Adapted by Piedmont Environmental Council
A proposal to build a gas station and restaurant at Boyd Tavern was dealt a major setback this month when the Board of Supervisors deadlocked on a vote for the necessary special use permit.
The Piedmont Environmental Council played a pivotal role in helping protect the character of Black Cat Road by reminding both supervisors and the community at large that the county decided a long time that this intersection should remain rural.
“This is an expectation neighbors and many residents in the Keswick area have expressed,” said Sean Tubbs, PEC’s field representative for Albemarle County, at the June 17 public hearing. “PEC feels you must take their expectations into consideration.”
Supervisors voted 3-3 on a motion to approve the permit, which means the permit for the 4,000-square-foot project will not move forward at this time. However, Tiger Fuel has filed a lawsuit against Albemarle, claiming the county’s requirement for a permit process is unlawful.
Supervisors Bea LaPisto-Kirtley (Rivanna), Ann Mallek (White Hall), and Donna Price (Scottsville) voted to deny the permit. Supervisors Ned Gallaway (Rio), Diantha McKeel (Jack Jouett), and Liz Palmer (Samuel Miller) voted for its approval.
The site is located in the southwest quadrant of Exit 129 on Black Cat Road and is the only commercially-zoned property in the area. Keswick Hall is a mile to the north. Across the street is the Mechunk Acres neighborhood.
While zoned for commercial use, the county’s zoning ordinance requires a special use permit for gas stations, restaurants and convenience stores. That’s because the property is not served by public water or sewer and those uses are considered to be more intense.
The June 17 public hearing was the second held for the permit. Another public hearing was held on May 20 and also lasted several hours. Both hearings were held electronically due to the COVID-19 pandemic. At least one resident of the Mechunk Acres said he was not able to access the June 17 meeting.
County staff recommended approval of the project in part due to a series of conditions, including agreement by Tiger Fuel to turn off lights for at least part of the night. Planners also said the size of the structure would be consistent with the Comprehensive Plan because it would be the same footprint of a country store.
However, the Comprehensive Plan also includes a policy on rural interstate interchanges that seeks them from being developed.
“Interstate interchanges in the Rural Area should not be used as tourist destinations or tourist ‘stops’ along Interstate 64,” reads the plan. “The Black Cat interchange has narrow winding roads in one direction and a connection to Route 250 East in the other direction.”
The Board of Supervisor’s denial came despite a public relations campaign by Tiger Fuel to convince Supervisors to vote yes.
“I have heard from many of you that the scale of our project is a point of concern so we have worked hard to… address that topic,” said Gordon Sutton, the president of Tiger Fuel. He said the proposed structure would be smaller than a Sheetz or a WaWa. He also hinted that the site could be the new home of a Dollar General if the permit was not granted.
Sutton said he grew up across the street from the site and he did not want to change the rural character of eastern Albemarle.
“I [am] a lifelong resident of this community and I care deeply about seeing it protected,” Sutton said. “I can think of nothing worse than seeing our beautiful county transformed into strip mall USA you might find in northern Virginia.”
The Piedmont Environmental Council agrees with this sentiment, but urged denial of the special use permit because approving it would have been against the Comprehensive Plan. PEC staff analysed planning and zoning issues associated with the proposed project and helped educate the community. This outreached resulted in significant public input which ultimately influenced members of the BOS.
“This will change the expected character of the area,” Tubbs said. “This county’s respect for its citizen-led Comprehensive Plan has made Albemarle such a desirable place to be.”
Supervisor Price said she received over 700 emails on the topic before the second public hearing.
“What we have is a first-time development of this property, and it will be developed at some point in the future,” Price said. “Are we basically shoe-horning in an application that doesn’t fit within the description of a country market?”
At the end of her initial comments, Price wanted to know what fellow supervisors thought about whether this was the right location for a gas station, given the Comprehensive Plan.
Supervisor Palmer said she did not think a Dollar General would locate on the site, but was persuaded to approve the project in part because of the condition requiring turning off the lights at night. Supervisor McKeel also supported the project because she felt the use was appropriate.
“I do think that we need to look at the definition of a country store differently now, “ McKeel said. “We have to look at things as living documents, and maybe our country stores need to change a little bit with the times as well. This is a model of a modern day general store.”
Supervisor Ann Mallek said the project was inconsistent with the Comprehensive Plan’s rural protections.
“The expectation for the intersection policy was revisited as part of the Crozet Master Plan in 2010, and it was strengthened [in 2015] with the Comprehensive Plan revision,” Mallek said. “It just happens to be that there is an interstate going by. Many of these residents were actually there before the interstate got there.”
Mallek said a similar gas station outside Crozet was built against neighborhood wishes. In that case, the developer continues to return to the Board of Supervisors to ask to be let out of previously approved conditions.
Supervisor LaPisto Kirtley said her vote came down to personal experience.
“I go through this corner several times a day,” she said. “Black Cat Road is a rural road. Where the proposed gas station is is on a blind curve. People are speeding around there. You’re now adding a business where people are going in making left turns and right turns. That’s a real problem for me.”
LaPisto Kirtley said she did not think this would be a country store and that advertising for it on interstate signs would attract more than local clientele.
“The additional traffic from that use would be too great,” she said. “It’s not a small country store for locals, which would be more fitting in with the rural nature.”
Supervisor Gallaway said he was not concerned about interstate traffic because Exit 129 does not have the commercial activity at Exit 136 at Zion Crossroads.
“I am somebody that commutes from Charlottesville to Richmond every day for my job, and I pass that intersection every single day,” Gallaway said. He said he prefers to use the bigger gas stations because they are easier to access.
The 3-3 vote came at the end of a four-hour public hearing and discussion.
The vote does not end the story. Tiger Fuel filed suit against the county last year over the need for a special-use permit, an outcome that results from an ongoing appeal against the county. A hearing date has not yet been scheduled before the Albemarle Circuit Court.
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