The Roanoke City Planning Commission
At the December 20 Planning Commission meeting NDRA II, LLC the potential purchasers of the 5.3-acre former Huff Lane Elementary school property reached a final hurtle in ensuring the two hotels and a restaurant would take the school’s place. The seven-member Planning Commission was asked to recommended to council rezoning the property to a Commercial Large-Site District.
But the Roanoke City Planning Commission members voted unanimously against the rezoning after hearing the impassioned pleas of nine Dorchester Court Neighborhood residents. The Planning Department staff recommended approval and Chris Chittum, Planning Administrator was surprised by the commission’s rejection. It goes to City Council who can override the commission’s negative recommendation on January 22.
In June of 2010 Round Hill Elementary was to be closed but a sudden shift was made to close the Huff Lane school instead. Curt Baker Deputy Superintendent explained that the recent discovery of an underground septic system would require a lengthy land disturbance permitting process.
At a contentious meeting on closing Huff Lane Elementary School speakers charged that the school board chose to close Huff Lane because of its potential marketability and proximity to Valley View Mall. Virginia Moser a teacher’s aide at Huff Lane said she was angry at the city for being “more interested in money than schools.”
Peter C. Huff granted the property to Roanoke County in 1949. Atwood Huff, his great-nephew told the school board that it was sold to be used specifically for a school and a park that they named after him.
The Roanoke City School Board voted unanimously to close Huff Lane anyway and move about 150 students to nearby Round Hill Elementary School. The Huff Lane property reverted to Roanoke City and council authorized the proceeds from an eventual sale to be used for expanding Round Hill Elementary.
Sheldon Bower, civil engineer presents NDRA II, LLC site plan.
The minimum acceptable bid was set at $1.5 million. “The value was arrived at with council after considering both the City’s real estate assessment staff’s recommendations and an independent real estate (under contract with the City for these purposes) broker’s assessment for the value of the property (building and land),” wrote Rob Ledger, Director of Economic Development. The highest offer was from NDRA II, LLC at $1.8 million. That was reduced to $1.7 when cost for asbestos removal and additional water service became more costly than expected.
In March of 2011 councilman Court Rosen floated the idea of hotels to the neighborhood along with a promise of substantial improvements to a park located at the south end of the existing ball fields.
In January 2012 the NDRA II, LLC proposal was presented to the neighborhood. During that meeting Planning Commission member Rick Williams recalled that when Valley View Mall was construction there was a promise made to the neighborhood that “we are not going to let commercial development ever jump across to Huff Lane … that was explicitly stated.” The school was taken from the park and now the city is taking it for commercial use. “A promise made 10-15 years ago is no longer considered a promise,” said Williams.
At last week’s Planning Commission public hearing the seven-member committee weighed the points made by the nine speakers. Civil engineer Sheldon Bower with Parker Design Group presented 19 development proffers to address the concerns the neighborhood had with height, buffers and vegetation and tree shields. It nailed down building placement, signage, parking, light pollution and entrances explained Bower.
Bower said that neighborhood concerns about decreased home values and promised park improvements were out of his control. He maintained that they had met most of the quidelines of the Williamson Road Area Plan.
Commission member Henry Scholz questioned height of the 60-foot hotels compared to the existing 30-foot school building. Chair Lora Katz questioned additional height for HVAC on top of the hotels.
Rick Williams’ last commission meeting. Another applicant was selected in his place beginning in January.
Rick Williams said he participated in the Williamson Road Area Plan and it was primarily targeted at perceived conditions along Williamson Road at the time. “No one envisioned this kind of development.” He felt sure that no one at the time envisioned one third of Huff Lane Park being turned into hotels and a restaurant. Williams thought that if it had been brought up it would have been immediately “off the table.”
Williams pointed out that “proffered development plans don’t necessarily provide much protection if there is a change in the market … coming back for a change in the proffers is usually easy to do.” He wanted to know how the nonspecific proffers for the Huff Lane development were going to be enforced. “In the case of some of these proffers that aren’t quantifiable … it is a judgment call.”
David Fletcher a resident of Dorchester Drive thought that the offer for continued use for educational purposes from one offer would be a better fit though it was for less money. A hotel “just doesn’t fit … you’re our protection when you make your recommendations to city council.” National Business College submitted an offer less than the minimum bid. They wanted to repurpose the building for a “central campus for medical career programs.” It was one of seven offers and the only one outside of retail, restaurant or hotel use.
Kit Hale, Planning Commission member in his “no” vote said he believed that residents who chose to move there felt secure that the property would continue for institutional use according to the area plan. “My experience suggests that adjacent area property values would be affected negatively.”
Chad VanHyning thought that the proposal itself was good when looking at it from a Valley View Mall perspective. “It’s got a lot going for if … if this proposal does not get passed change is going to come to that property,” he said. It boiled down to the neighborhood plan for him. “The community design policy says that commercial development areas, existing land uses and scale of development should reflect the purpose of the zoning district.” He thought that if the neighborhood had been able to consider a different use for the property other than institutional during the neighborhood planning process they would have determined it was inconsistent with the neighborhood.