By Bill Walsh
Special to the Rappahannock News
If things go as planned this week, Jim Epstein, chairman of Washington, D.C.-based EFO Capital Management, Inc., will submit preliminary paperwork to the Culpeper County Planning Commission for a commercial and residential development at Clevenger’s Corner.
His parcel is directly across Route 229 from the 1,700-acre tract that has already been approved for a 775-home project that will be developed by Centex Homes, now owned by Pulte Homes.
Any development at Clevenger’s Corner will, of course, have a major impact on U.S. 211 access to and from Rappahannock County. Of Epstein’s specific development, Doug Larson, a spokesman for the Piedmont Environmental Council (PEC), said:
“It is an interesting project in the wrong place. We still question Clevenger’s as a population center. All of these wonderful ‘new communities’ that talk of creating town centers forget that the population still has to commute to jobs — which means even longer drives on even more congested roads.”
Epstein’s family has owned the site since 1978, and he began developing plans for the site about 10 years ago.
“I wasn’t really ready to take on the whole thing because the county and the residents weren’t ready to look again at the residential component,” Epstein said in an interview last week.
“There was still a fear about density and the number of units, so we focused only on creating a commercial component to it.”
That plan was subsequently set aside, Epstein said, with the realization that “there was not really a way to make it economically feasible to do the commercial component and then do the residential component afterward. We set it aside and got involved in another project called Belmont Bay.”
On the Occoquan River near Woodbridge in Prince William County, Belmont Bay is “a huge mixed-use, pedestrian-friendly development,” Epstein said.
“That occupied us for 10 years, 2000 to today, when we are working on our last little parcel on it,” he said.
Belmont Bay, he said, “is a great project I’m very proud of,” and contains concepts he’s eager to bring to Clevenger’s Corner.
“I approach doing this in a slightly different way, and that is with variable lot sizes,” Epstein said. “The classic objection to a subdivision is that all the houses are exactly the same, there is no variation and there is no village character to it. All you have is plastic houses dipped in brick.”
Epstein intends to build the Clevenger’s Corner site as a community, not a development, he said.
Lots begin at 36-foot widths, going up to 72 feet. Housing design possibilities include Cottage, Bungalow, Neighborhood House and Estate House, he said.
“As you are closer to the commercial sections, you can have 36- and 48-foot [width lots],” he said,” and as you get to the edges, you get from 48 to 60, then when you get to real country, open space, you get from 60 to 72. We have requirements about variations within lots so that you can’t have all . . . 48-foot houses on them.”
Because of lot-size variety, it is not possible to designate upfront exactly how many houses would be built, Epstein said, but the number is 275 at a maximum, if every house were a Cottage. That won’t happen, he said.
The overall design is intended to be “mixed-use, pedestrian-friendly,” Epstein said. Initial commercial offerings will likely include a bank and a pharmacy.
And, closest to his heart, a restaurant/inn.
His dream, Epstein said, is to make local food the focus of attention for the whole village, including the creation of backyard and community gardens.
“In terms of the village center and the retail component, it would really be centered around a family-style restaurant, perhaps an inn to go with it, that would be focused on locally sourced food,” he said.
Epstein expressed confidence in the success of the development despite the continued stagnation of the economy, particularly real estate.
“I don’t know what the statistics are, but this region is pretty healthy compared to everywhere else,” Epstein said. “People continue to move in, and houses are selling.”
“I am confident,” he added. “What’s important in this environment is velocity — how quickly you’re selling your homes. What would create velocity out here? The fact that you’re living in a village, a community.”
Culpeper County Planning Director John Egertson is familiar with the Belmont Bay project in Prince William.
He confirmed Monday that Epstein’s formal proposal regarding a mixed-use development near Clevenger’s Corner was a coming attraction.
“These discussions have been going on for literally a decade,” said Egertson. “He’s had a concept in here a year or more and he’s recently gotten VDOT’s blessing on the traffic process, so I would expect a formal rezoning package in the near future . . . perhaps even a few days.”
Depending on the particulars of the proposal, Egertson anticipates nothing controversial.
“This is an area that has been designated for future development, and it is within county-owned utilities,” said Egertson, noting that the water/sewer treatment plants that went online in December 2009 near South Wales could readily accommodate such a development.
But the PEC’s Doug Larson and others continue to question the wisdom of the project: “Given the huge number of currently unoccupied housing out this way, you have to wonder if the preference for country living and two-hour commutes isn’t in decline.
Anita Sherman and Rappahannock News staff contributed to this report.