- Associated Press - Saturday, July 12, 2014

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (AP) - Tom’s long reach remains as expansive as the sweeping vista stretching miles from his mountaintop abode.

Albemarle County supervisors decided to keep it that way, recently rejecting a recommendation from planning commissioners to weaken the county’s role in preserving what some regard as an integral part of a national treasure: the breathtaking view from Monticello.

The move safeguarding the Thomas Jefferson Foundation’s role in discussions about everything from building materials to paint colors on projects within sight of Monticello followed months of rhetorical skirmishes over how best to balance preservation and private property rights.

Supervisors voted 5-1, with Kenneth C. Boyd dissenting, for county staff to report the status of discussions between developers and the foundation to the Planning Commission for consideration when weighing a rezoning request or special use permit. The foundation owns and operates Monticello.

“The people at Monticello are not an elected body that have say over what people can do with their personal property,” Boyd said last week. “I don’t think it’s necessary and I think it gives special privileges to (the foundation); I think what the Planning Commission worked out is adequate.”

The supervisors effectively reversed the results of a lengthy debate spurred in part by the foundation, which last year proposed that its guidelines for development within the viewshed be inserted in a draft of the county’s new Comprehensive Plan. The viewshed refers to the area visible from points around Monticello.

“(The foundation) said let’s not make this a gentleman’s agreement anymore. Let’s make it official,” said county Planning Commission Chairman Cal Morris. “We said, absolutely not.”

Viewshed guidelines the foundation submitted to the county in March 2013 admonished, among other things, against “bright pastels and whites” on walls and roofs, flood lights, exposed bulbs, structures breaking “the mature tree line” and “expansive” windows facing Monticello.

Morris said the foundation’s initial proposal also would have more than tripled the protected area, extending the viewshed to the Fluvanna County line.

“It is my opinion that the proposal puts the camel’s nose under the tent,” Morris said. “We looked at it and said, ‘Not only no, but gosh no. This is placing a private entity in between the county and an applicant for private approval.’”

A foundation spokeswoman declined to discuss the proposal or say how many miles the current viewshed extends.

Supporters of the plan say a well-intentioned conversation about how best to preserve a site that draws about 440,000 tourists annually elicited undue hostility.

“For a town that reveres Mr. Jefferson, I was somewhat astonished by some of the reactions that this got,” said Jeff Werner, a land-use officer with the Warrenton-based Piedmont Environmental Council, which helped the foundation map out the proposed viewshed.

Werner said the commission balked at the first mention of the idea.

“You knew from the minute (the initial presentation) started, it was off track,” Werner said. “It started out on the wrong foot and went downhill from there.”

The fallout prompted an intervention from representatives of the Charlottesville Regional Chamber of Commerce.

“We held several long meetings with (foundation President) Leslie Greene Bowman,” said chamber President Timothy Hulbert. “We said, ‘We agree with your goals, but we cannot possibly agree with some policy put in place for which there is no basis in law.’”

Foundation Executive Vice President Ann H. Taylor said the organization was happy to participate in those talks.

“We’re open to conversations with our community and we’d like to continue the kind of conversations we’ve had in the past,” Taylor said.

Collaboration between the foundation and developers about the voluntary guidelines have been productive, Morris said, pointing to Martha Jefferson Hospital and State Farm’s facility on Pantops as examples of successful dialogue.

“Some folks are more than happy to work with (the foundation) and that’s great,” Morris said, “But (the foundation) is not an automatic step in the approvals process.”

The Planning Commission overhauled language explicitly directing the county to “protect Monticello’s settings and view shed” in a draft of the new Comprehensive Plan. The recommended plan shifted the burden to developers and the foundation to seek one another out and work together, limiting the county’s involvement in those discussions.

“There were extraordinary circumstances that persuaded the Planning Commission to change the wording related to the Thomas Jefferson Foundation’s viewshed,” said Richard Randolph, the commissioner for the Scottsville District.

Taylor did not say whether the foundation preferred the existing or proposed language.

“We support language in the Comprehensive Plan that encourages early dialogue with landowners who are contemplating changes or new projects in the Monticello vistas,” Taylor said. “Our goal is to provide the best available information to landowners.”

Under the proposed plan, county staff would have notified the foundation of planned development and informed developers of projects within the viewshed, provided developers with the foundation’s contact information and left it to the two parties to work out an arrangement.

“The Planning Commission said, ‘It’s not our job to protect Monticello for Monticello,’” said Elaine Echols, principal planner at the county’s Department of Community Development.

Supervisor Ann H. Mallek said stewardship of Monticello was too important to leave to chance.

“I’m very reluctant to water this down,” Mallek said.

County staff should continue to bring Monticello and developers together early in the process and keep officials apprised of the status of those conversations, she said.

“All this haranguing about dictatorial this and that was unfounded,” Mallek said of the backlash to the foundation’s proposal last year. “I don’t believe we’ve had an instance where someone has not been able to work with Monticello.”

Free Enterprise Forum President Neil Williamson, who last year decried the foundation’s initial request as “an effective land grab,” said supervisors’ vote “undoes eight months of hard work to protect property rights in Albemarle County.”

“There was a lot going on behind the scenes that led to this compromise,” Williamson said. “The solution that came out of this long negotiation has not even been tried.”

Werner said a developer’s willingness to work with the foundation was only one factor county officials consider in granting a rezoning request or special use permit.

“I don’t imagine the county would ever say, ‘We’re going to deny your shopping center request because you didn’t plant enough trees for Monticello,’” he said.

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Information from: The Daily Progress, https://www.dailyprogress.com

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