A Maryland developer continues to pursue an expansion of the town of Culpeper’s eastern boundary in support of a plan to build 301 homes on 120 acres along Nalles Mill Road in the area behind the Kohl’s shopping center.
Culpeper County officials are opposing the annexation, claiming it would strain public services and greatly increase residential density in an area currently zoned Rural Area that is nonetheless located right next to the town and within walking distance to the bustling Business Route 29 commercial corridor.
The Commission on Local Government, the state entity that regulates boundary expansion requests, met in the town of Culpeper last week to visit the rolling pastureland owned since 2005 by Jeff Caruso, CEO of Caruso Homes, headquartered just off the Beltway in Crofton, Maryland.
Cows grazed in the fields as the commission took a look around at the property once used as farmland, but now surrounded by development, including the multi-home Mountain Brook Estates to the south. Mountain Run traverses the property in a substantial wetlands area around which the homes would be built.
The Commission held public presentations on the afternoon of May 8 in the Economic Development Center on Main Street related to the citizen request for annexation.
“We’re from Richmond and we’re here to help you,” said Commission Chairman R. Michael Amyx, longtime former director of Virginia Municipal League.
Caruso Homes Vice President Andrew Garrich said the land was purchased 14 years ago, “based on market research of areas of interest and demand,” to develop a residential neighborhood with 266 single family homes and 35 attached townhouses in the development labeled, The Arbors of Culpeper.
Commissioner Diane Linderman, a former public works director in Richmond, asked if Caruso was aware the property was zoned Rural Area when he purchased it in 2005. Garrich said yes: “The anticipation was to be able to rezone it to a higher density because of the location.”
The project lapsed during the market downturn, Garrich said, until 2015 when Caruso Homes submitted a rezoning application to the county requesting the land designation be changed to a “Residential-3” cluster to allow for the 301 homes. Two work sessions were subsequently held with the Culpeper County Planning Commission and various meetings were held between the developer and county planning staff, which ultimately recommended denial of the rezoning application.
“Somewhere in the process it became obvious the rezoning wasn’t going to happen to a density we felt was appropriate,” Garrich said at last week’s meeting in Culpeper of the Commission on Local Government. “A citizen-initiated annexation was the only option.”
He noted the 2012 boundary line agreement between the town and county of Culpeper designates the Nalles Mill Road property among the areas around the town eligible for future annexation. It’s also already in one of the county urban service areas served with town water and sewer.
“Let the town be the one to decide the impacts and the proffers,” Garrich said of bringing the land into the town. He noted the voluminous commercial areas in close proximity need “some residential component” to support them.
The current RA zoning on the Caruso property allows one house per every three acres for a total of 40 homes. The Rural Area zoning is intended to provide a transition between prime commercial agriculture uses and open space and more dense village centers through “orderly low density development” in order to protect such areas “from residential encroachment,” wrote Culpeper County Attorney Bobbi Jo Alexis in her response to the annexation request.
If annexed into the town, the zoning would become Residential Estates, permitting minimum one-acre lots, or 120 homes.
“The actual project,” Alexis said, “is more dense. Given this public information, much of the petitioner’s analysis as to affect, impact, loss of revenue, and gain of expenditures/responsibilities on the county in its notice is disingenuous and inaccurate.”
Northern Virginia land use attorney John Foote, representing Caruso Homes, noted the chances of rezoning the land through the county for the denser development was “nonexistent.” In his opening statements before the Commission, he said his experience with annexation proceedings is, “They produce more heat than anything else in Virginia politics. People quit speaking to each other.”
Foote claimed it has been decades since a citizen initiated such proceedings in Virginia.
“The rezoning application was DOA. That’s why it was not pursued,” he said.
Foote argued the request is not about zoning, but about having a financially healthy town.
“The county is well-served to have the town prosper,” he said, adding there is limited land left in town for new homes, and noting the county comprehensive plan calls for density in and around the town borders. Foote said it makes no sense for the property to be developed as Rural Area.
Though the town has no say in the annexation proceedings, town officials in 2015 entered into an agreement with Caruso Homes to develop two deep wells and lay water lines on the 120 acres along Nalles Mill. Per the agreement, the town paid $95,000 to the landowner for the well lots, a fee Caruso Homes agreed to waive if the rezoning was approved, which it was not.
In 2016, the town spent $3.6 million to establish the wells on the Caruso site and another near Rockwater Park on the south side, increasing its monthly drinking water capacity by more than 11 million gallons per month.
County Attorney Alexis, in her open statement before the Commission on Local Government, pointed out major county concerns with the rezoning request, namely the Caruso property’s proximity to a narrow railroad bridge on Nalles Mill Road. Residents of the planned development will inevitably want to walk to the nearby shopping centers using the bridge, which has little room for two cars to pass, let alone pedestrians, she said.
Building a pedestrian bridge across the railroad tracks would cost an estimated $1 million, Alexis said, a project not supported by the developer. It’s up to the county to decide when and where it will annex its boundaries, per the 2012 agreement with the town that was reached after decades of fighting between the two governments, she pointed out.
Alexis called the annexation petition “hostile” and said Caruso Homes did not follow the proper channels in pursuing the rezoning. “This is too premature,” she said. “This is too drastic.”
If the 300-home Arbors at Culpeper were built, it would increase traffic on Nalles Mill Road from 2,000 vehicles per day to 5,000 vehicles per day, according to County Planning Director Sam McLearen, based on VDOT projections. The county also has concerns about the project’s impact on the intersection less than a mile away at Nalles Mill Road and Business Route 29, which has currently has no signaling.
And then there is the issue of impacts on the public schools. According to the developer, the Arbors at Culpeper, at full build out, would produce 147 new students as well as more than a half-million dollars in annual real estate taxes for the county.
The Commission on Local Government has until August 2 to submit its report on the Caruso annexation request. Commission staff member J. David Conmy said the goal is to consider the case at its next meeting July 11 in Richmond with a decision slated by the end of July. Written comments on the case can be mailed until May 23 to the Commission on Local Government Dept. of Housing and Community Development, Main Street Centre, 600 E. Main St. Suite 300 Richmond, Virginia 23219.