The Woolen Mills’ “Taking by Typo”

Preston Coiner’s plans to develop his protected historic property in Woolen Mills has his neighbors upset, but it looks like Council isn’t going to step in. A typographical error on the part of the city removed the land’s Individually Protected Property designation. Coiner bought the land after that time, believing he had the right to build on it. The accidental misclassification of the property wouldn’t seem to remove the designation, but the Board of Zoning Appeals just isn’t sure what to do. City Council has heard enough about this that they considered taking it up at their last meeting, The Hook writes, but they seem to regard the situation as impenetrable as the BZA did. On the one hand, the city wants to be fair to Coiner but, on the other hand, presumably there are still-intact reasons that the Timberlake-Branham house was protected in the first place.

Video of the meeting can be watched on the city’s website.

14 thoughts on “The Woolen Mills’ “Taking by Typo””

  1. Current City Council really is a lame bunch. Thank God Kendra Hamilton and Kevin Lynch are on the way out! I hope the Republicans come up with someone who can rid us of Brown too. He really reminds me of a small town mayor in one of those wacky Disney movies from when I was a kid. The quack doctor thing just makes it all the more ridiculous.

    In the 24 years I’ve been voting, never once has it been for a Republican. Doesn’t look like there’s much of an alternative this time.

  2. Dear Waldo,

    I think City Council will step in once they educate themselves regarding the facts in the case. Council’s discussion June 4 was unexpected, no staff report, no lead time in which to cogitate, and so their confusion about the case is understandable.

    It’s a complicated case, a lot of names, dates and acronyms. The fog of zoning! We are trying to get at the truth and of course we hope the City Council will join in that effort.

    The BZA hired a lawyer. That lawyer advised them not to rule on our appeal. The BZA, on the advice of their attorney, punted.

    When citizens are effected by technical errors, when typographic errors change the law, who are we going to call? Where is our forum? Where are we heard?

    That is the question of the moment.


    P.S. The land was purchased in 1996, 7 years before the typo…

  3. This is a very big deal. If typos trump the law, just imagine the sort of oversight that will be required to insure the validity of all property documents at City Hall. What’s to stop some unscrupulous individual from “arranging” a typo so as to gain building rights on historic property?

  4. Ok. I’ll tell you what is fair here. Council should insist that the protected status stands as law. Yet at the same time they should offer to purchase the property from him for the value that it would be worth if it actually was unprotected.

    There are 2 issues here. First is the rule of law. Second is the fact that Coiner is facing the prospect of lost value or income due to a professional error on the part of the City of Charlottesville. He paid his fees to the Clerk of the Court and his real estate taxes to the city. Both in a professional sense and in the sense of a local government’s basic obligations to it’s citizens the city has a clear liability. My solution satisfies the need to both enforce the law and satisfy the injustice that has been done to Coiner.

    I am no attorney, but I would think that there is a good basis for a lawsuit for the city’s negligence w/r/t the typo in the event that Council holds up the original classification. Yet at the same time, if I were in Coiner’s shoes, total inaction would be the last thing that I would want. Because then there is always the possibility of the City swooping in at some future point and announcing that he is in violation despite the typo. And anyone who might be interested in buying the property in the future has to see that as a huge question mark hanging over the deed, which could put Coiner in a tough spot whenever he wants to sell the property. I sure wouldn’t want to buy that property from him. Coiner deserves a speedy, definitive answer that will have real legal meaning with regard to the future of that deed.

  5. The typographical error happened in 2003. I believe Mr Coiner purchased the property a decade before that

    Regarding the issue of fairness: Mr Coiner has not lost any income on this property, nor does he stand to lose any income should Council fix the typo, which definitely needs to be done. As a member of the BAR himself, he is aware that anyone owning an IPP can build on it by getting site plan approval from the BAR and Charlottesville Planning Commission.

    As a matter of fact, he most probably could have built the current mini-storage on the industrially zoned portion of the property even under BAR review. The only minor site plan alterations might have been board fences instead of the chain link and barbed wire that are there today, and lights on motion sensors instead of the current system which burns all night. Considering that this facility sits in a residential neighborhood, one might well argue that these measures make good sense regardless of whether or not the property was designated historic.

    Mr Coiner would like to put a PUD (12-13 units) on some of the protected property that is now a green space. He could potentially do so under BAR review. He could also build by-right single-family dwellings under BAR review.

    It’s safe to say that, considering the notoriously high profit margins on self-storage facilities, Mr Coiner has profited quite handsomely on the city’s typo. Even if the typo is fixed he will continue to do so. Is this unfair to him?

    At the last hearing, Kevin O’Halloran, chair of the BZA, cautioned his fellow board members and attendees that restoring the property’s IPP status in no way means that Coiner could not continue to develop the land and also continue to enjoy the abundant profits from his investments. It also wouldn’t make the existing self-storage facility go away. Only that any future development would be under BAR review. It’s that simple.

    It’s also important to note that Mr O’Halloran recommended to Mr Coiner that he follow his own BAR guidelines when developing this property even if the typo isn’t rectified via the proper channels (Council).

    What about the citizens who have nothing to gain financially, but who have had to hire an attorney, become ad hoc zoning wonks, and expend enormous effort and time to see that justice is done in this case? What would be fair to them?

