A packed room of residents of Ginter and Sherwood parks grilled city officials about Union Presbyterian Seminary’s development plans for the Westwood Tract.
Despite a pending lawsuit some residents have filed against the seminary, people at the Ginter Park Residents Association meeting Wednesday hoped the city could delay, stop or punish the seminary for the plans.
Mayor Levar Stoney noted that plans for the development were approved before he was elected. “When you take office, they say, if you break it, you own it,” he said. “Well for me, I own it even though it was broken.”
Stoney relayed an interaction with the seminary’s president, Brian Blount, in which Blount agreed to halt construction until the Board of Zoning Appeals process and any litigation were over.
But the seminary called Stoney again Wednesday, the mayor said, and couldn’t promise not to build before litigation was over -- “even though they gave me their word that they would stop construction until this was settled.”
The seminary’s director of communications, Mike Frontiero, said this was a miscommunication about construction timing.
“It is important to note that our conversation with the mayor occurred prior to our knowledge of a lawsuit subsequently filed by neighbors and, thus, could not (and would not) have included any commitment to delay construction pending the lawsuit,” he said in an email.
Stoney reiterated his support for City Council’s unanimous resolution to study the impact of the development, and pledged to find the money to do so.
One resident who declined to give his name suggested that the mayor revoke the seminary’s tax exemption on the tract and bill it for back taxes. Council President Chris Hilbert said he would request the city attorney, Allen Jackson, to opine on the issue of taxes.
Richmond Public Schools Chief Operating Officer Thomas Kranz attended as well and reported on school capacity in the area.
Based on a Florida study, he said that the complex, which eventually may have 1,100 units, could bring 878 students to the schools at a $3 million cost to the system, “working on an assumption that a typical residential unit can have two students.”
The current development plans call for 301 units.
Kranz said the school system isn’t taking a position on the plans. “We like development, because development drives new tax revenue, but it’s got to be a -- as I think everyone here was saying -- balanced development,” he said. “I’m just providing some basic data.”
Stoney said that Jackson offered him no legal standing for denying the building permits to the seminary.
“I support disobedience but I do not support breaking the law,” he said. “I would put the city at financial risk from any litigation.”
Audience members asked to see Jackson’s decision in writing.
The Ginter Park Residents Association vice president, Norma Murdoch-Kitt, noted at the beginning of the meeting that the association had supported Stoney “strongly from the start” as mayor.
“This was not on my calendar initially,” Stoney said of the meeting. “But I learned there was a communication that had gone out to the entire neighborhood, so I wanted to make sure I made time.”
He also answered questions about changes to the bulk, brush and leaf collection and public safety. Thad Williamson spoke about the mayor’s education compact. And School Board members deflected questions about their decision to part ways with superintendent Dana Bedden.