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February 14, 2006 Homes OK'd Next to Monroe's Birthplace: On Valentines' Day, No Flowers; Just Frustration for Preservationists

By FRANK DELANO

Free Lance-Star

 

The Westmoreland County Board of Supervisors yesterday unanimously approved rezoning a 44-acre wooded tract for a residential subdivision next to President James Monroe’s Birthplace.

Yesterday’s action caught off guard people who opposed the controversial project at a series of public hearings last year.

The issue had lain dormant since August when supervisors tabled the case after County Attorney Thomas O. Bondurant Jr. voiced doubts about the legality of the county’s zoning process.

G. William Thomas Jr., president of the James Monroe Foundation, called yesterday’s rezoning “a major disappointment.”

“This is a great loss to the people of Virginia. This action will set back efforts to enhance historic and environmental resources in Westmoreland County,” Thomas said.

Last year the foundation signed a 99-year lease with the county to build a replica of the 18th-century farmhouse where Monroe was born in 1758 on the county-owned birthplace site.

Thomas and others argued that allowing a subdivision next door to the birthplace would spoil its historic ambience. “We had a chance to build an authentic mid-18th century farm at its original site. That is the opportunity we’ve blown,” Thomas said.

Spotsylvania developer Douglas L. Cooper significantly altered his plan to win approval.

He reduced the number of proposed lots from 109 to 86 and commissioned an archaeological survey that found a cemetery on his tract but few other artifacts.

In addition, he agreed to screen the subdivision with trees along State Route 205 and beside the birthplace site. He also offered a few acres for a new Colonial Beach Rescue Squad building.

In approving the rezoning, supervisors overturned their decision in August to delay consideration of Cooper’s case until a new county zoning ordinance took effect. The new ordinance remains under study.

Bondurant had requested an opinion from the attorney general about the legality of the county’s two-phase process, which was used in Cooper’s case.

It requires a round of rezoning approvals by the county Planning Commission and Board of Supervisors, followed by another round of approvals for special exceptions.

Yesterday, Bondurant said the attorney general had not issued an opinion, but he no longer had doubts. He said he had “sought counsel from other county attorneys, and I’m comfortable with what we’re doing.”

Supervisors Chairman Darryl E. Fisher said Cooper met with him, County Administrator Norm Risavi and county zoning officials Feb. 6.

Cooper presented his new subdivision plan at that meeting and asked to be put on the agenda of yesterday’s meeting, Fisher said.

Cooper’s subdivision was listed as the last item of the agenda that was posted Friday on the county’s Web site.

But few people apparently saw that notice. Thomas learned of it yesterday morning when called by a reporter.

Thomas was unable to attend the meeting. Fisher refused to allow comments from the public, saying the rezoning had already been the topic of a public hearing last summer.

“At Thomas Jefferson’s ‘Poplar Forest,’ they’re paying millions to buy back a subdivision next door,” Thomas said.

“Maybe future generations in Westmoreland County will be able to buy back the land at the Monroe farm that was sold for a subdivision.”

In other business yesterday, supervisors:

•Approved a 55-lot subdivision of Lock Harbor Farm on Nomini Creek

•Deferred a vote on a 52-lot subdivision on Stratford Hall Road pending an analysis of a proposed community drain field from the Virginia Department of Health.