This material is made possible by supporters of Charlottesville Community Engagement, a service of Sean Tubbs and his new media venture. Thanks to subscribers, Sean was able to spend some time putting together this summary. It will also available on the CCE website along with a podcast version.
All across the country, advocates of affordable housing have been combing through zoning codes to find ways to increase the number of homes in urban areas.
One idea is to increase the number of duplexes, town-homes, triplexes and other types of housing that allow for more people to live in an area. Many zoning codes across America prohibit these so-called “missing middle” homes.
“They’re called missing because these aren’t being built very often right now,” said Rachel Falkenstein, a senior planner with the county. “Often times we see both ends of the spectrum but you don’t see the middle housing types being built, primarily because these are prohibited by a lot of local zoning ordinances.”
The conversation about middle-missing housing has come to Albemarle as review of the Crozet Master Plan continues. On September 1, 2020, the Albemarle Planning Commission held a work session on the Future Land Use Map for Crozet, one of the county’s seven designated growth areas. (staff report for the meeting)
County staff are recommending new land use categories to the future land use map for Crozet, including the downtown area.
“We first want to check in about two new land use tools we’re exploring with this master plan that we have not used before so we wanted to get the Commission’s buy-in first,” said principal planner Andrew Knuppel.
Knuppel said a common theme received during in-person and virtual community meetings so far is the need to preserve any existing affordable houses, as well as to preserve the small town nature of Crozet.
“These two concepts kind of are in tension,” Knuppel said. “It’s a growing community. There are challenges with housing availability and affordability but also a desire to help maintain the identity and architectural character of Crozet.”
One of the tools would be the creation of a “middle density residential category” to allow for more housing units on a given lot.
“The category would focus primarily on lower to middle density residential housing types, sometimes called missing middle housing housing types,” Falkenstein said. “These housing units and smaller lot sizes that are encouraged in this category, we hope are going to be naturally going to be more affordable because of their smaller size and because of the smaller land needed to produce these housing types that can hopefully remain affordable over time even as land values increase.”
Falkenstein said one application for this “missing middle” housing recently came through the Planning Commission when they were asked to consider a rezoning for a “cottage court” or “bungalow court” as part of a six-unit development called Bamboo Grove that has been approved by the Board of Supervisors.
This new middle residential category as currently proposed would allow for between six and 24 units per acre. Currently the county has only a “low residential” and “urban residential” category. The former is one to six units per acres, and the other is six to 36 units per acre. That’s been a major sticking point in many land use discussions.
Members of the public first had the opportunity to weigh in.
The current chair of the Crozet Community Advisory Committee, Allie Pesch, said she also supported the concept, but was also concerned where it would go. She also challenged the notion that more density would lead to more affordability.
“I just worry that a lot of these units that we already have in townhouses and duplexes and those types of products that are listed in this category don’t stay affordable here,” Pesch said.
Nicole Scro, a developer who lives in Charlottesville, has submitted cottage court developments to the county in the past. She’s been seeking ways to create homes with smaller footprints. Scro said she did not want this middle category to replace the higher ranges currently allowed in the current future land use map.
“The purpose of these middle missing housing is to be an alternative to larger homes,” Scro said. “If they replace urban scale density then they are doing the opposite of providing affordable housing. If we lower the overall capacity of density in the area then we are not doing affordable housing a service.”
Another member of the public said Crozet was already feeling the impact of too many people.
“Any increase in density brings with it the fact that the infrastructure is woefully behind,” said Brian Day. “The $30 million dollar improvement to Crozet Elementary has just been delayed. Lickinghole Bridge needs to be built in order to make things happen.”
What does the Planning Commission think?
Planning Commissioners seemed supportive of the idea of the missing middle housing, but wanted more specifics.
“In Crozet we do have capacity for only so much more stuff,” More said. “I am pretty curious about where this would go. I am open to this.”
