Exclusive Report: Albemarle County's Project Heron

A Questionable Public Private Partnership

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Albemarle County’s Project Heron

Crozet United has learned from sources familiar with the matter that Albemarle County officials are working with Riverbend Development to finalize a questionable public private partnership in Crozet.

A view of the Oak Bluff development site looking south from West Hall Drive.

The deal, which the County code named “Project Heron”, gives the appearance of a quid pro quo where the County would rezone land for Riverbend’s high density Oak Bluff development in exchange for Riverbend potentially building the Eastern Avenue Connector for a fraction of the cost estimated by the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT).

The parties began working on the confidential arrangement over a year ago, likely recognizing that the Oak Bluff parcel could not be rezoned without the County having a viable plan to build the long overdue Lickinghole Creek bridge that would connect Eastern Avenue to Route 250 near Harris Teeter.

Riverbend’s proposal is to potentially build the Connector privately for only $17M, a figure far less than VDOT’s current $39.5M price tag.  (Edit for clarity - Albemarle County will give Riverbend the $17M it needs to build the bridge privately). The proposal hinges on VDOT’s acceptance of a new bridge design, one the parties are not planning to submit to VDOT until after the County has approved Riverbend’s Oak Bluff rezoning application.

The County’s recently adopted budget includes $13.6M (of the $17M) in FY27 for its Transportation Leveraging Program, a figure that matches Riverbend’s estimated construction costs for that budget period.

Project Heron is closely linked to the revised alignment of the Eastern Avenue Connector

In late 2021, the County revised and adopted a Crozet Master Plan that significantly changed the future alignment of the Connector from a direct path between West Hall and Cory Farm (shown in red below) to one that also veers in and out of an adjacent property to the east.  

The County’s justification for the change was based on a Kimley-Horn study that recommended the new path (shown in blue below) because it could be built with a shorter bridge and therefore save up to $2M in construction costs.

However, the Kimley-Horn study also assumed that the bridge would be built within FEMA’s flood plain (see purple dotted line). While technically possible, building structures in high-risk flood zones requires FEMA approval and a special permit. Crozet United has been unable to confirm whether this crucial permit has been secured by the County as part of Project Heron.

Left side: Kimley-Horn’s bridge options are inside FEMA’s flood plain (purple line) Right side: Drone imagery showing the difficult topography of the Connector site.

Had Kimley-Horn evaluated an option to build the bridge outside of FEMA’s flood plain, it may have confirmed the business case for sticking with the original, and decades old, bridge alignment. As illustrated below, in that case, both bridges (shown in black) would have been about the same length. The more direct route (red) would have likely been the more cost effective option as compared to the more circuitous one that disrupts more wetlands.

The bridge realignment requires new easements and the County is now evaluating the use of eminent domain

Internal email correspondence shows the County is evaluating the Commonwealth of Virginia’s power of eminent domain and whether it can or should be used on Project Heron. Eminent domain is a law that allows state governments to take privately held land if it is needed for a bona fide public purpose, such as building a highway, public school, or airport. 

While most would agree that building the Eastern Avenue Connector serves a bona fide public purpose, it is not clear why the County would need or seek eminent domain powers. Albemarle County currently possesses the easements necessary to build the Connector on its original alignment between the Cory Farm and West Hall neighborhoods (see graphic below and click here for a related Crozet United story) and it seems unlikely that Riverbend would refuse to sell the County any additional ones required by the new alignment.

These concerns were also raised years ago after the new alignment plan was announced and which required the County to secure additional road easements. At the time, the adjacent property was owned and controlled by Mr. and Mrs. Coble, which, aside from their driveway on Radford lane, was landlocked.

At the March 2022 Crozet Community Advisory Committee (CCAC) meeting, a citizen asked whether the County expected any issues with securing the new Eastern Avenue Connector easements.  White Hall Supervisor Ann Mallek remarked:

Mr. Coble and his wife have worked with us for the last five or six years trying to encourage us along, to hurry up and locate where the bridge could go in the most efficient design, engineering wise.  So, he will be glad to see it happen, I think.

Supervisor Ann Mallek (March 2022)

A video excerpt from the meeting can be viewed by clicking the image below which was held via Zoom during the pandemic.

Click image above for video from the March 2020 CCAC meeting, held via Zoom

Four months later, Vito Cetta (who previously developed Liberty Hall and Wickham Pond) acquired site control of the parcel from the Coble family for $2,100,000. Seven months later, Riverbend submitted a rezoning request to the County for the Oak Bluff development. Shortly thereafter, the County and Riverbend began working on “Project Heron”.

In response to a Crozet United FOIA request, a VDOT representative denied any knowledge of “Project Heron” or any alternative proposal to build the $39.5M Eastern Avenue Connector.

The Planning Commission is scheduled to hear the Oak Bluff proposal and make a rezoning recommendation on August 13th. 

The very next day, the Board of Supervisors has scheduled a joint meeting with the Board of the Albemarle County Economic Development Authority (EDA), the group responsible for other public private partnerships including the development of the future plaza in downtown Crozet and the $58M land acquisition off Route 29 North called Rivanna Futures.

Governance and oversight at Albemarle County’s EDA

Technically speaking, Virginia EDAs are political subdivisions of the Commonwealth and are organized as separate legal entities from local governments like Albemarle County. This separation is important because EDAs are endowed with special powers that enable them to entice private businesses to localities to create jobs and grow the tax base. 

Click the image above to go to Albemarle’s EDA homepage

According to staff involved with Project Heron, Albemarle’s EDA has the legal authority to:

  • Think of its powers expansively

  •  Sell properties without holding a public hearing

  •  Sell properties below Fair Market Value (and not just to the highest bidder)

  • Make grants or loans to private entities and forgive repayment of those loans

  • Exempt itself from the Public Procurement Act (in certain circumstances)

A review of the oversight function at Albemarle’s EDA raises questions about the potential for conflicts of interest. For instance, its Board Chair is married to the attorney that represents the Oak Bluff developer. In addition, the County liaison to the EDA (Rivanna Supervisor Bea LaPisto-Kirtley) accepted three separate $500 campaign donations last year from people with direct financial interests in Riverbend’s Oak Bluff development.

Crozet citizens have questions for the County about Project Heron

1.  Crozet has wanted the Connector for over 30 years. Why is this all so secret?

2.  Has FEMA approved and permitted building the Connector in the high-risk flood plain?  Has VDOT approved the Project Heron bridge design? 

3.  Why combine two unrelated projects (Eastern Avenue Connector and the Oak Bluff development) into a single public private partnership?  Why not limit it to building the Connector as a standalone project?

4.  Why not get multiple competitive bids to build the Connector?

5.  Why should the Oak Bluff rezoning be treated differently than others?

6.  Why is the County interested in the Commonwealth’s powers of eminent domain?

7.  Have any County officials ever been involved in or helped broker private real estate deals in Albemarle County?  If so, how are potential conflicts of interest being identified, documented, and managed?  

Crozet United will continue to monitor and report on further developments. We welcome the opportunity to collaborate on this story with another legitimate member of the media. Please contact [email protected] for requests.