Dividing line: Station brings Crozet's rural ideal into focus
For decades, "Protect the rural areas" has been the veritable mantra of the Albemarle Board of Supervisors. That spirit has helped anyone driving on U.S. 250 west of Charlottesville view grazing cows instead of the clustered subdivisions that been popping up around Crozet, a designated growth area. But sometimes the ideals of the Comprehensive Plan collide with reality.
Take, for instance, the strip of U.S. 250 between Western Albemarle High and Interstate 64. Long dotted with commerce, it includes gas stations, an auto body shop, a chain-fenced equipment storage yard, the Moose Lodge, and a lumber mill. And yet it's zoned rural.
That's why when Will Yancey tried to a build a light industrial park behind the heavy industrial R.A. Yancey Lumber site two years ago, he couldn't get the nod for his 184-acre dream–- even though the site borders I-64 and even as county staff acknowledges a shortage of light industrial zoning.
That same rural designation has shaped the more recent debate over Jeff and Michelle Sprouse's plan to put in a Sheetz-sized service station along the same strip. The Sprouses own a four-acre parcel that formerly housed the dilapidated-but-rustic Ward's Small Engine Repair. For the past two years, neighbors have been crying foul, fearing the proposed 16-nozzle station, dubbed Re-Store 'N Station, would deplete the water table.
"It's going to possibly drain my well," says Richard Brown, whose property lies in nearby Freetown, a historic cluster of properties originally settled by freed slaves. Brown says his 70-foot well went dry in September, and he had to dig a 240-footer.
Here's an irony: a major water supply pipe runs right by the proposed station property–- and Freetown–- but neither the Freetowners nor the Sprouses can tap into it because of the rural zoning.
Another irony: Despite the rural designation, most of the surrounding–- and objecting–- neighbors are tapped in to the public water system. One more irony, which must really sting the Sprouses: Their little Ward's Small Engine Repair house was connected to public water, but when they tore it down, they lost the right to hook back up.
Opponents to their heavily punctuated project (they say a consultant friend helped devise the name Re-Store 'N Station) gathered for a mid-October press conference in front of the house of Bruce Kirtley, who owns the Exxon station next door.
"We've got one 29 North; we've got Pantops," says Kirtley over the steady rumble of traffic. "We don't want to turn Crozet into another one."
In a county without a Sheetz, opponents frequently compare the planned Re-Store 'N Station to the next biggest thing: the Liberty on Pantops. They also point out that the heavily traveled road with its Exxon and Shell station lies within an Albemarle entrance corridor.
"No traffic study has been done," says Mary Rice, who lives in White Hall and serves on the County's Crozet Community Advisory Committee. And fellow Western Albemarler Mary Gallo worries about the safety of children attending Brownsville Elementary, Henley Middle School, and Western Albemarle High.
On October 13, the day of the press conference, the Board of Supervisors rebuffed a special use permit for the Re-Store 'N Station–- unless it gets pared down. The Sprouses were told to come back with a a 3,000-square-foot station that operates 16 hours a day and to slice the number of nozzles form 16 to 10.
"We were cut down to about half of what we were asking," says Jo Higgins, who represents the Sprouses. She had hoped that the promise of an underground storage tank to hold landscaping water as well as a restrictor valve to staunch the flow from the station's well to one-gallon-per-minute would ease the neighbors' groundwater fears.
Having formerly served as a Planning Commissioner, Higgins is no stranger to Albemarle development issues, but she says she's never been exposed to such "vicious" opposition that included booing at meetings and a threatening letter from the attorney of Brownsville Market owner Chris Suh, who bought the market from the Sprouses in 2008. The Sprouses have a four-year noncompete agreement with Suh.
Higgins believes some of the opposition coalesced several years ago with the proposed Yancey Business Park.
"From Western Albemarle to I-64, anyone would agree that is not rural," says Higgins. "It's just a line."
Supervisor Dennis Rooker, though he recently okayed a rural-area sewer extension for the Whittington subdivision in another part of the county, defends sticking with the rural designation around the Sprouses' project. "There's a domino effect," says Rooker. "Where do you stop?"
As for the owners, Michelle Sprouse says she and her husband envision the Re-Store 'N Station as an environmentally friendly place–- complete with healthy foods–- and whose the motto will be "refuel, replenish, refresh."
"We are a local family," says Sprouse. "The station would locally owned and locally run."
She also wants to shoot down the rumor that she and her husband wanted to build a truck stop at the just-off-I-64 location. "That's not in our interest," says Sprouse. "Trucks would take up all of our parking."