Commissioner Rick Randolph suggested designating areas intended for rental and others for homeownership. At the very least, he said it was important to consider the tax implications for both residents and county finance officials, especially for something like a fourplex.
“Because you’re splitting the taxation cost up four ways for a rental, and obviously under this typology the most expensive is the town-home because then somebody, a family, is solely paying for property taxes, maintenance of the property,” Randolph said.
Luis Carrazana, the University of Virginia’s representative on the Planning Commission, appreciated the concept.
“This is a great addition that provides additional flexibility for master plans and other development areas around the county,” Carrazana said.
Commissioner Karen Firehock said she also wanted to have more of an idea of where this category would go.
“People might say that I philosophically like these, but not near my house,” Firehock said. “I think we’re going to run into some challenges when we get to the point of actually trying to put this down on paper, where this would go.”
Firehock said she supported more infill density, but suggested another challenge will be to avoid encouraging more teardowns as has happened in other Virginia communities.
“I think we can do this in such a way that we don’t end up with things like we end up with some things like we see in some places in Northern Virginia where I have seen neighborhoods with infill density where you’ve got single-family one or two-story bungalows next to six and eight story buildings,” Firehock said.
However, Firehock said higher residential densities needed to be part of the future for Downtown Crozet. But she added the county does not have a historic preservation ordinance and one could be useful.
“That’s the only way that we can prevent the tear-downs because Crozet is so valuable and desirable that people be very much willing to come in and bulldoze a ranch house to put up another floor, and so how we make Crozet affordable is really tricky,” Firehock said.
Falkenstein said a recommended height limit of three stories would prevent large apartment blocks. She said the residential density would likely not approach the recommended upper limit of 24 units of acre, and projects that did would not be bulky.
“It might be those creative designs with the much smaller unit types that would hit that density range but if you’re getting into houser larger types, I don’t think you would be able to get to that number with the form recommendations and heights that we have,” Falkenstein said.
Falkenstein said county staff are continuing to monitor places like Minneapolis where single-family zoning has been altered to allow more types of housing. She said the zoning codes there will prescribe form.
“So the form has to fit and has to be the same scale as the single family house but they do allow for multiple units on a lot or within a house,” Falkenstein said.
Commissioner Corey Clayborne questioned whether it’s appropriate to compare Crozet with Minneapolis.
“I wonder if they’re even apples to apples, so just curious with this kind of plan, how does the economic development vision play into this?” Clayborne said. “I don’t see Crozet as the spot where people are turn up for work there. You probably work in Charlottesville or Waynesboro or something like that and just reside in Crozet.”
Commissioner Randolph said he was concerned that even if these types were added, single-family homes might continue to be the norm because that’s what people who live there now want to continue.
“My concern is that with the permitting of this housing type that while on paper it looks like potentially we’ll be able to see as Planning Commissions and the Board will be able to see an increase in a range of different housing types… the local neighborhood pressure [and] community expectations appear to be very much strongly heavily weighted to single family detached units,” Randolph said. Randolph also said there must be choices in transportation for this to work.
“I think it’s going to be critical if this middle density residential land use category is approved that there be some way of incorporating… that there is an assurance of public transit and multimodal,” Randolph said.
Downtown Neighborhood Overlay District
The Planning Commission also discussed the creation of a downtown neighborhood overlay district. Knuppel said many pieces of land near downtown Crozet are worth more than the structure upon them.
“This overlay would really try to incentivize the maintenance and preservation of naturally occurring affordable housing, some of these older homes in Crozet’s neighborhoods near downtown,” Knuppel said. “It would help to support, hopefully, the preservation of existing historic neighborhoods within the Crozet Historic District which is on the National Register of Historic Places as a historic district but it would also provide new housing units with a similar scale and form.”
For instance, the overlay would allow for additional density if existing structures were converted into multiple units, additional accessory dwelling units, and more. Most of the properties being considered for this overlay district are all in the R-2 zoning category.
The Crozet Community Advisory Committee meets at 7 p.m. on September 9. (meeting info)