‘Start a chain reaction’

Published 8:03 pm Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Approximately 21 people spoke during a public hearing regarding a conditional use permit for a 10-unit dwelling at the intersections of High, Appomattox and Oak streets June 13, with three speaking in favor of the project, 17 speaking in opposition and one taking a neutral stance on the issue.

Most of the 17 who spoke in opposition were residents of the town who feared that the proposed dwelling, which would house up to 30 students, would detract from the town’s historic value.

The project is zoned as District R-3, classified for multiple family dwellings with a conditional use permit.

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Town Mayor David Whitus said the town would not take action on the proposed project until the July meeting, when Ward A representative Greg Cole and Ward E representative J.J. “Jamie” Davis, who were absent, would return and recently-elected Ward B representative Brian Vincent would assume the seat.

The first speaker was Dr. Chuck Ross, who serves as secretary on the Farmville Planning Commission. Ross said the Town of Farmville is gaining momentum as a historic and tourist destination, thanks to the advent of Hotel Weyanoke, Third Street Brewing and Longwood Bookstore. He said many of those projects were funded by rehabilitation tax credits from the town’s historic designation. Ross said this designation could be threatened if the historic home at the intersection is removed.

“I stand here tonight to ask you to please not make a mistake that could bring the momentum we have to a halt,” Ross said.

He said the planning commission 5 to 2 vote to recommend denial of the permit were not made lightly.

He said approving the project could cause developers to consider removing a historic home rather than renovating it.

“Approval of this project would start a chain reaction that would not only give away our best economic leverage for continuing to improve Farmville, but would also destroy our town’s most beautiful neighborhood,” Ross said.

Allison Martin, who lives on Grove Street, said she was also opposed to the development, and said she understands firsthand the effect student housing can have in a neighborhood.

“We don’t need another 30 students,” Martin said. “We don’t need more cars. We don’t need more traffic. We don’t need more trash. That’s what I live with. I have to fight all of the time to be able to park in front of my own home.”

Jimmy Hurt, president of the Farmville-Prince Edward Historical Society, said he had been contacted by residents about the historical significance of the intersection. He said the organization decided to stay neutral to the issue.

“We’ve been bombarded with requests to get involved in this discussion,” Hurt said. “At the historical society, we deal with history, things that happened in the past, not what’s going to happen. I’m not here tonight to try to influence council one way or the other. We just want to say that individuals, we can come here and say what we want, but as president of the historical society, I am here to say we are remaining neutral. We don’t get into the middle of issues that the town needs to be concerned with.”

Frank Rennie, attorney for the Martins, said the project is in accordance with Virginia laws and zoning laws in the town itself.

“Others in this community have been afforded the opportunity to utilize their property and have been granted that right of this council,” Rennie said. “The Martins only ask that they are given the same opportunities that others have received in the community. The Martins have gone to great lengths and great expense to plan their building, taking into account the input of the community. They’ve made every effort to accommodate the community, and now they ask for the same accommodation from the council. There’s no question the Martins may remove the buildings on their property and do so without input from the town or from the neighbors.”

Rennie said the Supreme Court of Virginia has opined that a governing body may not base a zoning decision solely on aesthetics.

“So if the Martins have a right to remove the buildings, and the council can’t consider aesthetics as a sole factor, it would be consistent for the council to approve the Martins’ plans. The Martins are counting on this council to be fair, and to provide them with equal treatment under the law.”

“Strong emotions have been displayed in this chamber,” Rennie said. “But what this boils down to is a fundamental right to utilize private property consistent with the law. That’s what the Martins are proposing, and that’s what this body should endorse.”

Martin himself spoke during the hearing, noting that no members of the community reached out to him or to developer Mike Kelley to have a conversation about the proposed project.

Martin, a lifelong resident in Farmville, said he has lived in the home for 35 years and said the location, with the rising student population, presents frustrating challenges for them.

“At least once a week, somebody knocks on our door at 1 or 2 o’clock in the morning and wants to know where the party is,” Martin said, who also cited rocks and eggs thrown at the home. “We pick up the trash. We get the drunk students.”

He said the project is compliant with the area’s zoning laws.

“We have worked very hard to conform to all the town council has asked,” Martin said. “We’re not asking for any variances. Farmville code requires exactly what we’re presenting. We’re happy with the extra security and protection this building will afford students.”