Re-store’N Station on Rt. 250, just west of Western Albemarle High School, is seeking to triple in size by adding rental commercial spaces, two more fuel pumps, a drive-through food operation and a four-bay auto repair shop. It has submitted a request to alter the terms of its Special Use Permit.
The focus of a contentious and sometimes bitter dispute when it was finally awarded a SUP for water use in 2010, the gas station and convenience store was recently known as Mulberry Station, until its management collapsed. Now, since owner Jeff Sprouse has taken over active management, it has been renamed Crozet Store.
A dispute over how much square footage the County Supervisors had approved, was provoked when the second floor of the station was enlarged after the SUP was granted. That issue was finally resolved by a court case in 2013 in which Albemarle Circuit Court Judge Cheryl Higgins ruled against the station and enforced the Supervisors’ permit conditions, one of which limited the size of the footprint of the building on the 4.06-acre parcel to 3,000 square feet.
The Crozet Community Advisory Committee was introduced to the new scheme for the property at its January 21 meeting at The Meadows. Development consultant Jo Higgins, prominent in the station’s first approval foray, represented Sprouse, who did not attend the meeting.
A new two-story, L-shaped addition to the existing building, extending it to the west and in the rear, would add 2,800 square feet of leasable commercial space. A drive-through lane would separate that addition from a new two-story, 6,500 sq/ft building behind it containing the auto repair shop, with more offices above. Higgins said the drive-through would likely serve a donut franchise.
The space for the new buildings would be found by filling in the station’s storm water detention pond and replacing it with underground tanks under the parking lot.
The property is in front of Freetown, an historically black neighborhood that was settled immediately after the Civil War in the 1860s. Freetown residents opposed the original SUP out of fear for what would happen to their wells. Several came to the CCAC meeting to express their renewed opposition.
The county’s rules for the station’s water use limited daily consumption to 1,625 gallons, a figure based on the parcel’s size and the county’s 400 gallons per day per acre limit on wells in rural zoned areas. Among the county’s SUP conditions was the installation of a meter on the wellhead and a flow valve that would cut off daily use once it reached 1,625 gallons.
Higgins said the data on water use is self-reported by Sprouse, who records it weekly on Tuesdays at 9 a.m. She said that so far the figures show that the station uses only 25 percent of its daily allotment, and their expansion proposal is meant to be able to maximize their available water right. Higgins explained that one occasion where the data showed the station had used a greater-than-normal amount was an occasion where an employee had mistakenly hosed off the store’s sidewalks.
Freetown resident Sandra Mears, a lifelong resident of the neighborhood, seized the floor as Higgins finished her overview and hotly challenged the plan. She said Freetown is “bombarded with light from the station” and that since the station opened it has been “nearly impossible for us to get out [onto 250], especially to go left.” Other residents supported her claim, agreeing that they cannot not safely turn into their driveway, a reflection of growing traffic on Rt. 250.
“There are trucks there all night,” Mears also asserted, adding that the station is open longer hours than allowed. The SUP conditions limit the station to 16 hours of operation a day and forbid overnight parking. No chain exists to close off access to the station overnight.
Freetown residents Jason Crutchfield and his wife Erica Haskins (the parents of Western Albemarle football star Osiris Crutchfield) were present and said that a spring that used to run in Freetown “has virtually dried up and turned oily.” They said they intend to start testing of the water coming off the station property.
“It doesn’t look like there is much thought going into how to be a good community partner,” CCAC member Beth Bassett observed. “You have to think of your neighbors,” she told Higgins.
CCAC member John Savage, who has served on the council since the first SUP controversy, detailed the SUP’s conditions to remind other members.
“You guys are not trying to be good neighbors,” Mears said next. “What’s up with trying to aggravate Freetown. What’s up with you?!” She brought up Warren James’s auto repair business next door to the station, challenging the need for another repair shop in the same location and implying that another goal of the new proposal is to drive James out of business.
“Are you just shoving this down our throats? Why are we here?” demanded Mears.
CCAC member Phil Best said to Higgins, “You did agree to the 16-hour limit in order to get into business. It’s not unfair because you did agree to it. You should follow it.” He also raised the 3,000-square-foot building limit imposed in the conditions.
Higgins asserted that the conditions relate only to water usage.
“Your business is not using water because people in Crozet don’t want to go there,” said White Hall District Planning Commissioner Jennie More. “If the store had better trade the water use would be higher.”
CCAC member Leslie Burns observed, “Our goal is to watch over the master plan and that plan is to not let commercial business expand along 250 but to orient it into downtown and this makes us one more commercial highway. Now that you are in there, you say you are going to do this. It’s a smack in the face.”
A few days after the meeting, White Hall District Supervisor Ann Mallek joined More on a fact-finding visit to Freetown, where the residents showed them around.
The possibility was raised of requiring the station to install a wireless water meter that would send data directly to County officials, rather than having it recorded by Sprouse. Mallek said, “Anything is possible.”
Richard Brown, a lifelong resident of Freetown and a party to the lawsuit over the station in 2012, said two natural springs, one next to a towering old poplar tree, that provided water for the Freetown houses when they were built following the Civil War have dried up since Re-store’N station has opened.
Freetown had 13 houses in it until the 1950s, Brown said, but is now reduced to eight. There are now three black families and three white families living there with a total of 10 children, he said.
Mears contended that “[Sprouse] has the principle that it’s easier to ask forgiveness than to ask permission. He does what he shouldn’t do.”
More said the county is looking into complaints about the station’s compliance with its conditions, especially those that it does not limit its hours of operation to 16 and that it allows tractor trailers to park in the rear of the station overnight. Haskins said one truck had been parked there for a week. Residents, pointing out the station’s elevation, said lights would be even higher and more intrusive if the proposal is allowed.
Mallek said, “We need to see where the [property] lines are and what the zoning is. We don’t fill in streams any more. The drainage here is not working.”
Brown, a retired bus driver, brought up traffic concerns. “There are lots of near misses [of accidents] on Rt. 250 now. You just shake your head. One day it’s going to happen. It’s got to. It’s very dangerous.”
“[Other drivers] expect us to be turning into the gas station when we are slowing for our driveway,” Mears agreed, “and they are right on your butt and they give you dirty look, like ‘Why are you turning in there?’ And I say, because I live here!”
Freetown residents said they are not upset about the impact of their new neighbor Pro Re Nata Brewery. They called brewery owner Dr. John Schoeb “considerate” for leaving a buffer of woods between their homes and the brewery. “We have no complaints about him and we talk to him when we’re in his [dental] chair,” said Mears. “He’ll tell you what’s going on.”
County planner Bill Fritz, who is assigned to the project, told the CCAC that the earliest possible date for the Planning Commission to hear the application would be February 23.
In his later written comments on the application, considered as preliminary, Fritz informed Sprouse that the drive-through “is not supported by staff” because it is not separated from the travel lane. He also noted that the county engineer has raised a concern that the rate of recharge of the water table would be less than the rate of consumption, due to greater paved area, raising again the specter of wells drying up in Freetown.
It was predictable, but the powers that be didn’t want to do the sensible thing for the Freetowners. That thing would have been to extend the county water supply to the station so that Freetown wells would not be depleted. Those people living in that historic area and, coincidentally, not counted among the wealthiest in this up-and-coming region are the collateral damage of the county and the local drivers and dreamers of what the ideal Crozet is to be.
In a way this looks like eminent domain. Without water your place becomes worthless, therefore it can be purchased and fitted nicely into the Crozet development master plan. If that is not what is really going on, then this needs to get fixed…yesterday! Terrible.