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‘Browntown at Night’ – NO agricultural event center here… maybe

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Among opponents speaking against the Albarelli proposal was Alan Brockway, chief of South Warren’s Volunteer Fire Company 3. Like many, Brockway expressed traffic safety concerns, noting Co. 3 already averages one traffic accident call per week on Browntown Rd. Photos/Roger Bianchini.

FRONT ROYAL – Rather than a TV show featuring the dance-music-era “night life” of a community, Wednesday evening’s “Browntown at Night” gathering at a Warren County Government Center Meeting Room nearly full of South Warren residents showed that a clear majority is perfectly happy with their commercial nightlife status quo – NONE!!!

At issue at the January 10 Warren County Planning Commission meeting were zoning amendment and conditional use permit requests by Browntown property owners Michael and Judith Albarelli. Approved, those requests would allow an “agricultural events center” on an 87-acre portion of their 300-acre, Agriculturally-zoned property off Broad Run Road. A number of the 44 speakers at two public hearings – one on the zoning amendment, the other on a conditional use permit for the Albarelli property – expressed respect, admiration and even affection for the couple, as well as some of their preservation plans for their property. However, only five expressed outright support for their proposal to allow an agricultural events center estimated for 20 to 30 events per year, with guests numbering from 40 to 50 or 150 to 250 depending on perceptions of the proposal.

Consequently, by a 3-2 margin the planning commission voted to forward the zoning ordinance amendment request to the board of supervisors with a recommendation of denial. Commissioners Stickley, Smelser and Henry opposed the zoning amendment, with Myers and Rinaldi supporting it.

The Albarelli’s CUP application for their property was then postponed for 90 days on a unanimous voice vote. That “split decision” indicated a belief by the planning commission, and perhaps some of the speakers in opposition to the Albarellis’ application, that some variation of agricultural events centers on Agriculturally-zoned land is not a bad idea in principal.

At issue for the great bulk of Browntown residents opposing the proposal were the wide range of events sought in the application, as well as traffic safety issues on Browntown and Broad Run Roads. The list of events the Albarelli’s planned for their property included “company picnics and recreational gatherings, family reunions, retirement parties, fundraising galas, reception dinners, small weddings, educational retreats, seminars and workshops. Noise from some of those events carrying for miles across Browntown, or just across the street, was cited as a disruption of the quiet, rural lifestyle ambience most residents have either stayed or moved to Browntown to achieve.

A number of opponents pointed out that events like weddings, company picnics, recreational gatherings and fundraising galas were NOT “agricultural events”. Those same critics had less issue with educational retreats, seminars and workshops related to agricultural uses and preservation.

In fact, addressing his and his wife’s proposal to open the public hearing on the conditional use permit application, Michael Albarelli explained that he was seeking a revenue source to support his efforts toward “forest management” for the bulk of his 300 acres – “that cost is daunting” Albarelli said. He agreed that many of the events described in his proposal were not agriculture in nature, but he noted they would support his forest management efforts on his property.

Above, Michael Albarelli states his case for an event center to financially support his desired forest management project for his 300 acre property; below, the Albarellis, center, find a light moment among the generally good-natured hostility.

Albarelli bemoaned a lack of communications with neighbors and what he described as misrepresentations of his proposal.

“Our specific property has been severely misrepresented, which is why there are so many people here,” Albarelli said. He added that social media or other descriptions of him related to the application were “a little bit of character assassination”. Albarelli said he was described as “an absentee landlord with a get-rich scheme – I assure you that is not true,” he said.

Albarelli observed that worldwide the Shenandoah Valley is recognized as “the best example … of nature reclaiming an area that was clear-cut for agricultural purposes.” Then he pointed to ongoing threats to that naturally-reclaimed Valley from gypsy moths, fungus and other threats from multiple environmental and other sources.

“Our ultimate dream is to undertake the kind of educational seminars … to support this type of activity,” Albarelli said of forest management and preservation of the natural wonders that Browntown has developed within.
And while most speakers would share the Albarellis’ concern and desire to develop strategies to preserve their slice of the Shenandoah Valley, the scope of the Albarelli application was too much for most to agree to.

So the postponement of a vote on the Albarelli Conditional Use Permit application to allow it to be reworked to deal with the nature, size, traffic and other variables may be a positive sign. That sign being that with ongoing cooperation, the Albarellis, their neighbors and the county planning staff may be able to come up with a compromise proposal that will be seen as a benefit to Browntown, Warren County and the Shenandoah Valley, rather than a detriment.

Most opponents, like former Park Ranger Cindy Barnhart, might agree that forest management is a good end, but that the Albarelli CUP application is not the best means to that end.

One crucial variable on a potential compromise will be traffic management and perhaps road improvements to both Browntown and Broad Run Roads. One man described Broad Run Road off which the Albarelli property lies as “not much wider than this podium” as he spoke at one of the public hearings.
“Who pays for road improvements – will VDOT help?” Happy Creek Planning Commissioner Robert Myers wondered. County Planning Director Taryn Logan observed there were no road improvements included as part of the original Albarelli application.

Fork District Planning Commissioner Hugh Henry pointed to aspects of a compromise, suggesting less vehicular traffic accessing events, no amplified music, one-day events only that would be concluded by a prescribed time, likely late afternoon or early evening – “I can support this, just not as it’s written,” Henry said prior to the vote to postpone the conditional use permit application.

“I think we all agree that Mr. and Mrs. Albarelli are very professional and squared-away people,” Shenandoah District Planning Commissioner Ralph Rinaldi added. “I agree with Mr. Henry and Mr. Myers that this should be delayed and redone to fit what was said here tonight … As was said, that property could be logged (by right in an Agriculture District). I’m all for property rights – as long as they work to the best interest, safety and welfare of the people in that area.”

Were a positive resolution on the Albarelli permit application reached three months down the road, the planners would have to revisit their initial 3-2 recommendation of denial of the zoning amendment that would facilitate that permit – or perhaps just tell the supervisors to ignore that recommendation, upon further consideration.

Also at the first county planning commission meeting of 2018, Scott Stickley, Robert Myers and Cindy Kokernak were unanimously re-elected as board chairman, vice chairman and secretary, respectively.

In the end the county planning commissioners decided to see if the Albarelli application can be re-tooled over three months to their and a Browntown majority’s liking.

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