ASHLAND -- Earlier this month, Ashland Town Council met with its Planning Commission in a rare joint meeting. Topping that agenda was action on an item that some considered long overdue while others, including one landowner, viewed it as an unwelcome surprise.
Planning Director Nora Amos said a request to create a new zoning district and amend restrictions on another was designed to eliminate development that was incompatible with existing development patterns, under-utilization of prime industrial sites and nuisances impacting neighborhood properties.
She said Ashland currently has one industrial zoning district while the town’s Comprehensive Plan outlines two industrial use areas.
The boards considered a request that would create a new zoning district, M-2, that would accommodate moderate to heavy industrial uses. The new ordinance also would modify limitations in the M-1 District by removing heavy industry and designating them M-2.
Included in those eliminated uses in M-1 were distribution centers, truck terminals and mini-storage. Amos told council members the new guidelines would “locate appropriate industrial uses in suitable areas.”
She contended the dual designation would allow a more organized industrial growth pattern and would make those projects more compatible with surrounding areas. Another advantage listed was “greater predictability for industrial development.”
The Planning Commission approved the changes unanimously, followed by a 5-0 vote by town council solidifying the decision.
One person provided public comment on the issue. Cameron Wood, a local real estate broker, endorsed the changes. “The ordinance in long overdue in my professional and personal opinion,” Wood said.
Linda Allen, manager of Richard E. Holland Properties, owns four parcels totaling 286 acres and zoned M-1 located within the town’s limits known as the Holland Tract.
The creation of a new zoning designation and the accompanying amendments came as a surprise to Allen.
She addressed council members at their most recent meeting earlier this month, and expressed her displeasure with the action and asked that the four parcels in the Holland Tract be exempted from the provisions.
Allen told council members that she has been engaged in ongoing discussions with the town for the past five years regarding development of that property as a distribution center.
“It’s been over five years since I went to your office, Dr. [George] Spagna, and spoke to you about my desires for the Holland Tract,” Allen said. “Since that time, there’s been a lot of water under the dam, but a lot of good conversations with town leadership about the Holland Tract.”
Allen is now teamed with Scannell Properties as a potential purchaser for the tract with the intention of building a distribution center on the site.
During discussion taking place in those five years, Allen said county officials agreed that a distribution center would be necessary on that site to offset the enormous expense of extending water and sewer to that area.
“During those conversations and meetings with Scannell and town leadership, there was discussion about distribution centers,” Allen said.
She pointed to actions by the town that included designating the site as a Tier 4 property and advertising on the Virginia Scan site, an online service that markets industrial sites in the Commonwealth to an international audience.
“There was reliance on the belief that a distribution center was allowed by M-1 and actually one that was necessitated by the scope of 286 acres and the costs of bringing in infrastructure and utilities,” Allen said.
“There has been an agreement that something would exist on the property, and, in fact, town leadership . . . took the lead role in pursuing a Tier 4 certification.”
Allen said she and Scannell had incurred substantial expenses during their examination of the project, including studies and reports.
She contends the interaction with town officials and financial investment equate to Scannell and Allen possessing vested rights in the project.
She said the recent amendment and zoning change are, in fact, denying those vested rights.
“The town cannot say that they didn’t explicitly or at least implicitly know that distribution centers would be a part of this development,” Allen said.
While the denial of those rights is serious, Allen said the personal affront of an action taken without her knowledge or presence was even more disturbing.
“What bothered me the most was what this said about our relationship,” Allen said. “I’ve worked with you on development of this tract. I own over 6% of your town. This is not New York City. You could probably walk to all of your industrial landowners in this town,” she added. “That hurt more than the legal denial of a right.”
Allen said she and Scannell didn’t even receive a phone call regarding the proposed action.
Allen concluded the recent action of removing distribution centers from the M-1 classification represents a taking of legal rights without a hearing.
Before pursuing this latest project with Scannell, Allen said her first choice was a hospital for the site. When that plan was deemed not feasible, a data center seemed like a good choice -- but that idea was nixed due to adjacent train tracks that produced too much vibration.
Allen, an attorney based in Henrico County, acknowledged that legal notice had been given regarding the council’s latest action, but said, although satisfying the legal requirements, fell short of her expectations.
She asked council to exempt all four properties from the new guidelines, an act that would produce several positive results in her thinking.
“It would remedy a situation that has, unfortunately, some potential legal implications,” Allen said. “But, it’s also, I think, the right thing to do because for years we have relied on how we’ll develop this property . . . and to have changes and not allow additional time for public response to that is not the normal way of Ashland doing business.”