By Anna Akins and Becca Boehringer
Rockbridge County supervisors will make Washington and Lee University officials wait at least another 30 days for approval of the university’s on-campus housing expansion for third-year students.
W&L officials asked supervisors on Monday for zoning approval for the $60-million project spread over 10 acres. It would include apartments, townhouses, parking spaces and a natatorium.
W&L’s special exception permit needs both county and city approval, since the land off West Denny Circle straddles the city-county line. Lexington City Council is to consider the request on Nov. 20.
The county’s planning commission voted Oct. 8 to recommend that the supervisors approve W&L’s proposal. But on Monday board members expressed concerns over traffic and the university’s parking plan. They are worried the project could worsen traffic in town and on campus.
Kerrs Creek Supervisor Rusty Ford, the most vocal critic, also worried that local businesses and landlords would suffer if the proposal goes through. Many Washington and Lee juniors now live off campus in privately owned housing. About 300 students would be removed from that rental market as early as fall 2016 if W&L’s plan is approved.
“What really concerns business owners is loss of rental demand,” Ford said. “They are now facing making hard decisions about what to do with what may become excess rental property.”
W&L General Counsel Leanne Shank responded that it was not the students’ responsibility to support local landlords. And Shank said those concerns cannot legally be a basis for denying the zoning exception.
Ford also brought up the potential economic impact if W&L ever required seniors to live on campus as well.
W&L treasurer Steve McAllister said there have been no discussions about a potential on-campus living requirement for seniors. And the university has no intention of increasing the undergraduate class size, he said.
Supervisor Ronnie Campbell worried about student safety. He said that with the student parking lots located so far from campus, young women would be at risk.
“As a father of all girls, I never cared for a school where my daughters had to walk long distances at night for safety reasons,” Campbell said. “I see that problem here.”
W&L architect and planner Tom Contos told the board that the university has owned the land proposed for a natatorium for more than a century and the property proposed for housing for nearly three quarters of a century.
“It was kind of hard for us to imagine that private school would not be the best use for that land,” Contos said.
Contos said the housing plan calls for 72 residential units with 1.5 parking spaces per unit. He said some law school parking would be moved to the main parking deck on East Denny Circle to make room for parking for the natatorium.
“We’re going to have a lot more parking available,” said Contos. “We’re building spaces and we’re not adding any new students or cars.” Currently, juniors who live in rental houses in the county usually come to campus in cars, while those in rental houses in Lexington drive or walk to classes.
Contos said there would be a net addition of 120 parking slots.
Ford said he did not think that was enough additional parking. He said he has had a hard time finding parking at W&L for sporting events or at times like Parents’ Weekend.
“Everyone that goes to W&L has a car,” said Ford. “We need to work together to come up with a real-world number of parking spaces.”
Ford offered the motion for the board to delay a decision for 30 days. Shank, the school’s general counsel, asked if the delay could be for two weeks instead, but Supervisors Chair John Higgins said the supervisors would be too busy over the next two weeks. The month-long delay passed 5-0.
W&L officials said they will return to the board in two weeks with revisions that address the supervisors’ concerns.