A lbemarle County Planning Commission concerns about a Habitat for Humanity project come as a last-minute surprise:
» Last-minute, because the planned redevelopment of the Southwood Mobile Home Park already has been in the works for more than a decade.
» Surprise, because the commission already has voted by a resounding margin, 6-1, to recommend the project for approval by the Board of Supervisors.
Yet commissioners undercut that recommendation by also issuing two resolutions expressing their concern about the project.
Those resolutions also appeared to come at the last minute and as a surprise: They were not on the commission’s agenda, so no members of the public — including Habitat — were forewarned.
The commission not only failed to place the resolutions on its agenda for public notification, but also waited until the end of its meeting, when most of the public had left, to raise its concerns.
Additionally, those concerns came so late in the game that Habitat could not have sufficiently responded. The concerns, comprising several pages worth of type, surfaced late on July 30; by that time, Habitat already had submitted its final documents for the Board of Supervisors’ Aug. 21 meeting, at which the proposal was expected to be taken up.
It’s possible that the commission legitimately expected more detail to arrive from Habitat — at the last minute — as the project wends its way to final approval.
It’s also possible that the long-awaited project has gotten caught up in new political expectations.
Ten years is a long time to plan a project. The lengthy timeline was pursued so that Habitat could work with Southwood residents to craft redevelopment to meet their needs and their concerns — a time-consuming process. But in that length of time, external conditions can be subject to great change — including everything from funding availability for a project to evolving public policies on housing.
Habitat’s intention is to improve living conditions for low-income residents. The charity is taking a run-down trailer park, where both trailers and supporting infrastructure are in decline, and planning to construct a modern, mixed-income, mixed-use development. Habitat expects to do that without displacing any of the current residents.
The project is neither traditional public housing nor traditional private housing, but rather something in between. It follows a new national paradigm of mixed-use, mixed-income housing, in which subsidized units for low-income residents are developed alongside market-rate units.
Even more recently, concern about affordable housing has intensified, and that might be driving some of the commission’s concerns. Affordable housing appears much more important to county government than it was even two years ago, much less 10.
Still, it’s strange that after all this time — and after Albemarle already has decided to invest $3.2 million in the project — concerns should be raised about plans from a philanthropic organization that is widely known and respected for its championship of low-income residents.
That’s not to say that some of the planning commission’s concerns aren’t legitimate — for instance, how affordability can be guaranteed for 80 units financed through federal tax credits and therefore not subject to local proffering. Commissioners also want to know how homeowner’s association fees would be kept affordable for low-income residents.
Other concerns — why is there no planned “transit center”? — just seem like piling on.
But in any case, the time to have raised these concerns was while the developer had a chance to address them.
The planning commission, as we mentioned, already has recommended that the Board of Supervisors approve the project. The resolutions containing concerns are intended as an aid to the board in making that decision. But the two separate actions seem oddly disconnected, and even to counteract one other.
If the commission had so many concerns, why did it recommend the project for approval?
And why did it not give Habitat a chance to respond to those concerns?
The resolutions already have been forwarded to supervisors and are in the documents package for the Aug. 21 meeting. But Supervisor Ann Mallek says she intends to bring up the issue at today’s meeting.
By all means, developers should make the project as high-quality as possible. Reasonable concerns expressed at a reasonable time would have had the opportunity to have a reasonable impact.
We’re not at all sure that last-minute surprises are capable of achieving that.