Resident sues city over historic protection

By Seth Rosen | 978-7245
Saturday, June 23, 2007

The Woolen Mills “taking by typo” controversy is moving to a new arena: Charlottesville Circuit Court.

Bill Emory, a Woolen Mills resident who claims that a disputed property in the neighborhood should be protected by a historic designation, has filed a complaint asking the court to alter the zoning classification of the site, located behind the Mary Williams Senior Center.

The civil lawsuit against the city is just the latest twist in the saga of the property surrounding the senior center, which is also known as the Timberlake-Branham house.

Emory and some neighbors believe the city accidentally removed the historic protection status from the site several years ago, meaning that the Board of Architectural Review would not vet future development on the property. The neighbors fear that without the independent layer of oversight, development on the site could be out of scale with surrounding homes.

“We want any development to come before the BAR so its impact on the historic nature of the site is appropriate,” Emory said.

But Preston Coiner, who owns the 7-acre site and happens to sit on the BAR, contends that no error was made in the past by the city and that the portion of the property he is seeking to develop never received protected status. Coiner has previously floated the idea of building 10 to 12 houses on the parcel, but on Friday said the plans are still up in the air.

Coiner said he was unaware of the lawsuit. “I’ll just wait and see what happens,” he added.

The city attorney’s office just received the paperwork and has not had a chance to review the case, said Ric Barrick, city spokesman.

All parties agree on how the controversy began: In 1989 the then-owner divided the property, located at 1512 E. Market St., but the city’s tax maps were not updated because the site did not change hands.

Accounts differ on what happened four years later, when the city placed the site on its list of individually protected properties.

Emory and other neighbors believe the entire parcel was protected, as subdividing a property does not change its zoning status.

Coiner, who bought the site in 1996, insists that only the property surrounding the historic house became protected, not the second subdivided lot.

The minutes of the Planning Commission do not clarify the exact boundaries of the historic designation, leaving them open to interpretation.

In 2001, Coiner further subdivided the property and the new lots were not added to the protected list. Two years later a citywide rezoning made the changes permanent.

A letter written by zoning administrator Read Brodhead in February stated that a “technical mistake” might have caused the parcels to lose their protected status, a position Coiner and some others dispute.

Emory brought his case to the Board of Zoning Appeals, hoping the body would correct the alleged mistake and reinstate the historic protection. But the BZA members voted unanimously to take no action, stating that such a move was beyond their authority.

Next, Emory petitioned the City Council to consider his case and change the site’s zoning classification. But during a June 4 meeting, councilors indicated it was not a subject they were interested in pursuing.

“It’s a difficult situation,” Mayor David Brown said during the meeting. “I think the fact that time has gone by … it’s hard to just have a straightforward discussion on it.”

With little recourse left, Emory turned to the court system.

“Everybody seems to agree that a series of mistakes have been made regarding the property, but so far we haven’t been able to find the remedy,” he said.

Despite the lawsuit, the City Council can still intervene. But that is unlikely to happen anytime soon, councilors said.

“My read is that council will let the court process proceed and we will see what happens there,” said Councilor Dave Norris, who is interested in having council debate the controversy.

Emory said he’s disappointed that he had to file a lawsuit in order to coerce the city into fixing what he believes was a clerical error.

“It’s very discouraging,” he said. “It shouldn’t be necessary for citizens to engage the services of the local judicial branch to examine what council could voluntarily fix.”

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