A phalanx of Crozet citizens strode to the microphone facing Albemarle County Planning Commissioners June 8 and argued against granting a special use permit for water to the ReStoreN Station proposed for Rt. 250 in Crozet.
In the end, the permit was denied by a vote of four to two. The seventh, uncast vote belonged to Planning Commissioner Duane Zobrist, an attorney who had recently represented Brownsville Market owner Chris Suh in a challenge to the same project before the Board of Zoning Appeals. Zobrist, citing legal ethics and adding that he would advocate before the Board of Supervisors and in subsequent appeals, recused himself from the case at the start and left the auditorium.
Project developer Jeff Sprouse assumed his station was by-right but Deputy Zoning Administrator Ron Higgins determined last November that uncertainties over ReStoreN Station’s water impacts would require that it get a special use permit for higher water use in order to be approved. Located outside the Growth Area boundary, the site is not eligible for public water or sewer. The basis for the station’s by-right water use is 400 gallons for each parcel acre; in this case, it’s allowed 1625 gallons per day out of its well.
Sprouse, advised by his consultant Jo Higgins, applied for a permit for a mere one gallon more than their limit.
County staffers reported that the county engineer’s assessment is that there are not sufficient data to predict the station’s future impact on neighborhood water supplies. Staffers also reminded commissioners that in order to grant a special use permit, they would have to affirm that it would not have a substantial detrimental impact on neighboring properties.
Higgins told commissioners that they asked for one gallon more because data from even larger WaWa stations show that ReStoreN Station wouldn’t use as much as its by-right allowance. Complimenting the efficiency of the fixtures chosen, she said that if bathroom usage caused water consumption to rise, the owners would lock up the bathrooms. She said the store would have 15 seats and therefore did not rise to the definition of a restaurant for health department purposes. She invited the county to monitor the well for itself.
Commissioner Mac Lafferty made the calculation, based on a state health department standard that says a gas station of this size will receive on average 10 cars per hour and that each car equates to 10 gallons of water use, that a station open 24 hours uses at least 2,400 gallons, more than ReStoreN Station’s by-right allowance.
Higgins replied that that was an old standard from the 1970s. She asserted that “there is no relationship between cars and water.” Some customers would just gas up. She said Brownsville Market uses about 750 gallons per day. She predicted that in a peak hour, say lunchtime, about 120 cars would visit the station.
Lafferty asked about storm water management. Higgins said it would run off into two underground tanks holding 27,000 gallons and from there would be reused for landscaping water.
Laffety asserted that the system could not cope with a rain of one inch per hour over its surfaced area and that 300 such tanks would be necessary to do the job.
The proposed system met requirements, Higgins responded.
Shifting to hear public comment, Commissioner Tom Loach asked the staff whether the county engineer’s report was based on sound engineering practices. Yes, it was.
Speaking first, Marcia Joseph, a former commission member, reminded commissioners of the no-detriment standard and noted that the developers had not supplied figures sought about consumption of the recharge water. She drew attention to the unknown nature of future consequences. What would higher-than-allowed water use mean for the neighbors’ wells? Or what if storm run-off overwhelms the tanks and runs down the hill into the houses below in Freetown.
“It’s not fair to make the community monitor the water use, nor is it to let [the developers] do it themselves,” she said. “There are no plans for what will happen if they exceed their limit. Will they close gates?”
Doug Frazier, a hydro-environmental engineer hired to make an assessment, reported that the grassy undeveloped parcel has a recharge rate [water replenishing the water table] of 2,100 gallons per day and that the project would reduce that rate by 75 percent. Available ground water would decrease, even if the utmost recharge could be captured from the site.
Frazier agreed that the report lacked data for basing predictions. “Private wells are inadequately documented,” he said.
“The net effect is to the detriment of neighbors’ wells,” he concluded.
Freetown resident and native Richard Brown said the 150-year-old neighborhood has nine bored wells of various depths, four dug wells and three springs in it, which, in the past, everyone had depended on. He was particularly worried about runoff. “[Sprouse’s] well will have to go deeper than ours. It will stress our wells. Runoff from the station on top of the hill will go into the springs. That will stress them with sediment and bacteria. We want assurance that our wells will not be hurt.”
