Rachel's Haven

rendering COURTESY JJM DESIGN

Those in favor of Rachel’s Haven, a proposed 15-unit apartment building in Charlottesville’s Belmont neighborhood for people with developmental disabilities, have highlighted a need for affordable housing and accessible housing. Opponents have filed a petition to overturn the rezoning for it.

Five people are backing off a court petition to overturn a rezoning for a Belmont apartment complex that would include housing for people with disabilities, while eight are joining it, for a total of 33.

On Monday, Kimber Hawkey filed an amendment to the petition in Charlottesville Circuit Court that seeks to reverse the City Council’s decision to rezone 750 Hinton Ave.

The property is home to Hinton Avenue Methodist Church, which plans to create a 15-unit apartment building known as Rachel’s Haven.

Hawkey wrote in an email that the plaintiffs were withdrawing for “personal reasons.” Plaintiff Mark Kavit said “a lot of it has to do with public shaming.”

“There’s some public shaming that’s taking place on social media,” he said.

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 church has said it would include housing for people with disabilities, but that was not included as a condition of the rezoning.

“As anyone who is in real estate knows, it doesn’t matter what you orally say, it matters what’s it writing,” Kavit said.

A petition is similar to a lawsuit challenging a land-use decision. However, a petition does not seek monetary compensation.

The petition was filed Wednesday. It names the City Council and each councilor individually as defendants.

In their petition, the neighbors allege that the city didn’t properly notify the community of public hearings, canceled and rescheduled hearings and or changes to the proposal.

Neighbors also say the rezoning is improper because it violates state law and the Comprehensive Plan — a guiding document and not legally binding — 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.

The City Council unanimously voted to rezone the property from residential to neighborhood commercial on Aug. 5.

The rezoning came with several conditions, or proffers. These eliminated all nonresidential uses, only allowing for an educational or daycare facility associated with the church and requiring that at least four units would be available as affordable housing at 80% of the area’s median income.

Opponents of the project have reiterated that they support the church’s mission but say they are concerned with potential ramifications from a commercial zoning.

Hawkey’s amendment seeks to remove Allison Ruffner, Bill Emory, Karen and David Katz and Brian Wimer from the petition. Raman Pfaff, Stuart and Kimberly Taylor, Pam Bracey, Elaine Oakey, John and Nancy Jane Hampson and William Harlow would be added.

Ruffner, Emory and the Katzes didn’t return an email for comment. Wimer couldn’t be reached, but he told C-Ville Weekly that he didn’t sign the petition.

Kavit cited a Facebook post by former Mayor Dave Norris that received more than 300 comments.

“Sometimes I wonder if these people read the full articles that are being printed or are just looking at the headlines,” Kavit said. “Unless you read the full story, you don’t get the full idea of what’s taking place.”

The since-removed post linked to a Daily Progress article on the petition and included a photo of the list of plaintiffs. Norris wrote, “Here’s the names of folks who have filed suit to block affordable housing in Belmont for people with disabilities.”

Norris said Wednesday that he was getting questions about the people behind the petition and posted the list of names for information when it appeared on The Progress’ website. After that, he said, the conversation got out of hand.

“It was really more of an informational post, and then it ended up being this completely vitriolic, toxic mess that really wasn’t advancing the cause either of getting Rachel’s Haven over the finish line or getting the zoning reforms that we all feel we need,” he said.

Norris took the post down because of the devolving conversation in the comment section.

Norris said that both sides need to work together on appropriate housing and rezoning reform without being at odds.

“I really want to see people focus on getting Rachel’s Haven built and working on some of these zoning changes that we need and not holding one hostage to the other,” he said. “[The petition is] not helping, and it’s clearly generated a huge negative reaction, so let’s put that aside and let’s focus on getting Rachel’s Haven built and let's focus on the zoning so we have better options for the future.”

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City hall reporter

Nolan Stout is a reporter for The Daily Progress. Contact him at (434) 978-7274, nstout@dailyprogress.com, or @nstoutDP on Twitter and Facebook.

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