Planning commission OKs contentious site plan change

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The Beth El Hebrew Congregation, which backs up to Karig Estates (Photo Credit: Missy Schrott)
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By Missy Schrott | mschrott@alextimes.com

Residents expressed environmental concerns about a development project proposed for a several-acre plot behind the Beth El Hebrew Congregation at the Nov. 9 Planning Commission meeting. Speakers at the meeting also questioned the commission’s processes.

The big item of contention was the development project at 3832 and 3834 Seminary Road that involves building four homes in the wooded area behind Temple Beth El.

While the original development site plan was approved in early October, the applicant came before the planning commission last week to request approval for changes to three aspects of the project: to shift one of the houses 12.5 feet closer to the street, to subdivide two existing lots into four and to name the new street Karig Place.

The commission approved all three requests, two by a unanimous 6-0 vote. The amendment to Development Site Plan #2017-0022, which would shift one of the house’s locations, passed by a vote of 4-0, with Commissioners David Brown and Melissa McMahon abstaining.

Nathan Randall, a planner with the Department of Planning & Zoning, began the discussion by addressing some issues the project has generated, particularly about the site’s wetlands area.

“It is not an environmentally protected feature, nor is it a resource protection area; however, an isolated wetland derived from a seep point where water naturally springs upward is located within the swale,” Randall said.

The development would not touch the wetland and would include a 50-foot buffer area around it, Randall said. He said at previous meetings neighbors had requested that all four units shift northward, away from marine clay that could potentially impact neighbors residing in downslope homes.

Attorney Mary Catherine Gibbs, representing the applicant Mike Ibrahim, a principal of 3834 Seminary, LLC, also acknowledged resident concerns. She said the 12.5-foot shift of one of the houses was an appropriate compromise.

“I wish I could tell you that that proposed compromise brought us all together here, but it has not,” Gibbs said. “This is a request for an amendment for an approved development site plan. If the plan meets the requirements of the ordinance, it should be approved. It was approved last month for that reason, and the amendment should be approved for the same reason.”

Eleven residents spoke before the commission during the public comment period, with eight opposing the project and three supporting it, at least to an extent.

In addition to environmental concerns, several of the residents, neighbors and attorneys who spoke mentioned Rod Simmons, a local environmental expert who was told he could not attend the hearing.

Simmons works as a natural resource manager and plant ecologist with the Department of Recreation, Parks and Cultural Activities. When the Planning Commission requested that he attend the hearing to answer their environmental questions, city staff said he could not go, according to former city councilor Lonnie Rich, attorney for Beth El.

Planning Commission Chair Mary Lyman said she had already read Simmons’ opinion in writing and that he could have attended as a private citizen if he so desired.

“What I was hoping was that the Planning Commission would direct their environmental questions to Rod Simmons, the guy who knows something about it, rather than to the transportation guy, who it appeared to me was very uncomfortable answering the questions,” Rich said. “There were many times when he turned around and looked at someone else, because it was just not his direct field.”

Rich said he knew Simmons’s word wouldn’t be the end-all-be-all, but that it was important to have appropriate experts at these meetings so the commission could make an informed decision.

“All of them are on the same team,” Rich said. “Now the fact that there may be some disagreement within the team, that’s not a bad thing. That happens all the time.

“Decision makers all the time, in all contexts, whether you’re talking about a corporate president who’s making a decision to launch a new product, or you’re talking about the president of the United States deciding whether to send troops to Iraq or not, they bring in all the generals; they don’t just bring in the ones that agree with them,” he said.

Regarding the environmental issues, resident Dave Cavanaugh sited slope failure, storm water runoff, erosion and impacts on the wetland and adjacent properties as primary worries. He also raised concerns about the sewer line and storm drain that will go through the wetlands’ 50-foot buffer.

Several of the opposing speakers sited similar issues. They also mentioned frustration with the lack of dialogue and the city’s failure to use the resources it has available.

“Moving the fourth house 12 feet doesn’t fix anything,” Resident Christina Lytle said. “This plan does not reflect the available science [or] your geological atlas, and as a resident of this city, I want to see that in the decisions that are being made. I want to see you all using the resources – every resource – you have available to you.”

Gibbs said the city went above and beyond its established process for reviewing site plan applications.

“…It became slightly frustrating to have to provide more and more details on matters that are normally dealt with at final site plan and building permit stages,” Gibbs said, “but they did so in an effort to ensure that the issues raised by the neighbors were reviewed thoroughly and carefully.”

Resident Alexandria Lipton, who lives on St. Stephens Road which borders the site, said she did not “vehemently oppose” the development. Lipton agreed with Gibbs that it was a waste of time to argue over an amendment to a plan that had already been approved.

“I don’t know about wetlands and swells, that’s why I have you,” Lipton said to the commission. “That’s why I have the committees that have been put into place. I am trusting, as a resident of Alexandria, that you are doing your due diligence.”

Supporters of the development suggested that talk about the environment was an excuse neighbors used, while their real concerns were about their backyard views. Residents Kevin Durkin and Gant Redmon both called the environmental concerns red herrings.

“I think what the builder has put together with the planning staff has been incredibly flexible and a good compromise. A settlement on this is just that – a settlement. Not everybody gets what they want, but it’s the best for the community,” Durkin said.

Rich said there was evidence that the concerns were valid.

“All the planning commissioners acknowledged that it was a fair environmental problem, it was a hard case, and that we had a legitimate interest in raising our concerns,” he said.

Rich said his clients plan to appeal the planning commission’s decision to city council within 15 days. It will then go before council at a public hearing in either December or January.

“I don’t know if there’s ever been an appeal to council from a site plan,” Rich said. “Maybe there has, but it’s rare. It doesn’t happen very often, and the reason there’s gonna be an appeal is because there’s a lot of people that just feel very strongly that the environment got short-handed in this hearing.”

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