Is brick best for county’s growth areas?

The building that now houses El Mariachi Restaurant, Dunkin Donuts and Anytime Fitness in Zion Crossroads. County supervisors are discussing amending the zoning code to require brick to be the primary material used in commercial construction in growth areas, though developers could request a waiver from the rules.

People keep coming to Louisa County to live and to open businesses, especially in fast-developing growth areas such as Zion Crossroads and Lake Anna. County planners are trying to do more than just react to this growth – they want to influence how it looks in a way that doesn’t set the bar too low.

One tool the county is considering is to require certain building materials and colors in new commercial construction within growth areas. Specifically, officials want brick to be the primary material used, while allowing for other materials as secondary building blocks and providing a waiver process for cases where stucco, stone, wood or something else makes more sense. 

The rules would apply to new retail and office buildings and apartment complexes in areas designated by the county comprehensive plan for mixed-use or industrial uses. A planned unit development like the one slated for construction behind Walmart in Zion Crossroads will have its own design standards.

But this idea of requiring builders to use certain materials has run into a headwind, as some developers active in the county question whether the cost would deter businesses from coming here. There’s also the question of whether brick, which is sometimes associated with more traditional architecture, should be preferred over a more contemporary look.

The Louisa County Planning Commission and more recently the board of supervisors took up the question of building materials last year as they worked to revise zoning code regulations after the board approved a new comprehensive plan in 2019. One of the new elements in the plan is to prioritize well-thought-out development in the growth areas, where much of the county’s future population and commercial growth is expected.

Besides Zion and the lake, Ferncliff could see significant growth in the future once public water and sewer service becomes widely available. The growth areas at Shannon Hill and Gum Spring might also change a lot.

In some cases county staff have been able to convince developers to install brick facades just by asking, as was the case for the Dollar General in Gum Spring or a planned 7-11 in Zion Crossroads. But asking doesn’t always work. 

County officials point to the commercial areas in other localities where requirements to use a specified range of building materials and certain colors have been in place for a number of years. Albemarle County has steered builders toward using brick for 30 years by presenting them with a list of historical structures such as Monticello and the University of Virginia Rotunda as reference points. Spotsylvania and Goochland counties have their own design standards for certain highway corridors, although they do not emphasize brick above other materials such as stucco, stone and cement siding. 

The county is not making a value judgment that brick is superior to some other material, said Assistant County Administrator Jeff Ferrel. 

“It could be metal siding if you want it to be,” he told the supervisors at their Dec. 21 work session. “It is important to have a primary [material], whatever it is. “A lot of what we get does have brick. If you want it to look more modern, you can go with stucco.”

Charles Purcell, who is trying to develop property in the Lake Anna and Zion Crossroads growth areas, said Louisa County’s economic conditions are distinct from those in more urban areas, and design standards have to account for that.

“It’s fine if it makes economic sense. You can’t be too restrictive or you’ll kill it,” he told the board during an Oct. 28 work session. “We’re struggling anyway to get the businesses to come here. We don’t meet their per capita income requirements, so you’ve got to talk them into coming.”

Citing a proposal to require “earth tone pallet” colors, Purcell said that would discourage Patient First, an emergency care chain that favors white facades with green lettering. He also questioned subjecting all four sides of a building to the material and color standards, since many stores reserve their back sides for loading docks.

“You don’t want to run somebody away because you don’t like their colors. We want to bring anybody in that’s going to benefit us,” added Howard Loudin, a Louisa-based builder. 

Ferrel said staff have proposed reducing setbacks for developers in growth areas to help offset the economic impact of design requirements. 

To try to provide additional wiggle room for developers, Ferrel said they will be able to request a waiver from building material or color requirements. 

Andy Wade, the county’s economic development director, said that while requiring brick on building facades could add 20 percent to the cost of construction, it would not stop a developer from coming to Zion Crossroads or Lake Anna if the number of new rooftops and traffic counts suggest they can make money.

Supervisor Eric Purcell (Louisa District) proposed to tie the growth area requirements to public water and sewer systems, since areas that already have public utilities are in a better position to develop.  

Zion Crossroads has public water and sewer, but Lake Anna does not. Supervisor Duane Adams, whose Mineral District includes the commercial center of the lake, indicated he will support the design standards.

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