35 homes at Avon Hall? ’No, thank you’

Town Council evaluates significant development concept;
ARB chairman Flores resigns

Don’t shoot the messenger, Town Attorney John Bennett sighed after 45 minutes of discussion of a potential use of the 12-acre Avon Hall property, which just went on the market at last month’s Town Council meeting.

The Council considered Monday night (Feb. 8) the construction of 35 houses on the property, an idea introduced by Bennett, on behalf of an anonymous interested developer.

“Would the Town Council consider, if the entire piece of property were purchased, a density of 35 houses?” Bennett asked, noting that in the proposed concept, Avon Hall would become a sort of clubhouse for those properties. At the anonymous party’s request, Bennett then read aloud their summary of benefits that development would provide for the Town:

Roger Piantadosi
The Town of Washington will consider offers to buy some or all of the 16-acre Avon Hall property. Roger Piantadosi/Rappahannock News

“Additional residents and services that will follow are necessary for the town to grow and thrive as a vibrant community in the future,” Bennett recited. “The style of housing will be of a character in keeping with the Architectural Review Board guidelines, and in keeping with the other architecture of the town. This number of houses would provide not only tap fees, which would help pay for the town’s wastewater system, but it would also provide additional monthly user fees necessary for the operation of those systems. In addition, these houses would add to the county’s real estate tax base. The housing would be in keeping with the comprehensive plan of the town and the county, with respect to density in and around the village.”

The 35 units would be single family dwellings, attached houses in townhome style, Bennett said, continually glancing at a red and yellow piece of paper in his hand, as he fielded questions from Mayor John Fox Sullivan, the Council and several town residents. Council Member Gary Aichele said that the construction would cover nearly every inch of the property. Vice Mayor Gary Schwartz said the Town’s wastewater treatment plant could handle an influx of 35 families. He expressed concerns about the proposed use would defy county density ordinances, reduce green space in the county, and would require three homes per acre.

“If I had a buzzer right here, I would press it loud and clear: No, thank you,” council member and Middleton Inn owner Mary Ann Kuhn said, to the tune of applause from all but two of the 15-person audience. “The density is too great . . . And it seems to me that if these people were really interested, they would come to the meeting in person, to discuss, or to bring some plans.”

Mayor Sullivan asked to clarify the process, before opening the floor to the public to gauge resident response.

“These are serious people who have made a real effort to come up with a significant proposal. They have approached John [Bennett], several of us are familiar with it,” Sullivan said. “Everybody thought this was something of magnitude and interest, and should be publicly discussed. And whether they’re here or not here at this moment . . . It’s just people saying, ‘We’ve got an idea. If you like the idea, we’ll proceed. And if you don’t like the idea, just let us know and we’ll go away.’”

Fred Catlin of the Planning Commission, who also worked as part of the Avon Hall property study group last year, said:

“It’s really hard when you say 35 units, because you don’t know what creativity they’re using,” he said. “It’s come very clearly through the study group, through the public forums, that there is interest in bringing vitality to the community, and to preserve green space. And while I think it’s difficult to give an authoritative yes or a definite no, I tend to be skeptical as well about 35, but I also would love to see more information. They may have an extraordinarily creative idea, of preserving green space and yet having some density, to benefit the town.”

“I worry that this is public land being sold for public benefit, for this town,” Alan Comp, also part of the study group, added. “If you lose the historic buildings that are on the property and-or the potential for a trail system that could be on that property, as part of the sale, we’re kind of doing the town a disservice, in selling that public asset and sort of losing that potential for public benefit.”

The mayor weighed Town motives before expressing his view on the proposed idea.

“We need to generate money from the Avon Hall property, as much as we can, along with some other motives,” Sullivan said. “I really believe that we need more people in this town. I’m in sync with the Comp Plan of the county, that there be more people in the villages. To the extent that there is housing, however it is designed, that it might be affordable in some sense — interpret that word any way you want. I think that something that fits organically into this town, that feels natural and part of this town, is desirable. And something that people 10 years from now will think has been good for the town and the community.

“While I’m not quite as definitive about it as my friend here, wanting to push a button. I don’t see 35 units in that space as naturally fitting in this town. I think it’s too much,” he continued. “It may or may not generate more money than other options, though money is not the entire goal. And I have not sensed from any of our meetings over the year, any public support for something this size. And I admire greatly and am thankful to the people who came up with this idea, but I’m just very uncomfortable with it myself.”

Council Member Katherine Leggett agreed with Kuhn, that she likes to see proposals in writing, and did not like the idea of losing the pond and the butterfly trail. Treasurer Jerry Goebel told Bennett to go back and tell “them” that 35 is too much.

Open seat on ARB

Ernesto Flores, chairman of the Architectural Review Board (ARB) has resigned, Mayor Sullivan announced at Monday night’s meeting, because of increased obligations with his job in Cuba.

There is now one seat open to a non-resident of Washington. The seat available is not the chairmanship, though the new appointee could become chairman.

“Let me point out that there are, by the ordinance of the ARB, which is a five-person board, there is one seat that is available to a non-resident to the Town of Washington,” Sullivan said. “They could be a resident of Rappahannock, but they don’t even have to be. Why is that? It is to have a seat open for somebody who has significant credentials as an architect, or understanding architecture, construction, and the like. So it’s a way of bringing some expertise to the table, in addition to the expertize that’s already there. This would provide more of a trained skillset.

“It is disappointing, because Ernesto has done an extraordinary job with the ARB over the last couple years,” Sullivan said, adding that with the Trinity Episcopal Church renovating its parish hall, that is the 20th building in town to have been significantly renovated in the last four years. There are only about 110 buildings in the town, not counting storage sheds.

Current ARB members, town residents: Beverly Sullivan , Susan Stoltzman, John MacPherson and Robert Ballard.