  6. Moving from fairness and back to the issue at hand, I think that what this is going to come down to is whether or not our fair city is willing to step up and act responsibly when mistakes are discovered. I have to say that my faith in some on Council was shaken by their recent comments on this topic.

    As mistakes go, this one was made pretty recently. But will Council claim that 3 years was a really really long time ago– too long, in fact, for them to do anything? Mr Brown sort of hinted that he might be feeling that way. What if they’re simply unwilling to become involved even though they are, in fact, the legislative body that can fix this? Could they succeed in making it all “go away” through wishful (revisionistic) thinking?

    What they choose to do will set the tone for Councils to come as these problems arise again, as they will. Typos happen. It’s what we choose to do when they are discovered that is the mark of character. We all know that they CAN fix this… the question is WILL they?

  7. >>>>However, in February, Zoning Administrator Read Brodhead determined that the city failed to add the three new parcels to the list of IPPs before they were officially added to the tax maps in 2001. The city also failed to update the tax maps, which were being converted from paper to digital at the time. After the 2003 Zoning Ordinance took effect, and since the new parcels were still not listed as IPPs, Brodhead reasoned, only the front portion of the property could legally be considered an IPP.

  8. Just reading the linked articles, it seeems that the thorniness of the question is a LOT more complicated than just a simple “typo”–which doesn’t seem an accurate description of what happened and appears to be a kind of reductio ad absurdum being used by these neighbors who are justifiably concerned about what’s going on in their backyard.

    If this fellow Payne is correct, the 1993 zoning was superceded by 2003 zoning anyway. It’s all kind of hard to follow, but I will add that I’m not clear at all as to why some obscure (to me at least) “historic house” within the city limits of Charlottesville warrants that a full surrounding 7 acres be perpetually off-limits to development. It seems kind of silly. I mean, not even Jefferson’s Rotunda enjoys that kind of a buffer.

    I understand the motivations of these concerned citizens, however. This is a particulary quaint and up-and-coming area of Charlottesville where (like most areas), property values have skyrocketed in recent years. They should be worried about more development from somebody whose vision for the area seems to run to storage sheds surrounded by a chain-link fence. Now, if he were to promise a Starbucks, organic grocery, or yoga studio, the tune might change a little.

  9. Paul, perhaps you don’t like the description of this as “taking by typo” (I believe this came from a lawyer who looked at the case), that’s what happened. Do we live by the rule of law (as enacted, not transcribed), or not? (That’s not silly.)

  10. My apologies for the length of this, but zoning can be complicated and some misperceptions need to be cleared up. “Taking by typo” was the term used by a UVA law professor who was justifiably concerned about the ramifications of allowing an error of this sort to stand. The longer it’s allowed to stand, the harder it will be to fix it in the future, so we need to take care of this, and any other errors, ASAP.

    Paul, we believe that the 2003 zoning did not supercede the 1993 zoning for two key reasons: 1) the parcel numbers on the 2003 zoning ordinance were incorrect, hence the typo. And 2) there’s the important matter of intent. The 2003 zoning ordinance was far-reaching and very general in its scope in some areas. It was not the intent of the authors of the ordinance, nor of the City Council, to de-list any historic properties through the passage of the ordinance. The de-listing of the Timberlake property (and possibly others) was done accidentally, through the omission of parcel numbers. This begs the question of whether any other accidents, historic or otherwise, occurred when the ordinance passed. Additionally, as Mr Ackerman points out above, what should be allowed to stand in an ordinance: errors or facts? As a citizen, which do you prefer?

    Zoning typos can happen several ways, among them omission, commission, and the transposing of numbers. Indulge me in the following scenario for a moment, substituting commission for omission. What if you lived next door to an individually protected property and the 2003 ordinance had accidentally listed your parcel number instead of the IPP’s? Seriously, this could happen. Say you found out about it 3 years later, immediately brought it to the city’s attention, and instead of fixing it, the city just scratched their heads and said D’oh! Then Mayor Brown said “Weeeell, it has been an awfully long time…” And Kendra Hamilton said “We shouldn’t address this because there might be mistakes in other neighborhoods and fixing yours wouldn’t be fair to them.” And perhaps the original IPP property owner was gleefully rubbing his hands together because he could now put a tire repair shop in his backyard without having to go under BAR review. He then retains an attorney to stop you, and that attorney says that the typo should stand– just ‘cuz it’s too late to do anything about it now, hee hee. And I’ll bet that property owner and his attorney would also say that you should have found out about it sooner, and it’s your problem now, buddy.

    Scholars and legal experts in land-use and municipal law would advise you that the City Council had the power to easily amend the zoning ordinance to make sure that the correct parcels had the correct designations. You’d go that route rather than using up every penny you had getting an attorney and suing the city in court, right? Bet you’d feel like you were banging your head against a bureaucratic wall, wouldn’t you?

    Regarding the 7 acres: once again, placing an IPP designation on property does NOT mean it can’t be developed! Council was aware at that time of potential development. They made it an IPP anyway because doing so doesn’t make the land “off-limits” to development, only that it goes through a different review process.

  11. I believe the City should correct their mistakes no matter how long it has been. They wouldn’t want City property taken away or rezoned because of a mistake!

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