Town starts down road to Avon Hall’s future

One of Milt Herd's examples of how the Avon Hall tract could be planned, from the Oct. 22 town council/planning commission work session.
One of Milt Herd’s examples of how the Avon Hall tract could be planned, from the Oct. 22 town council/planning commission work session.

The town of Washington has been putting significant effort into “doing the right thing” (in the words of Mayor John Sullivan and other town leaders over the last year of deliberation) with the nine-acre Avon Hall tract in the center of town.

This was particularly apparent at a three-hour joint work session, attended by most members of the town council and planning commission Oct. 22, a wide-ranging discussion led by planning consultant Milt Herd. Herd had synthesized into an interactive slide presentation most of the ideas, notions and findings made over the past several months — in two public hearings, much research and brainstorming — by the town’s ad hoc Avon Hall Study Group.

The former William Carrigan estate, sold to the town a decade ago by his heirs, is a significant, fondly remembered and mostly green space close to the center of town. After carving out a few acres on which to build its now five-year-old wastewater treatment plant, the town planned — in fact, budgeted — to sell the property, in part to help pay for the sewer system itself. For many reasons, including general indecision and a nationwide real-estate slowdown and recession, that hasn’t happened.

Initial hookup fees for the sewer system helped fund the first few years of its operation and had less of an impact on the town’s overall budget — a budget largely funded with revenues from its meals and lodging tax. Now that most residents and businesses are connected and hookup fees long paid, the town’s Avon Hall property has become a more pressing matter. (The council voted last month to double, over a two-year period starting in January, its rates for water and sewer usage.)

In general, Herd has recommended that the town consider making it possible for the site to be developed into small-lot residential housing — but in such a way that it’s still possible to carry out the town’s original intent (and still several council members’ preference) to sell it as a whole to a prospective buyer who’d want to continue its use as a private, in-town estate.

Sullivan noted this week — and says he expects to report the same at the council’s next regular meeting Monday (Nov. 9) — that the discussion is ongoing, but that the planning commission last week began looking into changes to the town’s zoning and utilities plans which could make some sort of residential development possible.

As the council was told by both Herd and town resident Allan Comp, a Study Group member who came up with the original idea of a small-lot, low-impact residential development on the site, making the zoning and other changes doesn’t preclude the plan, or unexpected opportunity, to sell the property intact — and in fact may make it more valuable to a prospective buyer.

Herd’s Joint Work Session Report

What follows is planner Milt Herd’s report to the council and planning commission following their joint Oct. 22 work session, based on the input of those present (including about 10 members of the public who attended):

Take-Aways from the Discussion: Among those present, the following ideas seemed to have general consensus, or no strong objection, or be consistent with the consensus:

Entrance to Town:

Preserve the viewshed as you enter Town on Warren Avenue by:

  • locating new buildings on the south side of the ridge line to the greatest extent feasible,
  • preserving as many existing trees as feasible, and
  • ensuring that new buildings are architecturally compatible in both size and style.

Existing Pond:

Preserve the pond, which could be sold off with the Avon Hall building as long as proper deed restrictions were attached to preserve it. Some participants expressed ambivalence about the pond as a priority; it may also be needed for stormwater management.

Avon Hall:

Retain the Avon Hall building on a separate lot with a few acres to go with it. This could include the pond, as noted above, depending on whether the pond is an asset or a liability to a potential buyer. Avon Hall could be used as a private residence or as a compatible commercial or non-profit use, or a combination of those. The Town or other government entity could also retain it for public use (requires money to rehab).

New houses:

The Town would benefit from some more people, but this site should not be over developed. Therefore, new dwellings should be mostly single-family detached units, located close to the street. Total new lots should not exceed about a dozen. Dwellings should include a mix of sizes, in a range from 1,000 to 2,500 square feet of finished space, with an average of less than 2,000 square feet. The Town should require that different builders or designers are used for each house to avoid excessive uniformity. The design could be very “organic” and informal in nature, or could have a small element of common open space like a central “green” for example. The key is that the new neighborhood seem like an extension of the Town fabric and not an enclave.

Other uses:

Lot #1 [a narrow, deep parcel fronting on Warren Avenue] could be commercial. [Note: clear standards on building placement, parking location, lighting, etc. would be needed]. Avon Hall could be more than just a private residence.

New streets:

A street connection should be made to the historic street network, but not so as to promote cut through traffic. (The current Comprehensive Plan has a policy of “no new streets” in the rural areas). Thus, a connection to Mt. Salem / Piedmont Avenue would make sense, but not in conjunction with a through connection to the sewer plant access road. A clear spatial connection should be made, so that the new neighborhood feels like an organic extension of the Town. Street parking should be provided as parallel spaces and/or as pull-offs.

New streets should be designed with historic compatibility as the top priority, including pavement width, right-of-way width, grading, walkways, and materials. If VDOT will permit a road design that fits the historic character of the Town’s streets, that would be ideal. However, if VDOT will not permit such a street design, then the new streets must be private.

Existing historic structure in addition to Avon Hall:

Encourage rehabilitation and reuse. [Note: these structures could be attached to extra new lots as an incentive to rehab and re-use].

Process going forward:

Immediate next steps: Planning Commission is working to identify any necessary amendments to the Comprehensive Plan and Land Development Ordinances, as well as general parameters for a subdivision of the property, consistent with the general direction provided at the joint meeting on October 22.

Follow-up steps: The Town can then decide if more detailed guidance is desired, such as a conceptual development plan or lot layout to be adopted as part of the Comprehensive Plan or as part of a rezoning action by the Town, or as part of any sales agreement.

Meanwhile:

  • Inquiries from prospective buyers may be referred to the Town Attorney to ensure consistent responses regarding procedures.
  • The site would be marketed as a whole, but also as a future collection of subdivided lots, subject to Town zoning approval, which could be done prior to or in conjunction with a sale.
  • The Avon Hall site itself could be sold separately or together with the remainder of the site, depending on buyer preferences.
  • The Town can accept a letter of intent from a potential buyer at any time. Town may also wish to issue a request for proposals (RFP) from developers.
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