Editor’s note: this is a developing story.
An October 2022 housing development project proposal is coming under scrutiny from faculty and Williamsburg City residents as mounting evidence suggests it threatens the College Woods. The original development proposal, drawn out by Cale Development LLC, calls for the rezoning of a 13.91 acre plot (RS-2 Zoning District) at 180 Strawberry Plains Road from a Single-Family Dwelling District (RS-2), to a Multifamily Dwelling District (RM-2).
In November 2022, 85 College of William and Mary and Virginia Institute of Marine Science faculty members signed an open letter to the Williamsburg Planning Commission and Williamsburg City Council conveying their concerns regarding development on this parcel of land. Concerns included fear of run-off from impervious surfaces and encroachment on the College Woods. According to this letter, biodiversity and water quality in the area would be irreparably impacted by the development proposal.
“We appreciate the need to build housing for a growing population, but rather than paving over ever more undeveloped land, we encourage you to focus on revitalizing developed locations (as was done with nearby Midtown Row),” the authors of the letter wrote. “The environmental consequences of developing this parcel could be severe and we are distressed to be unable to locate any impact study regarding this area.”
This plot and the woods boast an extensive history, with the original 1200 acres of the College Woods formally designated as “Matoaka Park” in the 1930s. Over time, its acreage decreased as various construction projects on the property began in the 1950s and 1960s. In November of 1994, a William and Mary News and Media article titled “College Affirms Its Commitment to Lake Matoaka And College Woods” stated that a draft report by the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission suggested that Lake Matoaka and the College Woods should be declared a natural heritage preserve or surplus property. At the time, College President Timothy J. Sullivan claimed that the Board of Visitors recognized the College Woods as a “living laboratory.”
Following the development of Route 199 and Monticello Avenue in the 1990s, the College attempted to save the woods from development by purchasing adjacent land and designating 300 acres as a nature preserve. In 1998, the City of Williamsburg and the College confirmed a land swap agreement. Within this agreement, each party retained roughly 37 acres of land, with the currently contested 13.91 acre parcel being retained by the City, but still contiguous to the College Woods.
“The story of that piece of land is that back in 1988, it was owned privately,” Helen Murphy, associate professor of biology, said. “It’s about 50 acres and the school tried to buy it and it didn’t go through, so then the City bought it. And then in 1998, there was a land swap between the City and the College, and we got about 37 acres. We gave the City about 37 acres elsewhere. Then we owned most of it, except for this little remaining 13, 14 acre parcel that’s right behind Berkeley Middle School.”
The Cale Realty Company presented the original development plan to the Williamsburg Planning Commission in fall of 2022. In a 5-0 vote, the Commission decided against recommending the proposal to the council due to traffic issues, affordability and environmental concerns, prompting the developer to revise the plan before its presentation to the council this spring. As of this month, Cale Realty Company is in the process of revising the development plan.
“We were caught off guard with all of this, I guess I don’t want to say protest, but people opposed to it. Affordable housing is a nationwide issue and it’s a major issue in the City of Williamsburg.”
According to Managing Broker of Cale Realty Company, John Cale, the development plan aims to provide affordable workforce housing. The original plan included 116 units of housing to income brackets ranging from $40,000-100,000 a year. Fifteen of these units would be subject to workforce housing deed restrictions, with these units intended to be sold for $100,000 less than current fair market values to “purchasers whose annual household income does not exceed $60,000.”
“We were caught off guard with all of this, I guess I don’t want to say protest, but people opposed to it,” Cale said. “Affordable housing is a nationwide issue and it’s a major issue in the City of Williamsburg.”
According to the 2021 City of Williamsburg Housing Affordability Analysis, Cale is aiming his proposal at income categories labeled as “low” ($40-60k) and “M2” ($75-100k). Based on recommendations from the analysis, these housing units would range from $260,000 to $430,000. Even with these parameters, however, some are skeptical that this housing will be affordable for the targeted income categories. The current estimate for the market rate of these homes is around $325,000, according to the analysis, meaning the workforce housing units would be around $225,000.
“There’s zero chance that a family making $40-60,000 a year can get a down payment and afford a mortgage given these interest rates,” Murphy said. “You might ask yourself, what happens to those units? The developer buys them back and pays the City $100,000 for each of them. And the City gets $1.5 million because it was 15 units, and they would get $100,000 per unit.”
According to a 2023 tax assessment, the value of the plot increased from $633,700 in 2021 to over $2 million this year (a $1.5 million increase).
“I totally understand people saying this might not be as affordable for everyone who is trying to obtain affordable options,” council member Caleb Rogers said. “A 20% down payment on a $225,000 home is still going to be quite pricey for someone who’s working hourly or newer in their careers.”
