The January appearance of a new bench and bridge in the Woodbrook Lagoon came as a surprise to some Woodbrook residents who believed negotiations with the developers were still ongoing.
Jon Schwaner, a 17 year-old Woodbrook resident, is responsible for the structures. They were a part of his Eagle Scout project. His father, Carl Schwaner, assisted Jon with County and neighborhood negotiations.
Woodbrook residents may recall that in late April 2012, the Woodbrook Community Association took a survey of residents on the subject of the construction of a bench and deck by the young Schwaner. While a small majority of residents were in favor of the project, those residents whose properties are nearest the site were almost unanimously opposed.
To get to the bottom of how a project so divisive to the neighborhood got built without Woodbrook resident’s knowledge, we spoke with three individuals. They were Greg Harper, the Water Resources Manager for Albemarle County, Woodbrook Resident Carl Schwaner and Woodbrook Community Association President Susan Reed.
|Seventeen-year-old Woodbrook resident Jon Schwaner supervised the design and construction of the bench and bridge as a part of his Eagle Scout project. Jon also raised the funds needed to build the structures. By all accounts the structures are well-built, sturdy and attractive.|
Greg Harper spoke to us with the understanding that most of the initial negotiations with the Schwaners were done by his subordinate Mr. Gregor Patsch. Mr. Patsch is no longer in the employ of Albemarle County. Mr. Harper believes that it may have been the County that recommended against the original idea of a deck due to safety problems resulting from the deck’s proximity to the channel.
“I understand that there were more supporters than not in the neighborhood,” says Harper. “We worked with Jon on the design just to make sure it was ‘beefy’ enough to withstand standard loads,” he added. “We think it looks good,” he said. “Primarily we kind of relied, I think, on Jon and Carl to let us know what was going on out there,” says Harper. “I did want to not necessarily allow something that most people did not want,” he added.
Prior to construction, the County reviewed plans for the bridge and made recommendations as to its structure. “Nobody [at the County] did an official inspection [of the bridge],” says Harper. “There is no formal process for that,” he added. Following completion of the work, the ownership of the structures transfers to the County, who is responsible for their ongoing maintenance.
|Satellite view showing the location of the bench and bridge. In the upper left is the corner of Brookmere and Idlewood Drive in the Woodbrook subdivision. In the lower right is the Raintree subdivision.|
Carl Schwaner, is a Woodbrook resident and father to Jon Schwaner. “We had a vote, in the neighborhood, online, which my son’s project got a majority of the vote,” says Schwaner. “[Mrs. Reed] never responded to [my] email requesting that the results be made public.” During this time, Jon, the younger Schwaner, modified his plans to include a “bench and a bridge” and requested by email that the WCA take a new neighborhood survey. According to Schwaner, there was no response from the WCA. “We waited two months between emails to see if [Mrs. Reed] would respond,” says Schwaner.
“I waited, and I waited and I waited,” says Schwaner referring to his attempts to communicate with the WCA. According to Schwaner, multiple requests were made of the WCA to meet with neighbors on-site, none of which received a response from the WCA. “Nobody ever contacted us”, says Schwaner. By September all communication with the WCA had ended.
So, then, why did the Schwaners believe they had the green light to proceed with the project? According to Mr. Schwaner, County representative Gregor Patsch advised the father and son team that they didn’t need neighborhood approval to proceed. “The project was so small in scope, so low impact, that the neighborhood really had no vote in the matter whatsoever,” said Schwaner referring to his earlier conversation with Patsch. With Patsch no longer in the employ of the County, his supervisor Greg Harper signed off on the project on November 30, 2012 clearing the way for construction to begin in January 2013.
When asked if either of the Schwaners attempted to communicate with any other member of the WCA besides President Reed, Carl said, “No.” He continued, “The reason that communication was not attempted to be restarted again in December was that it was quite apparent by that point that there was going to be ‘foot dragging’ and lots of ‘hemming and hawing’, and we felt that the neighborhood association had been given plenty of fair opportunity to respond to this, and that trying to restart that communication process was just gong to drag it out and drag it out,” says Schwaner. “I just wasn’t going to allow that to happen”, Schwaner added.
We asked Carl what he would like to say to those that are concerned about the recent discovery by a Woodbrook resident of condoms and condom wrappers at the site. “I’ve seen no evidence of major partying down there,” says Schwaner. “It’s not going to happen to any great extent,” he added.
|The bridge, located a few feet from the bench, crosses a small channel.|
Susan Reed has served four terms as President of the Woodbrook Community Association. During her presidency she has appeared several times before the Board of Supervisors and the Planning Commission on behalf of the neighborhood and was instrumental in stopping a roadway connection with Arden Place.
According to Reed, Schwaner did not respond to the WCA’s request to obtain the support of residents whose properties abut the Lagoon. Concerned that the survey it commissioned especially for Schwaner did not adequately represent the concerns of those residents closest to the proposed development, the WCA prepared a map identifying homes most affected by the project. “There was one comment, where somebody’s property abutted [the project] that asked that their opinion should be weighted a bit more as they were going to have to deal with the fallout [of the project],” says Reed. Reed says she emailed a copy of the map to the senior Schwaner with the request that he get abutting property owners to sign off on the project. That never happened, according to Reed.
There also appears to be some misunderstanding surrounding the April 2012 WCA survey. Reed says that what some are calling a “vote” was intended to be an informal survey. “It was just like taking the temperature, so to speak, before we got into all the deep waters. There were very nearly just as many [neighbors] against it as there were for it,” says Reed. “This was meant to be a preliminary survey,” she added pointing out that the survey also included a question about a neighborhood sign.
“The sign was included because several people had expressed interest in getting our neighborhood sign back and we wanted to see numbers on that as well as the bench idea,” says Reed. While the question of the bench clearly divided the neighborhood, there was almost unanimous support for the sign.
I asked Reed to respond to the discovery of condoms and condom wrappers near the new bench. “A bench just makes it more convenient for that sort of activity,” says Reed. “Frankly that’s one of the things we had worried about,” she said. “The neighbors that live down there see parties going on in summer evenings in the woods,” she added.
Moving forward, Reed says the WCA will continue to monitor the situation and will deal with problems resulting from the structures if and when they occur.
|The bench looking south.|
The last word in our story goes to the neighbors themselves. In an email survey conducted last week, we polled all Woodbrook residents living within 400 feet of the bench and bridge. Of those residents responding, none had ever been contacted by the Schwaners, nor had they seen the project. A majority of respondents said they were still opposed to the project and wanted the structures removed. “We feel the project was never mentioned in the original project plans. The misrepresentation of this goes against the wishes of those residents within the distance of the bridge/bench,” said one respondent.
What do you think? Did the Schwaners perform due diligence in soliciting neighborhood opinion on the project? Were they obligated to do so? What is the role of the WCA in such matters? Did the County act responsibly in dealing with the Schwaners directly? As always, please be respectful in your comments.