With parking threatened by zoning issue, Jones says, ‘we will be out of business anyway’
Ben Jones and Alma Viator decided last week to close Cooter’s in the Country, their popular Sperryville tourist destination, at the end of October.
In a press release dated Aug. 18 and posted to the Facebook pages maintained by the Cooter’s organization (which operates two other “Dukes of Hazzard”-themed museum-stores in Nashville and Gatlinburg, Tennessee), Jones announced that “a small but influential minority of people . . . are making it as difficult as possible for us to bring tourists to Rappahannock County.”
“Our parking is now being threatened by a zoning issue,” said Jones, a longtime county resident who also served two terms in Georgia as a U.S. congressman, “and without parking we will be out of business anyway.”
Jones also posted the press release with his own comments to Rappnet, the Rappahannock-based email group, which exploded with hundreds of replies, most of them expressing surprise and disappointment, support for Jones and Viator, and criticism of the county government, those who opposed the zoning changes and others (including this newspaper).
To county officials and others familiar with the process of applications and public hearings required to change zoning designations, the announced closing was perplexing because the issue was moving toward resolution designed to be satisfactory to all parties.
Less than 24 hours before the announcement, in fact, County Administrator Debbie Keyser reported to the planning commission at its regular Aug. 17 meeting that the zoning issues were being resolved privately between Jones and Viator and Dick and Jeannie McNear — the latter couple owners of the property on which Cooter’s sits, as well as the adjoining field that Cooter’s had used for overflow parking.
“At the last meeting,” said Keyser, referring to the July 20 planning commission meeting, “I was asked to send a [cease and desist] letter to Cooter’s and want you to know that as a result of that meeting, I received a phone call [from Viator, Keyser later explained]. We had a long conversation. I talked to their representing attorney. I talked to both Ben and Alma and the McNears and everyone is cooperating and understands the issue. So a letter was not sent, but we have discussed it verbally and everyone is cooperating and agreeing. [Ben and Alma] agreed not to [hold any events] until this is resolved, until they appear before the planning commission. There won’t be any activities other than just the business as it has been run.”
Local attorney Mike Brown, representing the McNears, said in a phone call Tuesday that he too was surprised “when I got word last week that Ben and Alma had decided that they weren’t going to continue with the lease of the McNear property.”
Brown described how he had been working with the McNears to resolve the zoning issue. “We withdrew the original zoning application after getting some initial feedback [from the planning commission] and from people’s concerns about the rezoning.” He said the McNears were planning to refile with the county and anticipated public hearings on the new application. “We were going to be refiling and would be back before the planning commission and probably before the board of supervisors. It was probably going to take a special exception,” said Brown.
In preparation, he said, “we were in the process of actually getting a site plan. The use ultimately would have required a site plan approval anyway. At my recommendation to Alma, Dick and Jeannie, I told them thought we needed to get the surveyor out there, get a lot of the physical features of those properties on a plat so that we all knew what we were talking about and that was also going to act as our preliminary site plan going forward.”
For now, with Jones’ and Viator’s announcement, the zoning issue appears moot. Brown said the McNears wish to “put this on hold since the Cooter’s business is pulling out and then we’ll regroup and go from there.”
Jones and Viator responded to a voicemail from this reporter asking for comment with a terse email: “Here is my comment to the Rappahannock News. I hope you will not take this personally. ‘The Rappahannock News has become a part of this story. Sadly, I do not trust the News to cover our business with objectivity and equanimity.’ Best Wishes, Ben Jones.”
Rappahannock News publisher Dennis Brack said in an email: “The Rappahannock News doesn’t have a dog in this fight, nor do we wish to. Our job is to report community news, and a big part of that job is to cover local government meetings, including the planning commission. So, when the Cooter’s issue was discussed, we reported on it and subsequent developments. There have been a couple of similar land use issues recently that the newspaper has covered in the same way.”