Faculty continue to express concern over the proposal as a council vote on the development plan this spring becomes more likely. Multiple professors, including Murphy and Dr. Martha Case, associate professor of biology and college conservator of Botanical Collections, have approached the College administration and council with these concerns.
“We learned very early on that these areas harbor a lot of plant diversity, much more so than you would expect in your average woodlot around here, and it actually carries some very, very rare habitats,” Case said. “I have had major studies going on in the woods and publications…and we have documented 745 plant species in the woods…in the most recent curvy my graduate student did in 2016, we documented 196 plant extinctions.”
Murphy, geology professor Christopher “Chuck” Bailey and biology professor and director of the Keck Environmental Field Lab Randolph Chambers all expressed similar affections toward the College Woods and emphasized its importance to students, faculty, researchers and the environment as a whole.
“One of the things that we are gravely concerned about if this development were to go in is having issues with stormwater management, effectively runoff from impervious surfaces, which could lead to extensive environmental degradation in the College Woods,” Bailey said. “And to me, this is not a hypothetical. We’ve actually seen this happen in the time I’ve been at William and Mary.”
Bailey previously wrote about the “Williamsburg Grand Canyon,” a gorge formed by mismanaged stormwater that goes through Strawberry Creek, a tributary of Lake Matoaka. The canyon has rapidly worsened due to runoff from a nearby stormwater retention pond built by the Virginia Department of Transportation when constructing Route 199 in the mid-1970s.
“I’ve walked the site with three of the professors,” Cale said. “So we’re looking at ways, if we develop it, to make it more environmentally friendly and get their feedback.”
Cale detailed his efforts to remedy concerns about stormwater management by updating and increasing the size of an existing stormwater retention pond, or best management practice, near the development site.
“I’ve walked the site with three of the professors,” Cale said. “So we’re looking at ways, if we develop it, to make it more environmentally friendly and get their feedback.”
Case and Chambers mentioned that BMP’s are not always the best option, and often can cause more harm than good.
“The best management practice does not mean it is the best solution,” Case said. “They are political constructs that do not solve the problems at hand. They mitigate a little bit, but they don’t solve the problem…we know from time and time again they [BMPs] do not work.”
Chambers echoed this concern, mentioning that these practices are out of date.
“Stormwater ponds fail to mimic the flows of water that existed prior to land development, with the subsequent negative impacts downstream,” Chambers wrote in an email. “More forward-thinking methods of stormwater management try to allow the stormwater into the ground, rather than routing the water into a large basin and then releasing downstream as surface water.”
These concerns echo the November letter faculty sent to the planning commission, which Cale said he has read and considered. However, he does not believe his development plan will make environmental damages better or worse.
“My one thought is that most of that [the letter] is not a concern or not going to happen,” Cale said. “And then also, a lot of people don’t realize that Lake Matoaka was a man-made lake. It’s not some pristine environmental resource… you can’t fish and swim in there because it’s polluted anyway.”
Case disagreed with Cale’s statement, noting the importance of the lake for research purposes.
“The lake has become very important as a watershed for sediment, and it’s also become very important for research,” Case said. “It’s kind of this argument that, well, because you screwed something up, why not just screw it all up? I don’t buy that at all…we’ve had to work with what we have left, but it doesn’t mean that that gives us the right to just destroy everything else.”
“What we have done, and will continue to do, is urge the use of best practices in stormwater management to limit runoff and impact on College Woods and the Lake Matoaka Watershed.”
In regards to the College administration’s stance on the development plan, Director of News and Media, Suzanne Clavet, wrote in an email that the university does not take positions on land-use proposals that it does not own. Executive Director of the William and Mary Real Estate Foundation, Sean Hughes, also echoed this statement in an email.
“What we have done, and will continue to do, is urge the use of best practices in stormwater management to limit runoff and impact on College Woods and the Lake Matoaka Watershed,” Clavet wrote in an email.
Murphy argues that the College has taken a stance in the past and that faculty approached the administration in the fall of 2022 to bring their concerns to the attention of the College.
“They all seemed upset,” Murphy said. “They all seemed like it would be hard to buy the land. The City might not want to sell it to us, but there might be ways to get someone else to buy it and then acquire it. Maybe we could do a land swap, we have lots of land.”
Murphy mentioned that though the administration could not take a public stance at the time, they instead asked faculty to put together a list of talking points so that the College could express their concerns to the City in a private meeting. When the faculty returned from winter break, the administration had changed their mind.
“They’ve done a 180°,” Murphy said. “The real estate person [Sean Hughes] didn’t show up for the meeting. I don’t know if he misscheduled or he no longer had anything to say. We met with Michael J. Fox [Senior Assistant to the President and Secretary to the Board of Visitors] and Jackie Ferree [Interim Chief Operating Officer] again and they said ‘there’s nothing we can do, the College must remain neutral in all real estate deals.’”
