After a lengthy stretch of questions and concern from commissioners, and a neighboring property owner’s worries about noise and traffic, Ben “Cooter” Jones and Alma Viator withdrew the application they’d made to the Rappahannock County Planning Commission for a special-exception permit at the commission’s monthly meeting last Wednesday night (April 15).
The permit would have enabled the Harris Hollow couple to hold outdoor music events on weekend afternoons on the grounds of the “Dukes of Hazzard”-themed Cooter’s in the County — the gift shop, cafe and museum that Viator and Jones (a former Georgia congressman still best known for his role as garage owner “Cooter” in the iconic ’80s TV sitcom) plan to open next month in the former Old Hollow Store on U.S. 211 at Old Hollow Road in Sperryville.
The outdoor music event planned for Cooter’s grand-opening weekend May 16-17 — with performances by Lisa Meadows, John Robert Rimel and Jones’ own touring outfit, Cooter’s Garage Band — is the type of event for which Jones and veteran event-management consultant Viator requested a permit to allow them to host any Saturday or Sunday afternoon between 1 and 3 p.m.
Without it, according to County Administrator John McCarthy (who had recommended the permit be granted, pending VDOT approval), the county’s zoning code allows such events to be held in a general commercial zone once every three years.
An unusual feature of the property, McCarthy said, considering what the proprietors hoped to do, is that the store itself is zoned general commercial; the entire 5,000 square feet of commercial zone comprises not much more than the building itself. The property that was used to add a rear deck and parking lot several years ago, McCarthy said, was added to the commercial tract by land owner Dick McNear — but that additional land, including the back deck, remains zoned agricultural.
Sharon Luke, who owns a residential property just across Old Hollow Road, read a long statement to the commissioners in which she proposed, among other cautionary measures, that the music be restricted to Saturdays only, and that the permit be issued on trial basis, with a one-year review.
Planning commission chair Gary Settle asked questions about parking — specifically how the store would prevent customers from parking along Old Hollow Road or 211, which transitions from two to four lanes at the Old Hollow intersection. Cooter’s in the Country’s lease with McNear, the applicants stated, included use of several adjacent acres of meadow behind the property for parking.
Hampton district representative Al Henry was the most demonstrably skeptical of Viator’s and Jones’ plan, objecting primarily to what he characterized as virtual rezoning — by using the agriculturally zoned acreage behind the store for commercial purposes every weekend.
The couple’s application said they expected weekend crowds of 30 to 50, and that any “large events” would be handled separately, with permits sought from the county. Cooter’s in the Country’s Facebook page yesterday listed about 270 people who’d said they were “likely to attend” the May 16-17 grand opening.
Because of Cooter’s connection to the nationwide “Dukes of Hazzard” fan base, several commissioners expressed worry that unexpectedly large crowds could show up at the relatively tiny store. (The couple has hosted several Dukes-related outdoor festivals in Rappahannock over the years, each attracting from 2,500 to more than 5,000 fans.) After admitting that because there were no tickets or admission charges predicting Cooter’s in the Country crowds would be difficult, Jones said the couple would withdraw the permit application.
Jones’ and Viator’s former Rappahannock-based venture — Cooter’s Place, another small building with a large adjacent meadow along the two-lane section of U.S. 211 in the far west end of Sperryville — was open for several years before the couple closed it more than a decade ago to focus on significantly larger operations in Tennessee.