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Close Vote Replaces The Huff Lane School With Hotels

The vote was 4-3 Tuesday evening leaving Dorchester and Grandview neighbors disappointed that the now vacant Huff Lane school will be rezoned to Commercial Large Scale (CLS) to accommodate two hotels and a restaurant.

Patrick Corp, President of the Dorchester Court Neighborhood Watch Association.
Patrick Corp, President of the Dorchester Court Neighborhood Watch Association.

It’s not quite final. The measure needed 5 votes to pass on the first reading. A second reading is scheduled for March 4 at 2:00 p.m. Unless one of the four council members who voted in favor of the rezoning changes his mind the second reading is just a technicality. Nineteen of twenty-one speakers spoke against the project.

Attorney Maryellen Goodlatte represented the developer NDRA II, LLC. She made the argument that the 5.3 acres was part of Valley View Mall and the other commercial activities there. She said that the property could “join its Valley View neighbors with appropriate buffering from the adjoining neighborhood.”

Voting against the rezoning with an impassioned speech was Councilman Sherman Lea. Mayor Bowers and Councilwoman Anita Price also voted against it.

Lea explained his “no” vote saying “nothing is more important than keeping neighborhoods strong.” Lea said he had seen Northwest Roanoke bear the brunt of the city’s development during his tenure on city council. Speaking directly to the packed council chamber he said, “You’ve been promised things and some people have amnesia and can’t remember that.”

Though undocumented, neighbors say they remember the promises that previous councils and planning staff made after Valley View Mall was built. They remembered a promise that there would be no more commercial encroachment on the neighborhood. Former council member Lynda Wyatt made that point at a neighborhood meeting attended by current council members on December 5, 2012.

Lea didn’t think that the city would go under financially if the process didn’t move forward. “There’s always going to be a need for more revenue. There’s certain things we have to hold the line on – money can’t push the button on everything.” He said it wasn’t a make or break for the funding of Round Hill Elementary School where the proceeds of the sale will fund a small part of the $8 million expansion.

“It’s important that people trust their government,” said Lea.  Later in a statement Lea said, “that they are going to do what they want anyway was made real last night when council ignored the 7-0  vote by the Planning Commission. Why do those citizens spend the time to analyze and study the issues. They may as well call council and ask us ‘what do you want us to do’. I’d like to see where any council went against a planning commission vote of 7-0 .”

Mayor Bowers questioned, “Why didn’t we go to the neighborhood first.” He agreed with the Planning Commission and neighborhood that commercial encroachment would negatively impact them.

Councilwoman Anita Price who has served as a counselor at both Huff Lane and Round Hill schools said, “It was a very beautiful project but just not in the right location.”

Councilman Ray Ferris saw it differently. He thought the developer addressed the neighborhood’s concerns and that the development would improve the neighborhood. He said he saw no promises made in past minutes of council meetings during the Valley View Mall rezoning.

Councilman Court Rosen elicited groans and mumbles when he said he really heard the neighborhood’s concerns and promised that though the park at the north end would be taken for hotels the south end would be improved with bathrooms and picnic facilities. He said that long term revenue is critical to the city.

At a Dorchester Court neighborhood meeting in March of 2011 Rosen pitched the idea of hotels and emphasized the park improvements. At the time neighbors didn’t expect the plan to be so intense and the buildings so tall, said resident Ray McKee. He felt they had been sold on a project already in the works and that Rosen was sent as the salesman.

Councilman Bill Bestpitch assured the neighbors that the proffers will follow the property even if it was sold. Councilman Dave Trinkle said he believed they had found a workable solution and said that the developer had done a lot with the proffers.

After the Planning Commission voted unanimously against the project in December a revision to the zoning application for the 5.3-acres was submitted by Parker Design Group on Februrary 7. It addressed hotel height by leveling and excavating the site to be even with Valley View Boulevard. It reduced the overall 60 foot height by 10.5 feet. Huff Lane school is 30 feet in height. The hotels will be 19.5 feet higher than the school.

The Planning Commission also agreed with the neighborhood that the rezoning from Institutional (In) and Recreational Open Space (ROS) to Commercial Large Scale (CLS) was not consistent with the Williamson Road Neighborhood Plan.

Patrick Corp, President of the Dorchester Court Neighborhood Watch Association, had hoped that the process would start over again with focus on investment in the neighborhood. “You put this in here and it is like cutting into [the neighborhood’s] heart. It will start to wither and die,” he said.

Huff Lane Elementary was closed in 2010 and the property was marketed for sale with the city agreeing that the proceeds would revert back to the school system.

by Valerie Garner

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