Cooter’s: Zoning violation or ‘regular thing’?

On July 4, a crowd of umbrella-toting autograph seekers waits to visit with actress Catherine Bach — or Daisy Duke, to fans of "Dukes of Hazzard," fans that some neighbors claim arrive in greater numbers than current zoning allows at Cooter's in Sperryville.Patty Hardee
On July 4, a crowd of umbrella-toting autograph seekers waits to visit with actress Catherine Bach — or Daisy Duke, to fans of “Dukes of Hazzard,” fans that some neighbors claim arrive in greater numbers than current zoning allows at Cooter’s in Sperryville.

After a recent event at Cooter’s in Sperryville drew hundreds of people and scores of vehicles, Rappahannock County Administrator Debbie Keyser said this week she received a complaint of alleged zoning violations and is “looking into it.”

The emailed complaint came as the owner of the property was engaged in an effort to have part of the property, along Old Hollow Road at U.S. 211, rezoned from agricultural to commercial.

Keyser declined to identify the person making the complaint, saying “it wouldn’t be fair to Ben Jones and Alma Viator,” the owners of Cooter’s, which leases the property.

Asked Wednesday about the alleged zoning violation, Jones said, “Technically, that’s what the rezoning request is all about” — to make the parking legal.

In the same call, Viator said that she and property co-owner Jeannie McNear met with local attorney Mike Brown last week to discuss how to proceed with the rezoning application. “The rezoning request has been withdrawn by the applicants,” said Viator, “and they are asking for a special exception to allow parking for the term of our lease.”

Keyser said Wednesday that she knew the applicants had been looking into the actions Viator described but that nothing official had been received yet by her office.

The complaint charges that Jones and Viator have improperly expanded their operations beyond the commercially zoned boundary of their business into the agricultural zone and asks “that a cease and desist order be served on the property owners and the lessee immediately.”

“Today, Saturday, June 25,” reads the complaint,” there is a large ‘event’ that appears to be a car show, taking place [at Cooter’s]. Cars have packed the field behind the store building since before 9 a.m.; music is playing from at least one loudspeaker; a representative of the sheriff’s office is on site . . .”

In a post that same day to Rappnet, the Rappahannock-based email list, Jones described the weekend event as “a wonderful Classic Car show that raised several thousand dollars for the Wounded Warrior Project.”

Photos taken during the event show the field behind Cooter’s filled with people and cars, as well as cars parked on the grass beyond the shoulder of U.S. 211. “I thought it was an accident at first, when I saw the sheriff’s car,” said Washington farmer John Burns. “Then I saw tents up Old Hollow Road like people had been camping out.”

The McNears' field behind Cooter’s that serves as an overflow parking area.Patty Hardee
The McNears’ field behind Cooter’s that serves as an overflow parking area.

Another event held at Cooter’s this Monday (July 4) also drew a crowd, though not as large as the June 25 event. Rainy weather on the Fourth appeared to keep the crowds down.

The complaint cites the June 15 meeting of the Rappahannock County Planning Commission where “the property owner [Dick McNear] admitted twice that what is going on is, in his own words, ‘illegal.’”

McNear and his family own the property and building where the Cooter’s cafe, filled with “Dukes of Hazzard” gifts and memorabilia, including the iconic orange Dodge Charger known as the General Lee out front, is located. He also owns the field behind it, which serves as an overflow parking lot. On June 15, he presented an application to rezone the field from agricultural to commercial, saying he wished to have the area rezoned to make the commercial use legal. He proffered that the zoning for the field would revert back to agricultural use whenever the present lease terminated.

A number of citizens at the planning commission meeting spoke in opposition to the application. Although generally respectful of Jones’s and Viator’s right to conduct business, they gave varying reasons for their resistance to the proposal, including fear of commercial zoning creeping into the agricultural zone, ambiguity about what was being applied for, and concern about noise and parking that already create problems.

The planning commission tabled the McNears’ application; it’s expected to be on the agenda again at the commission’s July 20 meeting.

A zoning ordinance ‘gray area’

After the event, Keyser received inquiries from other county residents about whether Cooter’s had applied for a special permit for a “field event,” the zoning designation for a large gathering not otherwise permitted. She said Jones and Viator had not applied for an event permit.

Said Jones in the phone call, “It wasn’t a special event. It was a regular thing, the kind of thing we do at Cooter’s all the time. A local bunch of guys who want to raise some money and bring in some cars. Unfortunately, everybody and his brother wanted to come and see that. We had too many cars. The car show itself took up so much space, some people parked on the road.”

However, they may not have been required to apply for an event permit after all. A close reading of the definition of a “field event” in the county’s zoning ordinance appears to exclude the kind of “regular thing” held at Cooter’s, especially one for which no admission is charged.

The recently retired county administrator (and current zoning consultant to the county), John McCarthy, said he late last year counseled McNear to apply for a permit to legalize what McCarthy saw as an “expansion of the commercial use” of the property. On the phone this week, McCarthy read aloud the ordinance’s definition of “field event”: “Any outdoor activity open to the public, where admission is charged or contributions for admission are solicited or accepted, held for the purpose of viewing, hearing or participating in entertainment, including but not limited to musical presentations, parties, dances, concerts, plays or similar activities. . . .”

Because Cooter’s does not charge admission to his events, agreed McCarthy, Jones and Viator may have skirted the issue of requiring a special event permit.

But the larger issue, said McCarthy, is the establishment’s unpermitted extension of the commercial use beyond the building to the outside areas.

“A commercial property originally,” said McCarthy, “the lot was defined by the rear by the building.” After McNear purchased the property, “he added the deck. At the time I told him the problem is that [the outside area] is not zoned commercially.” At that time, McCarthy made an administrative decision to expand the commercial zone to include the deck and small parking area behind it.

“It wasn’t a big deal for Dick, he didn’t have any tables or activities, but when he leased the property to Ben, Ben wanted to add a band to that porch, have outdoor music, people sitting out there in what became the parking area. I ruled that that was expanding the commercial use outside the scope of the building. “

In 2015 Jones applied for a special exception to hold music events on Saturday and Sunday afternoons. “He got pushback from the planning commission,” said McCarthy, “and withdrew it.

“This got us to last fall when he started to put up tables into the parking area. At one point he put up an all-weather tent. I told him you have to do something to make this legal, face the wrath of the planning commission or otherwise make it legal.” That’s when McNear discussed with Keyser the possibility of rezoning the outside areas, he said.

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