Planners try to reconcile past, present
Rappahannock County is dotted with small stores that have been around for generations and form part of the texture and history of the area. Longtime residents remember riding bikes as children to these stores for soda or candy, their parents shopping for groceries there, and tourists stopping for gasoline.
One such place is the FT Valley store located on Route 231, a few miles from Sperryville. While it has been closed for the past several years, it may be reopened. A lot depends on the zoning and how the Planning Commission deems it should move forward.
Deputy County Administrator Debbie Keyser told the commission at its March 16 meeting that the current owner of the property had been approached by someone interested in either renting or buying the store and re-opening it. The problem for the transaction comes down to zoning—past and present.
“If that was a new application today, we would not accept it because it would be for a commercial use in an agricultural zone,” said Keyser.
When county zoning was established decades ago, the store was grandfathered as a commercial operation in an agricultural zone, as were many of the county stores. “But it has been well over two years since the store was in operation, so therefore it’s lost its grandfathering,” she said.
She suggested that the commission consider the adaptive use section of the county zoning ordinance in deciding the status of the FT Valley store, if it were to be sold.
“The only thing I could find was the adaptive use section of the code that would potentially allow us to accept an application. Adaptive use,” she said, quoting the zoning ordinance, is “any special exception use conducted in accordance with the provisions of § 170-69B, generally, the use of a dwelling or other building built prior to 1940 for a use other than as a single-family dwelling.”
Under adaptive use, structures built and zoned for one use could be approved for a different use. Planning Commission Chairman and Piedmont District representative Gary Settle gave, as an example, the Flint Hill structure next to the Wakefield School on Route 522, which was built as a packing shed but now houses Clark Land Surveying.
To try to establish whether the store had existed prior to 1940 (and thus could be a candidate for adaptive use), Alvin Henry, Hampton District commissioner suggested looking at the first aerial photos of Rappahannock County taken by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. “I think that was done in the fall of 1938. It shows shots of the area at that time. It might provide evidence that at least something was there before 1940.”
Barring that, said Henry, perhaps there was a way to prove that the property had been in continuous use in some regard. For instance, he said, “They had two Coca Cola machines [in front of the store]. If they were used within the past two years the commercial use hasn’t ended… the operation hasn’t ceased. We don’t dictate the size of commercial entities. If the light bill was paid that means the coke machines were operating.”
The comment generated a few laughs from the other members and the audience.
This reporter visited the store two days after the March 16 meeting and found that the one Coke machine still outside was unplugged and appeared to have been vandalized.
Henry also suggested another way to go. “You could look at the other little stores around Rappahannock County and you’ll find that some of these are situations like this, zoned commercial and other ones were not. You have stores with less land than this that were zoned commercial when the maps were established, so you have some precedents here, so that if the owner wanted to change the zoning to commercial, that is not untypical of other properties in the county that are similar and zoned commercial today.”
Vice Chairman Gary Light of the Stonewall-Hawthorne District, offered another alternative. “I don’t know what the relative complexity of this is, but the store is on the road and has been a commercial use. I certainly do think it’s a worthy candidate for reconsideration of rezoning” of the area from agricultural to commercial.
Discussion continued on the pros and cons of rezoning. In the end the commissioners agreed to ask the zoning administrator to consider the best path forward in determining zoning for the FT Valley store, and by extension, other similar establishments.
Grandfathering by yellow crayon
Local resident and former Zoning Administrator David Konick offered a bit of history on how the county’s commercial zoning was established. He told the commissioners at their March 16 meeting that many years before he was zoning administrator in the mid 1980s, Fanning Baumgardner, Col. Evan. A. McNear and George Davis, Jr., “went around to everything in the county that had any kind of commercial use, like [the FT Valley] store” and others such as Hillsdale, Laurel Mills, Old Hollow, the Pine Knot, and Rappahannock Tractor on Ben Venue Road.
Back then, the early-1970s, McNear was the county zoning administrator, Baumgardner was assistant zoning administrator; and Davis was the commonwealth’s attorney. All of them, along with E.P. Luke, J. Newbill Miller, and others drafted the county’s first zoning, subdivision and building code ordinances.
“The old zoning was all tax maps,” said Konick. Baumgardener, McNear and Davis “took a yellow crayon magic marker, and colored in the commercial areas.”
This created the problem of spot zoning, explained Konick. “When I was the ZA, I pointed out to the Planning Commission at the time what I think most everybody agreed was the problem—if you have all these little spots all over the county that are zoned commercial, then the neighbors could apply and say, ‘We want to be commercial too.’” So, the decision was made to grandfather in all those spot-zoned commercial entities.