Murphy mentioned that the faculty at this meeting were surprised at the change of attitude and that it seemed like the College no longer cared about its own research and teaching mission. The administration also asked the faculty not to use the College letterhead when discussing their personal stances about the development.
“It is heartbreaking that we have a current administration that doesn’t see the importance of maintaining its integrity and its biodiversity,” Murphy said. “It’s truly crushing. It’s like, are we really going to be the generation that lets it fall after all the work from all these people for all these years?”
“To suggest that they are powerless to do anything about the development is inaccurate. A more accurate statement would be that they are choosing to remain neutral, and I, for one, would like to know why. They have options. The most obvious one would be to acquire the land while working with the City to support its housing goals in other ways.”
Murphy pointed out that the College’s neutrality is nearly impossible, citing page seven of the purchase agreement between the City and Cale Development, LLC which states that the College maintains the right to “construct and maintain roads for ingress and egress to and from the College Parcel.” Within these parameters, the College and Cale Realty Company would have to agree to the location of this access and enter into a “mutually satisfactory agreement.” If this agreement fails to appease both parties, the agreement will be considered “null and void.”
“To suggest that they are powerless to do anything about the development is inaccurate,” Murphy wrote in an email. “A more accurate statement would be that they are choosing to remain neutral, and I, for one, would like to know why. They have options. The most obvious one would be to acquire the land while working with the City to support its housing goals in other ways.”
Case offered suggestions for the College to move forward in expressing the importance of the College Woods, mentioning that the administration could communicate with the City in order to present more viable solutions.
“If they don’t have the money, get a campaign together to buy the land,” Case said. “Why can’t we put together something? There would be much support. So this is one possible solution. But if nothing is going to happen, if they just say ‘we’re protecting the woods and they can do what they want,’ that’s just not a solution. I think they need to become involved and they need to get us involved. We’re a whole community of scientists who can do stuff.”
Case also emphasized that by not taking a stance on this development, the College is failing its mission as a university and at its Vision 2026 Water Initiative.
“It’s damaging to the research and the teaching and the acquisition of knowledge, and it’s also sadly ironic that we are saying we are going to find solutions to water problems, and here is one at our back door,” Case said. “I think we need to impress upon the administration the consequences of non-action…it seems that William and Mary is going to lose credibility in these issues if they just let this happen, and I’m not sure they understand that.”
“I want the students to know that the City is doing this, and that the administration is not protecting our resource.”
Going forward, Murphy is actively attempting to meet with both the College administration and the council members.
“I want the students to know that the City is doing this, and that the administration is not protecting our resource,” Murphy said.
Cale mentioned that he is working to address some of the development concerns and that he believes the pros of his project largely outweigh the cons. If his proposal does not pass in the council this spring, Cale plans to come back with another proposal to purchase the land, though that would ultimately culminate in more expensive housing to offset the cost.
“If it doesn’t meet their standards [city and state], it would never get approved,” Cale said. “You can’t expect any developer to go above and beyond what’s required from state and local governments.”
Case said that students have a major impact on College and City decisions, acting as a powerful force within the larger community. Murphy also implored the student body to get involved, suggesting a similar petition to the one she helped write in November of 2022.
Bailey explained that the environmental damages caused by this development plan warrant a certain amount of skepticism toward potential “solutions,” especially due to management practice failures in the past.
“I think if we as a university want to put our money where our mouth is as far as having places for carbon to be stored, a mature forest is a very important part of that,” Bailey said. “And so it seems like that would be a valuable resource for the College to preserve.”
Rogers believes that the City would be open to hearing concerns from College administration if they chose to go public with their stance and that the council would consider any proposal offered. He also emphasized the importance of the student body.
“Student input is always super important to the City,” Rogers said. “I am always hoping more students show up to City Council meetings.”
As of now, there is no definitive date set for the council vote on the new development proposal. Council members have scheduled meetings with College faculty and administration in the following weeks.
13.91 acres… That’s ten and a half football fields! Lake Matoaka and the surrounding forest and trail system have been a savior to me these past several years. It has been my primary source of exercise, the anchor of my mental health, and even entertainment . (Over my years of walking there, my love of hiking eventually turned into a love of birding too — mostly thanks to the tremendous number of migrating warblers and ducks that call the area home throughout the year.) It would be deeply saddening, and deeply troubling, to see such a massive portion of this habitat destroyed. I teach Environmental Ethics at William & Mary. What can we do? How can my students get involved?
[…] answering a question from Tilman, said the Williamsburg City Council deferred plans to vote on the College Woods development proposal. In a statement to The Flat Hat, Cho later said the original proposal was voted down zero to six by […]