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City residents debate land-swap proposal

Charlottesville residents packed City Council chambers late Tuesday evening, debating for over two hours about a proposed land-swap that would make three acres of park land available for residential development.

Local developer Stan Tatem has offered to trade the city nearly 16 acres adjoining Riverview Park for three acres of park land near Pen Park and the Locust Grove neighborhood.

Following Tuesday's hearing, which was the first public discussion of the proposal, City Council moved to vote on the issue at their Sept. 20 meeting.

There was standing room only at the meeting, which attracted about 80 people. Locust Grove residents of all ages came before Council, offering their views on the land-swap, which could result in the construction of about 10 to 15 new homes. An overwhelming majority of the residents were against the swap.

John Potter, president of the Locust Grove Neighborhood Association, asked the Council to consider other locations for development, rather than selecting a park that neighborhood children and adults use for hiking and walking.

"It is a bad precedent for the city to develop this parcel," Potter said. "Developing park land is unwarranted and unnecessary."

But supporters of the land-swap said the park is inaccessible, blocked off by a barbed wire fence and the Rivanna River. They also said the city would gain over 12 acres through the swap, nearly doubling the size of Riverview Park.

Tatem also told Council he would be leaving five-and-a-half acres at the present park site undeveloped.

The park land already is zoned for R-1, or residential, development.

Satyendra Huja, Charlottesville director of strategic planning, said zoning park land as R-1 dates back to a provision from 1958 when the city had to give all of its land a zone rating, and R-1 was the lowest available.

As the meeting progressed, speakers accused the city of trying to develop park land while others contended it was not even park land to begin with.

Charlottesville Mayor Virginia Daugherty said the proposed development of the park goes along with the city's strategy to attract more middle- and upper-middle-class residents.

But Councilman Maurice Cox argued that retaining the current middle-income residents is just as important as attracting new ones.

"This is one of the most stable neighborhoods in Charlottesville" and the city should try to avoid disrupting it through unwanted development, Cox said.

Before approving the land-swap, Council should "reflect on why this neighborhood thinks they don't need it," he said.

Vice Mayor Meredith Richards said the zoning commission should consider establishing a special park zone, as well as make access to the park near Pen Park easier.

"If we do not approve this project, we must improve the accessibility," Richards said.

After the heated park debates came to a close, Council also heard a report about the water conservation effort from Public Works Director Judith Mueller.

Originally, Council had planned to vote on whether to impose mandatory water restrictions if the reservoir level dipped below 65 percent, but the recent rainfall made such legislation unnecessary, Mueller said.

Reservoir levels currently are above 90 percent and are likely to increase from run-off from the weekend rainfall, she said.