Spotswood Drive decision delayed

An offer to buy property on Spotswood Drive has raised concerns for Lexington residents, leading to another hearing to be held on March

Shauna Muckle

Lexington City Council did not act on a proposed purchase agreement for 350 Spotswood Drive in the face of a groundswell of public opposition.

More than 40 members of the community spoke against the proposed sale in written and verbal comments during a public hearing March 4, which occupied over two hours of the council’s regular meeting.

Developers Echelon Resources Inc. and UrbanCore Construction made an unsolicited offer to the city to purchase the 3.25-acre lot located on Spotswood Drive for $350,000. The developers proposed building a 150-unit apartment complex with 4- or 5-story buildings on the property.

The proposed purchase agreement was finalized and presented to City Council by Echelon Resources owner Edwin Gaskin in early January, City Manager Jim Halasz said.

Halasz recommended that the council approve the agreement as a way to build the city’s tax base and generate revenue.

But members of the public expressed concerns over parts of the proposed agreement: the proposed complex’s size, the property’s sale price, the potential for additional traffic near the site and the proposed demolition of the Piovano Building.

Mayor Frank Friedman recommended that the council take no further action on the proposal until they host a second public hearing March 18.

“The city is not in any way committed to doing anything at this point,” City Attorney Jared Jenkins said at Thursday’s meeting.

The mayor said in an interview that he doesn’t think the council will support the agreement in its current form.

“It’s a fluid circumstance because we’re waiting to hear the modifications to Echelon’s proposal,” Friedman said.

The city received a second unsolicit- ed offer to develop the property Friday morning, Friedman said. While the details of that offer haven’t been released yet, the council could choose to evaluate that offer before responding to Echelon’s proposal.

The Spotswood Drive property is located near Carilion Rockbridge Community Hospital and across the street from Oak Grove Cemetery.

The Piovano Building currently sits on the site and houses two community orgnizations: Rockbridge Area Relief Association, the area’s largest food pantry, and the Community Table.

RARA President Valerie Moliterno said during the hearing that she didn’t know where her organization would go if Echelon Resources acquired the property and demolished the Piovano building.

“We simply don’t have a space to move right now,” Moliterno said. “We need time to plan and fundraise.”

Halasz said the city has had multiple conversations with RARA regarding finding them “a new home” should the sale be approved.

Other community members said they were concerned with the proposed demolition of the Piovano Building, which also functions as Lexington’s sole voting precinct.

“The Piovano Building is the only thing that remotely resembles a community center in our city,” community member Lisa Tracy said.

Residents who lived near the property also said they were concerned with the “scope” of the development plan.

“To me, four-to-five stories in Lex- ington is not human scale, certainly not for an apartment building,” community member Carol Wheeler said. “I have this vision of driving down Spotswood [Drive] and having this towering edifice on the side of the road.”

Heather Hamilton, Vice President of Rockbridge Highlands Realtors, said the city needed to explain how it would manage traffic in the area once the apartment complex is built.

“How are we going to handle 150 [new] vehicles on that road, possibly two or three times a day?” Hamilton said.

Hamilton and other residents also said that the developers’ offer of $350,000 was too low. Hamilton said that she estimated the property’s value to be around $1.2 million.

Halasz said in an interview that the city accounted for additional costs to the developers, like demolition costs and stormwater drainage expenses, when considering the offer.

“People see a beautiful, green piece of property and say it’s got to be worth ‘x,’ because all property in the city like that is worth ‘x,’” Halasz said. “But they don’t necessarily readily see the detriments of the site.”

There was also confusion at the meeting about whether the proposed apartments would qualify as affordable housing.

The apartments built on Spots-wood Drive would be market-value, Halasz said.

But a provision in the proposed contract said that Echelon Resources will provide “resources” for future affordable housing projects undertaken by the city.

Council Member Leslie Straughan said that the city has a need for market-value housing. She cited a 2019 housing market study the city conducted show- ing that the current market-rate housing supply is 98.8% occupied.

Council Member David Sigler said he was glad that the council received more comments at Thursday’s hearing than they had at the past four meetings regarding the Spotswood Drive development combined.

He also said that the council has an obligation to consider the unsolicited offer and any other future proposals for developing the property.

“Maybe this unsolicited offer is not perfect,” Sigler said. “But the reason we owe it to all of us to give it consideration is because we’ve got liabilities five years, 10 years, 15 years down the road.”