After a lengthy discussion and a mix of positive and negative reactions from the public, City Council denied a motion to rezone a 0.2-acre pasture in the city’s Colonial Williamsburg Historic Area for residential use.
On behalf of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, city resident Julius Dell requested that the city amend its comprehensive plan and rezone a new 10,089-square-foot lot in the Colonial Williamsburg Historic Area at 320 Scotland St.
Dell was under contract to purchase the plot from CW with plans to build a single-family, Colonial-style home on the land, but CW Vice President of Real Estate Jeff Duncan said the sale was contingent upon the approval of the rezoning request.
Council members Barbara Ramsey and Ted Maslin voted against the rezoning request, while Benny Zhang voted in its favor. Mayor Paul Freiling recused himself from the discussion and vote as he is a Colonial Williamsburg employee. Likewise, Vice-Mayor Doug Pons said he is in a business negotiation with Colonial Williamsburg, and opted out of the discussion.
Planning Commission denied the request in a 5-1 vote last month, with the majority of its members agreeing the proposal would set a bad precedent for future attempts to chip away at the Historic Area. Planning Director Carolyn Murphy said she doesn’t know of any other parts of the Colonial Williamsburg Historic Area that have ever been rezoned for residential use.
The city’s current comprehensive plan, which was passed in 2013, states that the Colonial Williamsburg Historic Area was established to “preserve, protect and maintain the distinctive character and historic importance of the restored area.”
However, the two grassy lots on Scotland Street weren’t always designated as historical land. According to an attached memorandum, the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation filed a request to rezone 128 acres of land to CW Historic Area designation in 2003, which included the plots at 316 and 320 Scotland St.
Dell said that although members of Planning Commission and the community were concerned about the precedent the rezoning would set for future developers seeking to purchase Historic Area land, the city’s staff assesses each request individually.
“I’m certainly not clairvoyant and I won’t try to say that will never happen, but that is not part of this proposal, and as far as setting a precedent, each individual opportunity in the future would have to be considered on its own merits,” Dell said. “I think it’s important that we separate what might be downstream from what is now.”
Neighbors and friends of the Dells were at the meeting to advocate for their standing as good members of the local community. Others, including several former CW executives, argued that despite their personalities, the historic area should be protected.
“We’ve known the Dells for 25 years. They are excellent candidates to occupy this space and I would advocate for allowing them to change this into a single residency parcel,” city resident Donald Gross said. “My concern is, where does CW go in the future if they are now continuing to divest themselves of excess properties?”
Past CW executives Charles Driscoll, Cary Carson and Ed Chappell were all at the meeting to speak against the rezoning proposal. Driscoll, the Foundation’s former vice president of strategic projects, said understanding the importance of the Historic Area is crucial to the long-term viability of CW and its importance to the city.
“It’s important that (the comprehensive plan) remains in place and remains effective, and not be nibbled at piece by piece,” said Carson, a former vice president of CW’s research division. “I am surprised and disappointed that my former employer has come forward with this first-ever exception to its historic area policy. That means that you, now, the Council, are our safeguard. If Colonial Williamsburg isn’t going to do it, then you must.”
Duncan said the decision was not made as part of a larger plan to develop Historic Area land in the future.
“This is a single opportunity brought to us by the Dells, to whom we have agreed to sell the property after considering any potential future use of the property by Colonial Williamsburg and determining that placing a house of the property would not have a detrimental effect, nor intrusion on the Historic Area,” Duncan said.
The three voting members of City Council were split on the issue. While Maslin argued that the request did not pose a compelling reason to alter the city’s five-year comprehensive plan, Ramsey and Zhang weighed the importance of historical preservation with the positives that a new home in downtown Williamsburg would bring.
Zhang argued that approving the request and allowing a new home to be built downtown could contribute to the city’s general welfare.
“It is also in the public interest to have flourishing neighborhoods, to promote home ownership and to be able to provide opportunities for folks who want to live in the downtown area as appropriate,” he said.
Ramsey said that while adding the home could have a marginal effect on downtown vibrancy, ultimately, the need to preserve the city’s Historic Area outweighs that.
“Even though each zoning request has to be taken on a case-by-case basis, I think there’s still the impression that if there is a change, then it makes it easier for other individuals to use that as a test case to request the same for themselves,” she said. “Having green space does not produce direct revenue, but once its gone, it can’t be regained.”
Arriaza can be reached at 757-790-9313 or on Twitter @rodrigoarriaza0.