Virginia Retail Zoning Questioned

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Virginia Retail Zoning Questioned

JAMES CITY COUNTY, Va. -- Commercial realty agents complain that overzealous zoning is keeping gas stations and convenience stores out of the county. Get over it, say slow-growth advocates who consider giant convenience stores a blight. Either way, consumers are having to drive farther to find gas.

"The regulatory environment in James City [County] is anti-business," contends Chris Henderson of Trammel Crow commercial realty. James City County surrounds Williamsburg, Va., but operates under a separate government.

The county staff has a history of dragging developers through time-consuming steps as a form of discouragement, and it has hit the mother lode by capitalizing on history, reports The Virginia Gazette. Henderson's biggest client Exxon Mobil Corp. has given up on developing a store in James City because of costly archaeological digs required by the county.

"Exxon bought the land for $200,000 and they've already spent $75,000 on two digs," Henderson said. "When the county said a Phase 3 dig was needed, Exxon decided it would be cost-prohibitive to develop the site."

Henderson said nothing substantial was found, but John Horne, director of development management for the county, disagreed. "There is a significant archaeological site on that property," he said.

Horne makes no apology for James City's standards when it comes to archaeological studies. "We have more stringent standards than other jurisdictions. But they apply across the board, not just to gas stations."

He continued, "The standards are based on specific criteria developed for us by a wide range of professional archaeologists, and the policy has been adopted and used by several boards of supervisors."

"That's just another tool in the toolbox to limit commercial development," Henderson countered.

Henderson and Exxon also struck out years ago in the city because it was too close to Green Spring Plantation.

Chris Rouzie of Thalhimer Realty represents the convenience store Wawa Inc. One store was built in Williamsburg, Va., but with severe restrictions that make the appearance more muted.
Rouzie said his client never looked at any property in James City. "The more restrictions in a municipality, the less eager you are to dive in," he said.

If Wawa was interested in setting up shop in James City, a special use permit would be required, which in some cases can take up to four months. Depending on the location, an archaeological dig could also be required.

York County, by contrast, has zoning that allows convenience stores and gas stations by-right, bypassing a special use permit. Williamsburg also has land designations that allow stores by-right. An applicant's main hurdle is going before the Architectural Review Board, which is infamous for being picky about the details.

One source, who asked to not to be identified, said several years ago he attempted to build a gas station and convenience store in James City. He was told by the county that "it wouldn't happen," the report said. As a result, "I didn't even go through the permitting process."

"Gas retailers and convenience centers consider this a good market and know there is the potential for profitable locations, but finding those locations and getting them permitted is difficult," Henderson said. "All sites require a special use permit, which is basically a rezoning in disguise."

Some would argue that tighter restrictions are just what James City needs to avoid a glut of convenience stores with gas pumps. "We have made a well-thought-out and conscious policy decision, not to discourage those uses, but to make sure nearby neighborhoods can sufficiently address high volume uses that have very long hours of operations," Horne said. He was referring to complaints from neighbors about noise and light well into the night.

"These are 24-hour, high-intensity uses," Horne continued. "We need to think very carefully on where they go and how they are designed."