As it turns out, allowing apartments in a highway commercial zone — the zone along U.S. 211 west of Sperryville where community-action organization People Inc. has proposed to build a 28-unit affordable housing complex — is in the hands of the county supervisors after all.
With more than 60 citizens filling the courthouse pews, most of them speaking against the plans, People Inc.’s permit application to build the apartments at the site of the vacant Sperryville Emporium building was tabled last Wednesday night (Nov. 19) by the Rappahannock County Planning Commission. It was tabled, at least until January, in part because (as some at the meeting claimed), it might not conform to the county’s zoning laws, and in part because the application did not address critical questions of traffic, water supply and sewer connections.
The nature of the permit meant it would go before the planning commission and the board of zoning appeals, but not the board of supervisors.
But now the supervisors at their meeting next Monday (Dec. 1) will consider scheduling a public hearing in January on amendments to the zoning ordinance that County Administrator John McCarthy mistakenly believed had been made by the supervisors some 25 years ago. McCarthy apologized in a memo Monday to the board after realizing that amendments approved in 1989 allowed multifamily housing in several of the county’s various commercial zones — but not in the highway commercial zone.
“I still think the amendment is an appropriate one,” McCarthy wrote in the memo, “and so request that you retain it in those authorized for hearing in January, as the discussion of its merits is, in my estimation, worthy of the board’s time.”
The discussion of the People Inc. project’s merits, on the other hand, went on for more than an hour at the planning commission last week.
Public comment on the People Inc. project was heard both before and after the board addressed and recommended approval of five other permit applications that night, including the Pen Druid Brewing Company’s proposal to build a brewpub along the Thornton River in the Copper Fox Antiques building. (The commission voted 4-2 to recommend approval to the supervisors at their Dec. 1 meeting; Copper Fox Antiques owner Alex Sharp recused himself for obvious reasons, and commissioners Al Henry and Ron Frazier, the supervisors’ representative to the planning commission, voted against the motion. More below.)
Among the few who spoke in support of the People Inc. application was Amissville resident Hal Hunter, founder of the Rappahannock Food Pantry and a longtime advocate for seniors. Hunter stressed the need for affordable housing for the county’s increasingly aging population. “I would like to support this application . . . as strongly as I can,” he said, “because I see it as a partial answer to the problem of elder housing.”
Sperryville resident Tom Junk, a former planning commission member, raised the issue that Frazier had raised earlier — that the zoning code did not appear to allow multifamily housing in the highway commercial zone.
“Highway commercial was to put businesses out on the highway,” he said, “where businesses should be. It wasn’t meant for residential, and this is residential.”
Nic Rustic, who said his home adjoins the People Inc. project site, told the commission: “Aside from the water, sewer and traffic issues, this property is right by a blind turn, where there are many accidents. . . . This just changes the way things have been in Rappahannock. I didn’t know there was that much of a housing shortage.”
Neighbor Lindy Atkins worried about the water supply at the site, which is on the Sperryville sewer system but no water system. “I drilled a well right next to this property,” he said, “and I had to go down 600 feet just to get a half a gallon of water.”
John Vest of Wakefield district, who said he recently moved from the Tidewater region, rose to say he’d seen affordable housing projects turn into “debacles” in the past: “And I don’t know that there’s any true benefit to this multifamily housing here. How’s this going to impact our school system? We’re already on the verge of not being able to make ends meet, we have schoolteachers who have to take money out of their own pockets to provide supplies for our children . . . what is the financial impact or benefit — is there any benefit to the county, or is this going to be a financial burden?
“I’m not against taking care of those in need, or seniors, but we need to look at the big picture here,” he said. “What is this going to cost?”
Demaris Miller said she would actually be willing to fight for the project if the income restrictions allowed Rappahannock’s teachers and deputies to rent apartments there — and People Inc. housing director Burt Whismann told the crowd that units would be available to those who make less than 60 percent of Rappahannock’s median family income of $82,000, which means about $49,000, a figure that would qualify most starting public school employees.
Connie Reid of Sperryville said she’d done “some research on low-income housing projects, and in almost all cases, there was a significant increase in crime associated with them.”
In the end, the planners themselves had few questions, with the prevailing attitude at the head table summarized by Frazier, who told Whismann and People Inc. architect Michael Weaver that “there really isn’t much to this application. I mean, I learned more about this project in the newspaper.”
Since People Inc. had not yet received word from Virginia Department of Transportation engineers about the project’s traffic implications — nor any answers about sewer hookups or well-water requirements — McCarthy suggested the matter be tabled at least until the commission’s next scheduled meeting in January. He also said he would further research the issue of whether apartments were a permitted use in the highway commercial zone.
The commission voted unanimously to recommend approval of four other special-use permits to the board of zoning appeals, which will consider them at its meeting next Wednesday (Dec. 4):
• A tourist home for Heidi Eastham to operate in a former creamery building on her 330-acre farm at 13357 Crest Hill Rd. in Flint Hill;
• A tourist home at 3661 Slate Mills Rd., to be operated by a local resident manager on behalf of Rachel Eugster and her two sisters, who inherited the home from their mother, Carla Theodore;
• A five-bedroom B&B to be operated by Alfred and Audrey Regnery at their renovated, 200-year-old home on September Song Lane, off the eastbound lanes of U.S. 211 near Washington;
• A permit to use a home owned by Jill Repiscak at 678 Zachary Taylor Hwy. in Flint Hill as a mental-health professional office for Fusion Psychological and Consulting, which specializes in child and family therapy, and in postdeployment and active military counseling.
The board also voted 4-2 to recommend approval to the supervisors for Pen Druid Brewing Co.’s plan to operate a brewpub and commercial brewery in the Copper Fox Antiques building in Sperryville’s River District.
The approval — with property owner Alex Sharp, the zoning board’s representative to the planning commission, sitting in the audience, having recused himself — came after a lengthy discussion that focused on how many customers would be allowed at one time on the brewpub’s planned outdoor deck along the Thornton River. It also focused on screening the operation from its residential neighbors — with the closest neighbor rising to say he was satisfied with promises made by owners Van Carney and his brothers Lane and Jennings to build a barrier or gate.
Contingent on sewer authority and building department approval, the commission recommended the permit be approved on the conditions that the request to host six special events a year with up to 300 people be reduced to 100 people, and a suitable parking plan be submitted and approved by McCarthy. Henry and Frazier said they voted against the approval because they wanted the deck usage restricted to a maximum of 20 people at a time.
The supervisors consider the permit Monday (Dec. 1).