See you in court : Arby's owner has beef with county

It wasn't the typical Arby's ad pushing roast beef sandwiches. Instead, the quarter-page advertisement in the December 29 Daily Progress was a call to arms.

Tom Slonaker, who owns an Arby's at Forest Lakes and another in Ruckersville, received a warrant of debt from the county, which means the county is taking him to court for not correcting zoning violations. His ad accuses Albemarle County of engaging in "frivolous" suits. In it he vows he'll go to jail before giving in to the county's "extortion."

His offenses? Flying an Arby's flag underneath the American flag in front of the restaurant, parking an Arby's van in the front rather than the rear of the building, and putting signs in the windows without permits.

County spokesman Lee Catlin says the trouble started in August when Forest Lakes residents began complaining. Slonaker was asked to remove the offending flag, van and signs and flatly refused.

"I said, 'That's it,' and started being obstinate, and they're taking me to court," says Slonaker.

"We have no problem with the American flag," says Catlin, but the county considers the Arby's flag a sign, and that's not allowed. "He's flying something to promote his business, not his patriotism," she adds.

To Slonaker, it comes down to a matter of property rights. "It's my property, and I'll fly that flag," he says, insisting also that he should be able to park his van wherever he wants on his property and put signs in the windows of his store. He calls the county's enforcement "arbitrary," "capricious," and downright "anti-business."

What's the problem with parking a van in front of one's business? "The way he's altered it falls under the definition of a sign," says Catlin. "The purpose of it is to advertise his business."

Slonaker doesn't necessarily see that as a bad thing. He claims that in the three years he's been at the Forest Lakes location he's lost money by adhering to the county's demands.

When he opened the restaurant, he wasn't allowed to use the basic, easily recognized Arby's designs "because it wasn't Jeffersonian." That design, says Slonaker, is a proven winner that usually generates over $1 million in revenues. His store's take is significantly under that.

"We're seeing our business struggle," he says, blaming county requirements for a small sign instead of the traditional giant Arby's 10-gallon-hat sign. He believes low lights and a building that doesn't stand out also prevent customers from knowing he's there.

Catlin says Albemarle County doesn't want to be in an adversarial position with a business, but she cites safety and aesthetic issues, as well as community values. The posters in the window affect safety, she says, because they prevent police officers from being able to see the cash register when they drive by.

And 29 north is an entrance corridor that the county doesn't want to look cluttered. "The community has high expectations of visual quality," she notes.

Forest Lakes resident John MacDonald concurs. "I don't think anyone in Forest Lakes wants the entrance corridor in front of us to end up like the urban sprawl around Fashion Square Mall."

Slonaker, who describes his business as "an upscale restaurant for fast food," sees nothing wrong with the standard Arby's "pinnacle" design, which he says is similar to the revamped KFC on Emmet Street.

Currently Slonaker is facing a $100 fine for each of his three violations, and penalties could be assessed as high as $2,400 when he goes to court January 27, according to Catlin.

Slonaker is prepared to fight. "I do not want to come across as mad or vindictive," he says. "I want to be treated fairly, and I'm willing to commit personal resources."

Apparently Slonaker's ad has touched a nerve among county business owners. Since he appeared on a WINA talk show on December 30, "I can't keep up with the calls," he says, and he estimates he's gotten 35 supportive emails.

Allen Powell, who owns Pyramid Construction, is one of those who contacted Slonaker. Powell is moving his business to Louisa County, taking with him the $200,000 in equipment taxes he pays every year. The reason? "The County of Albemarle," replies Powell. "It's like you don't even own your own property. It's like socialism."

Powell thinks Albemarle's building and zoning requirements are so complicated and bureaucratic that it "takes a Philadelphia lawyer to figure out what to do."

However, Catlin contends that if the community doesn't like the zoning standards, the correct course is to change the ordinances.

Forest Laker MacDonald commends the zoning department for citing Arby's, an action that he believes most of his neighbors support. "We want the county to strictly enforce the zoning ordinances," he says.

Slonaker has an agreement with Arby's to build five stores, but he's decided against building the next one on Pantops because of what he calls Albemarle County's micromanagement of issues he considers ridiculous such as taking him to court over the Arby's flag.

"Zion Crossroads looks more and more attractive," he says.

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