noting it didn’t account for the economic activity of residents working jobs or the sales tax revenue generated by the residents’ purchases.

Prior to the meeting, James City Planning Director Paul Holt noted most residential projects are fiscally negative.

Lisa Marston, the owner of the parcel the apartments would be built on, said the project will address the county’s need for affordable housing.

“This need has been long recognized by our county’s leadership,” Marston said, citing the affordable housing task force the county formed to explore the issue and how to address it. “Lower-cost rental units are in short supply.”

Oakland Pointe is intended to be affordable housing, with rent in the proposed complex expected to cost between $495 for a two-bedroom unit with one-and-a-half baths, to $940 for a three-bedroom unit with two baths.

Trant said those rates include some utilities, but didn’t specify which.

“It’s more than just rent. There are some utility considerations included in that,” he said.

The county’s median gross rent — or rent plus utilities — was estimated to be $1,148 per month, according to a 2016 housing study, which also determined there are too few housing options for low- and middle-income residents. The study found 29 percent of county workers earn $7.81 per hour, which is $1,354 per month or $16,248 annually if they work full time.

“We need to take the steps required to start to fix our housing problem,”said resident Kim Orthner, who’s a citizen member of the affordable housing task force. “This proposed development appears to be one step forward.”

Resident David Nice, who said he grew up in the area, noted the site of Oakland Estates, where some critics of the project said they live, was once rural itself.

“A growing community is a vibrant community,” Nice said. “I think it’s selfish of all of us to come here and say ‘no more.’ ”

Jack Jacobs, 757-298-6007, jojacobs@vagazette.com, @jajacobs_

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