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July 10, 2005 Westmoreland to Weigh Rezoning

By LAWRENCE LATANE III

Richmond Times-Dispatch

MONTROSS -- A proposal to carve more than 100 lots from less than 50 acres beside the birth site of America's fifth president leapt unexpectedly from the slow lane to the fast track in Westmoreland County last week.

A near-unanimous vote by the county Planning Commission means the Board of Supervisors must consider the proposal today instead of September as once planned.

Landowner Doug Cooper is asking the county to rezone 47 acres joining county-owned forestland.

All or portions of both tracts once composed the farm and home where the nation's fifth president, James Monroe, was born in 1758.

The proposal has stirred scant local interest even though it draws a broad-brush portrait of the conflicts many people anticipate as growth and development spreads to a county that takes pride in its open space, rich history and rural culture.

The leading opponent of the rezoning is the fledgling James Monroe Memorial Foundation, which believes it is on the verge of lifting the birthplace site from decades of obscurity and neglect. It fears the proposal will compromise its goal to turn the little-known site into a historical attraction on par with George Washington's Birthplace and Robert E. Lee's birthplace at Stratford Hall, the county's best-known Colonial landmarks.

Having voted last month to delay action on the application, the planners ignored Chairman Bert Rohrer's objections and reversed course Wednesday. They voted 4-1 to recommend that the Board of Supervisors rezone the property from agricultural to the most permissive residential category the county offers.

"I think this particular project is ill-conceived," argued Rohrer, who cast the only vote against the motion.

In an interview Thursday, Rohrer still chafed at the cursory treatment the commission gave the rezoning proposal. One commission member said at an earlier meeting that the project deserved approval because he knows the Cooper family and holds it in high regard.

But Rohrer maintains that in addition to the proposal's impact on a historic site, the project raises other questions. He said a preliminary plan of the development's layout shows building sites encroaching upon protected wetlands and questionable "flagpole" lots that require long, private driveways to reach public rights of way.

The plan calls for slicing the 47-acre tract into slightly more than 100 lots. That makes it the biggest development proposal to come Westmoreland's way for years, outside of a project that was approved in nearby Colonial Beach to convert farmland into a 913-unit golf course development.

"If we can approve a project as flawed as this one with no more scrutiny than it's gotten, I don't know what's going to happen when the anticipated flood of development actually hits," Rohrer said of Cooper's proposal.

Planning Commissioner Sherman Davis countered that the commission will have ample time to look at the particulars of the proposal because it will have to comply with additional county regulations before development can occur.

William Thomas of Richmond, president of the James Monroe Foundation, expressed surprise Wednesday after the commission's vote.

"We'll have to redouble our efforts" to make sure the birth site is protected, he said.

The Monroe Foundation signed a long-term lease on 10 acres of the birth site the same day last spring that the Planning Commission first received Cooper's development proposal for the tract next door.

All the planners, Rohrer included, endorsed the rezoning proposal that day. But, Rohrer said he realized he'd made a mistake "before I'd left the parking lot." A procedural error forced the issue back to the planners. They then voted to table the matter after the Monroe Foundation raised alarms within the state's historic preservation circles.

Thomas has said all along that the development proposal is giving the foundation second thoughts about its multimillion plan to build a visitors center and reproduction of the modest frame house where Monroe was born. The foundation wants to break ground by April 28 next year, which is the next anniversary of Monroe's birth.

The crisis is in keeping with past efforts to memorialize the tract.

Preservationists first tried to interest the federal government in the property in the early 1940s. A former Monroe memorial association eventually folded and gave the 76 acres of wet pine woods to the county.

All that marks the site is a modest obelisk that stands behind a rezoning notice staked on a post beside state Route 205.

"There's a long and undistinguished tradition in Westmoreland County of completely ignoring James Monroe," Thomas said.