Jeff Werner of the Piedmont Environmental Council said that a traffic study of the project was a prerequisite for determining its likely water use. Without that, the commissioners couldn’t say if the permit would not be detrimental to neighbors, he said.
Freetown resident Stacy Hunt told commissioners that when a well was drilled at her house, her neighbor’s well went dry. “What do you think will happen with the gas station?” she asked. “They say they will close the restroom. We all know that’s not a viable solution. We’re told that the county is too short-staffed to verify the project’s water usage data, so who is going to monitor their water usage?”
Jonathan Hunt pointed out that the lights in diesel pumps’ canopy on the rear of the site would be 40 feet above the houses in Freetown and that diesel trucks would idle there. “We shouldn’t have to justify our right to clean water and air.” He called the request for a one-gallon-more special permit “an insult to the commissioners and the community.”
Freetown resident David Fisher said that if the commissioners did their job correctly, “there is no way you could approve this permit.”
Gardy Bloemers, representing Scenic 250, said preliminary VDOT estimates predicted the station would increase traffic on that section of Rt. 250 from 10,000 to 12,500 vehicles per day. “What purpose is there in ruining our community to bring in truckers from I-64?” she asked.
Mary Rice repeated the concern over monitoring and noted that if the station closed its not-required-by-code bathrooms, the required ones would just get lines outside them. “That won’t save water. That will just make people wait on line.”
Bruce Kirtley made a comparison to Bellair Market, which uses 1,366 gallons per day, he said, and has half the floor space of ReStoreN Station, has only three pumps, is open from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m., and is not near an interstate. Scaling those factors up to ReStoreN Station’s size, one would expect it to use about 2,755 gallons per day, Kirtley asserted.
Crozet Community Advisory Council Mike Marshall described a resolution adopted by the CCAC that called for a traffic study in advance of a special permit approval. He said the staff’s decision to trust the applicant’s figures without verifying them is dangerous for the public and could subvert protections established in ordinances.
Commissioner Calvin Morris said he saw no reason to suspect the applicant’s data, but he was affected by the report of the well going dry. He pointed to a lack of hard data about usage.
Commissioner Linda Porterfield, who said she had checked out the vicinity of the project and found three gas stations and several restaurants, said, “I don’t think we can allocate precious resources this way.”
“We don’t have a good handle on the number of vehicle trips,” said Lafferty, “and I have major reservations about covering the drain fields with macadam.” He predicted that a heavy rain would send runoff with oil, gas and antifreeze in it over the curb and into neighbors’ yards and, ultimately, wells.
Commissioner Don Franco argued that approving the permit would establish a usage monitoring mechanism and suggested that penalties for going over the limit be greater than closing bathrooms.
Lafferty made a motion to deny the permit. “My common sense tells me they will use more than their limit.”
Loach said that the standard of no resulting detriment to neighbors had not been met.
“The potential for impact is there,” agreed Franco.
Higgins returned to the microphone and offered to reduce the number of gas pumps to four.
Loach said it was too late for deal-making.
The vote was called and the permit was denied 4 to 2, with “no” votes from Franco and Ed Smith, who held that a special use permit would allow county monitoring. The matter now goes to Supervisors for consideration.
With the SUP question resolved, the commission turned to whether the ReStoreN Station site plan itself should be voted on, a matter that seemed moot to some commissioners now that the SUP had been denied. Nonetheless, Higgins described the layout again and said she was not interested in deferring a vote on it. The developers had asked earlier that day for a waiver of landscape buffers in order to build a six- foot fence and add plantings along the project’s west boundary. Staff recommended no. The Commission voted the waiver down, 5 to 1, with Porterfield alone in favor.
Given their chance to speak on issues besides water, opponents likened the plan to a truck stop and after hearing their criticisms of its scale as the second largest gas station in the county, its blank zone promising an undefined future addition, its traffic impacts so near schools, the impacts of high canopy lights and truck noise on Freetown residents, and negative consequences for Crozet Master Plan goals, Higgins reversed direction and decided to defer the vote. She accused opponents of wanting to suppress ReStoreN Station because it would compete with nearby convenience stores.
No vote was taken.