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Northside residents file suit to stop Westwood Tract development

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RICHMOND, Va. — Residents of Richmond’s Northside Ginter Park and Sherwood Park neighborhood filed suit in Richmond City Circuit Court Tuesday, to stop a 301-unit suburban style apartment project which plaintiffs said violates decades-old zoning.

Mayor Levar Stoney said that in response to the suit, he has asked that construction not begin until the litigation is resolved.

“I met with Seminary President Blount this morning in my office and reaffirmed my belief that the Seminary should continue to work with its neighbors to find common ground regarding concerns over the proposed development,” Stoney said. “He agreed to my request that the Seminary not proceed with new construction until the Board of Zoning Appeals hearing and related litigation is resolved.”

The project is known as the Canopy at Ginter Park, on the Westwood Tract, across Brook Road from Union Presbyterian Seminary, who owns the 15-acres where the complex will be built.

Neighbors have been fighting against the development for months.

The suit claims that the city has misstated the zoning on the tract, which was enacted in 1953 to permit student housing but to prohibit commercial residential development.  The Northside residents cite 1953 zoning documents, which the city claimed were not available when they gave permission for the massive project.

More than 600 persons, including a significant percentage of the homeowners in the Northside neighborhoods surrounding the seminary, have signed an online petition, “Correct the zoning of the Westwood Tract,” protesting the Proposal. 

City Council voted last month to study the potential impact of the complex on the neighborhood, but just weeks later the city issued building permits for the complex.

Seminary President Dr. Brian Blount said the city and the Seminary have already studied the potential impacts.

“As far as I understand it we have met or exceeded all of those expectations that the city engineers do on those categories,” Blount said.

The suit asks the Court to declare that the Westwood Tract is subject to a 1953 Rezoning Ordinance which says “that use of the entire Westwood Tract is limited to ‘institutional’ uses, [and]that the proposed Canopy at Westwood use is not an ‘institutional’ use.”  Therefore, the complaint says, the building permits for the multi-family project “should be enjoined both preliminarily and permanently.”

The suit claims that 1953 zoning records show that the Seminary and the neighborhood went together to the zoning authorities and the Planning Commission to change the single-family zoning on the tract so that the seminary could build dormitories for students.

The neighborhood supported the change, based on plans submitted by the Seminary and the Seminary’s promise that all other uses on the property would be for “educational” purposes.

The Planning Commission, which heard and approved the proposed rezoning, stated in its minutes that the rezoning was only “to permit the expansion” of the UPS facilities, noting that the “plan for future land use of this area is for educational purposes and the change in classification will permit such development.”

Designation of the Westwood Tract for institutional use remains in the city’s Master Plan, together with specific admonitions that  any “residential infill development should be similar in density, architectural character, and use to what currently exists in the surrounding area and should enhance the character and quality of the neighborhoods.”

The plaintiffs allege that the 1953 re-zoning placed the Westwood Tract in what was then called the “E” zone, which permitted a number of uses, specifically including “institutions.”

At some point, as new zoning frameworks were overlaid in the city code, the zoning for the Westwood Tract was mistakenly translated into “R-53,” a zone which prohibits institutional use and permits only high-density multi-family housing.

In 2012, declaring that “the records from 1953 are not available,” the city zoning administrator gave the Seminary and developers a green light to project as many as 1000 multi-family units on the tract.

Rodney Poole, Chair of the Planning Commission,  recently spoke before City Council – but not as a representative of that body, he emphasized — and stated, “the city has made an error in proper zoning…”

He also said members of the BZA and Planning Commission were unaware of the existence of the originating 1953 zoning documents at the time of their vote.

Mayor Stoney previously expressed his discontent with Seminary, in a statement posted on Facebook a week ago.

Fellow residents,

There has been a lot of recent discussion and concern expressed about the proposed Westwood Tract development planned for the grounds of the Union Presbyterian Seminary in the Northside – a concern that I share.

First, let me say that I am disappointed in the Seminary for failing to do more to address the neighborhood’s concerns regarding this proposed development. Westwood has been an ongoing issue for years. It was one of the first issues with which I was presented when we took office, and it is one in which we remain engaged.

That is why, on January 16th, I, along with Council President Hilbert and Councilwoman Gray, invited members of the Ginter Park Community to my office to share their concerns about the development. On January 20th, I met with Seminary President Brian Blount and asked him to meet again with the community and try to find a solution that would meet the Seminary’s needs, and address community concerns. On February 10th, my staff organized the meeting between representatives of the Seminary and the Community, but I was disappointed that no further compromises came out of the conversations.

As a citizen, I believe it’s a shame that this development has the potential to damage the long-standing relationship between the Seminary and the neighborhood. I support the City Council’s resolution to further study the impact on schools and traffic and have asked my administration to find the money necessary to finance the study. However, I have been informed by the City Attorney that the neither the City Council resolution nor the community’s pending appeal to the Board of Zoning Appeals, set for June 7th, prevents the Seminary from exercising its legal rights to develop its property at this time, and that denying the issuance of permits to which the developer is legally entitled would put the city at risk of a costly lawsuit and potential liability for money damages.

I am renewing my call for the Seminary to seek common ground with the neighbors over their concerns, and will continue to work toward bringing both parties toward an amicable resolution of this dispute.