Opinions on the issue — on the Rappnet email list, and on various Facebook venues — continued yesterday, with Cooter’s supporters questioning the county’s commitment to small businesses and to tourism, and others pointing out the irony of Jones’ vocal opposition in 2015 to developer and longtime weekender Jim Abdo’s plans to open several businesses in the town of Washington.
How it came to this
From news reports and information from several sources familiar with the county’s zoning history, current ordinances and land-use policies, here is a brief timeline of the issue:
• The original store from the 1940s (or earlier) was zoned in the 1970s as General Commercial (for the store and front parking area) since it was in existence before the implementation of the zoning ordinance on Dec. 1, 1986. The commercial use was grandfathered in, creating a “spot zone” of commercial use in an agricultural zone. (The “classic definition of spot zoning is the process of singling out a small parcel of land for a use classification totally different from that of the surrounding area for the benefit of the owner of such property and to the detriment of other owners,” according to plannersweb.com.)
• In April 2013, then-County Administrator John McCarthy approved a boundary adjustment to allow for safer parking in the rear of the building, which had been reopened by the McNears as the Old Hollow Store.
• In March 2015, Jones and Viator opened Cooter’s in the Country at the site (U.S. 211 and Old Hollow Road in Sperryville). They applied for a special exception permit to hold outdoor music events on weekends, with associated parking on a portion of the McNears’ property not included in the GC zone.
• At the April 15, 2015 planning commission meeting, Jones and Viator faced a lengthy stretch of questions and concern from commissioners and a neighboring property owner’s worries about noise and traffic. There was also a more general concern about continued “spot zoning.” The commissioners suggested that the application be tabled until further work could be done on the proposal. But Jones and Viator withdrew their application during the meeting and left.
• On May 5 of this year, Dick McNear applied to rezone from Agriculture to General Commercial the boundary-adjusted portion of the store’s small parking lot, and a portion of the adjoining property, to allow an outdoor eating area as well as overflow parking for Cooter’s. Both areas were already being used for those purposes, allegedly in violation of the zoning ordinance.
• At the June 15 planning commission meeting, several members of the public spoke in opposition to McNear’s application. Reasons given included the spot zoning and the enlargement of a commercial operation into the agricultural zone. Some commenters objected to recent large events that they said were in violation of the ordinance, attracting hundreds of people and creating traffic problems. The commissioners expressed their desire to work with McNear and tabled the proposal.
• On June 25, Keyser received the first written complaint regarding the activity on the property.
• On July 12, McNear withdrew his rezoning application to complete research on a special exception permit under the terms of “expansion of nonconforming use.”
• On July 20, during the public comment period of the regular planning commission meeting, two people commented about Cooter’s, one in support and one in opposition. The planning commission voted unanimously to authorize Keyser to send a cease-and-desist letter to Jones and Viator until the application could be addressed by the commission.
• Soon after, Keyser spoke with McNear and Viator (in lieu of sending the letter). Keyser said the two agreed to cooperate with the county and consented to limit extra activities at Cooter’s (since the application was still pending).
• On July 25, McNear’s surveyor visited the county zoning office to review the applicant’s file and the current plat of the property. The July 29 application deadline for issues to be addressed at the August commission meeting passed without an application filed.
• At the Aug. 17 planning commission meeting, Keyser reported that because the various parties were working together toward a successful resolution of the zoning issue, she had not seen the necessity to send the cease-and-desist letter.
• On Aug. 18, Jones posted a press release announcing the closing of Cooter’s in the Country.
Follow the history of the issue in these RappNews.com articles:
Cooter’s scraps outdoor music plan:
Planners table commercial expansion at Cooter’s:
Planners, pressed, press on:
Videos of planning commission meetings can be seen on the Rappahannock Record’s Youtube channel:
June 15, 2016 Planning Commission meeting: youtube.com/watch?v=cHTfxxkITGQ
July 20, 2016 Planning Commission: youtube.com/watch?v=rXz5vdjrExI
Aug. 17, 2016 Planning Commission: youtube.com/watch?v=Nq8nkBztM-Y