Several Belmont residents are asking a judge to overturn a rezoning for an apartment complex that would include housing for people with disabilities.
The residents filed a petition Wednesday in Charlottesville Circuit Court.
A petition is similar to a lawsuit challenging a land-use decision. However, a petition does not seek monetary compensation. The petition names the City Council and each councilor individually as defendants.
“The only thing different is the nature of the remedy being sought,” said Valerie Long, a partner at Williams Mullen in Charlottesville. Long is not associated with the case, and the residents do not have an attorney.
In their petition, the neighbors allege that the city didn’t properly notify the community of public hearings, canceled and rescheduled hearings and changes to the proposal.
Neighbors also say that the rezoning is improper because it violates state law and the Comprehensive Plan, and because city officials have said the commercial zoning isn’t appropriate. They also argue that two Planning Commission members should not have voted on the project.
Not all of the plaintiffs live in Belmont, but they are listed as city residents who “fear the effects of a precedent set by this faulty rezoning decision.”
On Aug. 5, the City Council unanimously voted to rezone Hinton Avenue Methodist Church’s property from residential to neighborhood commercial.
The church, at 750 Hinton Ave., requested the change to create a 15-unit apartment building known as Rachel’s Haven.
The project’s namesake, Rachel Lewis, is the late wife of the church’s pastor, the Rev. Robert Lewis. She died in 2016 from breast cancer and ministered to people with developmental disabilities.
The rezoning came with several caveats. It eliminated all nonresidential uses other than for an educational or daycare facility associated with the church.
Other conditions, or proffers, say that at least four units would be available as affordable housing at 80% of the area’s median income.
The church has said that four to six units will be set aside as independent housing with developmental disabilities, but that is not included as a proffer.
Opponents of the project have reiterated that they support the church’s mission but say they are concerned with ramifications from a commercial zoning.
Opponents are also skeptical of proffers, which are typically enforced via complaints. Neighbors cite issues with the rezoning of 814 Hinton Ave., home to Southern Crescent Galley and Bar, as an example of proffers that are ignored.
“The effective neighborhood is not against the concepts that Hinton Church wants to provide,” the neighborhood said in a joint statement provided by Mark Kavit. “Their concern is with the commercial zoning placed on the property instead of residential.”
The original public hearing for the Planning Commission was scheduled for May 14, but it was canceled so the church could make changes to its application, city officials said at the time.
The item was pulled off the agenda on May 13, with city planner Brian Haluska posting the announcement on Twitter.
“This type of last-minute change the evening prior to a meeting is unjust and puts undue expectations on citizens to change their schedules on a continual basis to suit either the Applicant’s or the City’s needs,” the petition says.
The hearing was then scheduled for June 11. The petition says that notice of the meeting wasn’t given until June 3, which is less than the two weeks required under state law.
However, the notice can be found in the May 28 and June 4 editions of The Daily Progress.
The petition also says that City Council’s July 1 public hearing was not advertised, but a notice appeared on June 17 and June 24.
The petition argues that the rezoning violates state code because it makes substantial changes to the property’s use. It also cites violations of the city’s land-use plans and Comprehensive Plan, which is a guiding document and not legally binding.
The plan is being updated for the first time since 2013 and will come with a massive overhaul of the city’s zoning code.
Kavit said the petition would also “keep pressure on them” to complete the update.
The petition also takes issue with the Planning Commission’s proceedings and claims “personal bias” of two members.
Commission Chair Lisa Green, who works with Albemarle County as senior code compliance officer, was absent from the June 11 meeting. The petition says this led to commissioners acting “purely on personal perception and beliefs.”
“Her absence meant that there was a lack of leadership to ask important questions and a failure to get answers,” the petition says.
Commissioners Gary Heaton and Rory Stolzenberg are cited as having “considerable personal bias.” Heaton is a minister of a different Methodist church, and Stolzenberg came under fire for comments made online to neighbors who opposed the rezoning.
The petition also emphasizes possible impacts of future development if the church cannot secure financing.
The project was rushed, the petition says, because the church was “under the gun” to meet deadlines to apply for federal housing credits.
City Attorney John Blair declined to comment. Lewis hadn’t seen the petition and declined to comment on pending legal matters.
No court date has been scheduled.