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Town planners wrestle with Beer Museum request for parking exemption

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Downtown Front Royal property owner David Downes expressed some frustration at a Town Planning Commission work session on Wednesday, August 1.  He returned for his second work session discussion of a parking exemption request for his Virginia Beer Museum.

Downes recently constructed a wooden fence around the rear patio and parking area for the museum in the historic Board House at 16 Chester Street and his adjacent law office at 14 Chester.  Downes owns both buildings and the parking area behind them.

His intention is to expand his backyard patio area into a beer garden capable of hosting larger crowds for special events or just larger gatherings of fans of the history and taste of Virginia craft beers.  That expanded patio would extend into what are currently private parking spaces for Downes’ two buildings.

Looking left and right from the back porch of Va. Beer Museum – proprietor David Downes is seeking permission from the Town to expand his rear patio area into his private parking area for 14 and 16 Chester Street. Photos/Roger Bianchini

The parking behind Downes’ buildings abuts the Town’s Peyton Street Parking lot near the intersection of Chester and Peyton Streets.  The owner of an East Main Street business complained to the town council recently that Downes’ fence had cut off her long-time parking access behind the Downes property, as well as direct access to the Peyton Street parking lot.

Looking toward the patio-parking area from the Town’s Peyton Street parking lot – currently, the gate, which was not originally permitted with the fence, must be kept open to facilitate parking when the Beer Museum is open.

Downes arrived to the Wednesday evening work session at 7 p.m., an hour after it started in the Town Hall second-floor meeting room.  His attention was quickly caught by an idea in one of the agenda packet’s reference materials broached earlier by Planning Commissioner Cee Ann Davis.  That idea pulled from “Front Royal Redevelopment Recommendations” is a cash contribution to the Town for future parking improvements per exempted private parking spaces lost in the designated “Downtown Revitalization Area”.

That area largely centered along the East Main Street Historic Business District and portions of Chester and Jackson Streets is earmarked for public and private-sector upgrades with $700,000 in recently-awarded State Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) funding and local matching dollars.  East Main Street-addressed businesses are exempted from parking requirements; however, those on Chester and Jackson Streets are not.

The amount Davis had referenced to go into a funding pot for future parking improvements, possibly including at some point a tiered parking deck, was $5,000 per space.  Cost estimates for a fee-based 250-space parking deck was quoted between $2.5 million and $6.5 million.  Monthly operational and maintenance costs were estimated at $350 to $600 per space with parking fees designed to help cover that expense.

Planning Commissioner Cee Ann Davis wonders at long-term prospects for downtown parking if there is a trend toward lost private-sector spaces.

However, a Northern Shenandoah Valley Regional Commission (NSVRC) report presented by staff citing the above numbers, noted that current demand for parking was “adequately met by the supply of free spaces” and that a fee-based parking deck in downtown Front Royal was “financially infeasible” at the present time.

The NSVRC report did point out that four existing sites downtown could meet minimum space requirements for a tiered parking deck without the demolition of any existing structures. One of those is in the Peyton Street lot adjacent to the Downes properties.  Others include the old sheriff’s office parking lot where FRPD is currently housed and two other nearby properties on Jackson Street.

Not being present to hear that $5,000 per-space number questioned by some of Davis’s colleagues earlier, Downes may have been thinking, “Wait, what?!!?” as he quickly moved from the front row of public seating to the conference table the planning commissioners and staff occupied.

Attorney by trade, State Beer Museum operator by avocation, Downes argued that his 20 years as a tax-paying downtown property owner and efforts to redevelop what had been a vacant building where the Virginia Beer Museum now sits should hold some weight as far as the imposition of additional fees to allow him to utilize his property as he best sees fit.

“I’m getting a little frustrated,” he told the five planning commissioners present, “I’m surrounded by parking – parking the Town cites as getting 20% usage.”  Actually, stats presented by Town Planning Director Jeremy Camp earlier indicated a 20% to 39% usage of the section of the Peyton Street lot adjacent to Downes’ property between 8 a.m. and 4 p.m.

Town Planning Director Jeremy Camp explains color-coded parking regulations in Front Royal’s Downtown Revitalization District.

Downes cited a past reputation of the town government as “not business friendly”.  He contended that reputation contributed to some long-term building vacancies downtown, like the Board House the Beer Museum now occupies.  Downes said placing what he considered unreasonable financial demands on him to get a parking exemption to best utilize his properties could lead him to shut down the Virginia Beer Museum.

“It will go back to being vacant if that’s the attitude,” he told town planners of the $5,000 per exempted parking space idea.

Prior to Downes arrival Planning Commissioner Joseph McFadden said, “To my mind he has a case for exemption – he has a closed-off space no one else really uses – it will probably be approved.”

At this point, McFadden tried to ease the applicant’s mind.

“You understand, we’re the planning commission; we look at long-term development and trends … We don’t decide, we make recommendations to the council.  I think we’re sympathetic to you … We have to consider what’s the best way forward, which is why we are scheduling one more work session to have the (town) attorney in to discuss how this fits in with the Comprehensive Plan,” McFadden said, adding, “I think this board is friendly to businesses and business owners.”

“Thank you for your service,” Downes replied to McFadden’s summary of his commission’s stance and perspective.

Along with Planning Commissioners Darryl Merchant and Joseph McFadden, foreground, a concerned Va. Beer Museum proprietor David Downes, far end of table, listens to discussion of WHAT price per lost parking space?!!?

However, one sticking point remained – time.

Downes asked at what pace consideration of his exemption request would move forward.  “This year is already past as far as landscaping a beer garden,” he noted.

With or without the additional work session, Planning Director Camp told Downes the earliest the planning commission could hold its public hearing due to timelines for required public advertising was September.  Following the public hearing and vote the commission would forward its recommendation to the town council, launching the final arbiter’s public hearing process and eventual vote to approve or deny the request.

“Things don’t move fast – they take time,” McFadden observed of the governmental process.

Downes noted that the second anniversary of the Virginia Beer Museum’s opening was September 22.  And with the Virginia Beer Museum’s creation being a result of legislation passed by former Governor Terry McAuliffe to promote Virginia’s craft beer brewing industry, Downes noted that he had reached out to current Governor Ralph Northam to be a guest at that second-anniversary celebration.

Of his hope to have the museum’s expanded beer garden ready for that event, Downes lamented he would just have to report to the governor’s staff, “I’ll just say, Ron, things take time.”

But after six months-plus in the State’s top executive office, chances are both the governor and his staff already know that.

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