Wednesday, October 4, 2023

Internal Documents Raise Curtain On Behind-the-Scenes Meetings About Spotswood Development

WILLIAMSBURG–Documents obtained by Citizens for Responsible Spotswood Development (CRSD) reveal elected officials met privately with representatives from Frye Properties long before the Norfolk luxury home builder submitted its plans to request rezoning that would double the number of homes allowed on the former nine-hole golf course.  The documents also reveal lobbying by a Colonial Williamsburg donor that included discussions of building both a senior living facility on the front nine holes of Colonial Williamsburg’s Green Course and a road that would traverse the course to reach Quarterpath Road.

Fraser Hudgins, CRSD’s leader, filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for internal city e-mails, texts, and letters related to the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation’s efforts to sell the golf course for development.

The request produced “about ten thousand documents,” according to Hudgins.

He summarized his takeaway from reading all of them in CRSD’s June 30 newsletter.

Fraser said the internal communications suggest Colonial Williamsburg is considering developing not just the Spotswood Golf Course, but the Green Course and its surrounding parcels.

Additionally, the documents show how the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation used City Manager Andrew Trivette to set up one-on-one meetings with city council members in spring 2022, months before the golf course closed for business.

Mayor Doug Pons, and council members Caleb Rogers and Barbara Ramsey apparently did meet with Frye Properties and Colonial Williamsburg before the company submitted development plans to the city. Vice Mayor Pat Dent wrote in response to an invitation that he preferred to “evaluate the project through the normal channels.”

“I am not meeting with them one on one!” Dent wrote to then-council member Ted Maslin, who did not meet with Frye either. “I feel it is not appropriate. A one-on-one meeting may be perceived as behind-the-scenes negotiations.”

Council member Caleb Rogers said meeting with developers about their projects happens regularly. 

“The narrative that these meeting were irregular is not accurate,” he said. “For the Frye Properties meeting, I was glad we got the chance to sit down. I was able to ask questions about the project which had only been rumors at that point (people have been talking about developing Spotswood for decades now). I remember my one word of advice to the developer (was) to engage with the adjacent community. I was happy it seemed they had a plan to do so.”

As a member of City Council, it is my responsibility to learn, to be as informed as possible,” said Mayor Doug Pons. “Communicating with the public, engaging with businesses, prospective businesses is common practice and appropriate. Doing so should not be construed as being a ‘broker or lobbyist’ for whatever the cause may be. The citizens deserve and expect to be represented by engaged and informed council members.”

The documents also reveal a curious role played by Williamsburg resident David Kranbuehl, a professor emeritus in the chemistry department at the College of William and Mary and a Colonial Williamsburg donor. Though it is unclear what Kranbuehl’s role is in the Spotswood redevelopment, City Manager Andrew Trivette facilitated a meeting between himself, Kranbuehl, and Colonial Williamsburg Foundation President Cliff Fleet to discuss the Spotswood project.

In a subsequent email thanking Fleet for the meeting, Kranbuehl recounted the details: “Regarding the Spotswood land, you described a focus on housing of modest size on modest size lots and a longer-range proposal to develop a Landings-type senior living area on the front nine of the Green Course.”

“Landings” is presumably a reference to Williamsburg Landing, a senior living facility off Lake Powell Road that offers independent living, assisted living, nursing care, and memory care.

Kranbuehl’s name again appears in the documents in April 2023, when he e-mailed Trivette and Planning Director Tevya Griffin urging them to address mounting neighborhood concerns about Frye Properties’ rezoning request and how much traffic it would add to local streets.

“Regarding traffic, I think it’s important to have Aaron [Aaron Small is the  city engineer] estimate a possible path beginning with branching off the entrance to the Green Course perhaps close to the parking lot and then proceeding to cross the course between the 7th and 8th hole or the 6th and the 7th hole to Quarterpath Rd,” Kranbuehl wrote. “A road crossing the middle of a golf course is extremely normal. . . Going forward it is clear such a connection will be needed and having it be a visible future project is important to the discussion. Issues of how it is funded between Colonial Williamsburg and the city, and the builder of future development is to be determined.”

“There is no indication as to why David Kranbuehl was chosen by our City Manager to meet with Cliff Fleet, nor is there any indication that he was acting in any official capacity for the city,” Fraser wrote in his newsletter.

There is this admission from Kranbuehl, however. In that emailed “thank you” note to Fleet, Kranbuehl also mentioned that he had met with Paul Freiling, a former Williamsburg mayor and now Director of Principal Gifts at the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, “and provided funds to reduce my commitment for completing funding our pledge to the Colin Campbell archaeological center from five years to three.”

Fraser said after reading through the voluminous documents he was left with the strong impression that the public’s business wasn’t really being conducted in public.

“When City officials become brokers and lobbyists for developers and special interests, then we are no longer watching democracy at work,” Fraser concluded. “When I was a young boy, my grandmother Mimi told me that it doesn’t matter so much what you do when everyone is watching; the real test is what you do when no one is looking.”

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