The Nelson County Board of Supervisors approved a Special Use Permit for a farm winery shop and restaurant on Rt. 151 across from the former Blue Toad restaurant at their September 11 meeting.
The subject property, located at 9485 Rockfish Valley Highway, is zoned A-1 (agricultural) and owned by Rockfish Valley Events LLC. The applicant, Todd Rath, owner of Blue Toad Hard Cider and resident of Nellysford, opened by addressing the board about his experience with the approval process since purchasing the property from the Fox family in 2013. His original application was withdrawn.
Fourteen people came forward to speak on the application during the public comment session.
Massey Saunders, an engineer with a family history spanning generations in Nelson County, said he was concerned about “developers trying to take advantage” of a “lack of zoning ordinances to control growth” and ended by imploring the Board to “govern development in a responsible way.”
Most of the citizens opposing approval were residents of Rockfish Orchard, a neighboring residential community.
Ian Kelly expressed concern about protecting property values in the community. Kelly reminded the Board that “a petition of over 250 community signatures had been submitted to them to stop this development,” and said, “The Board of Supervisors needs to follow Nelson County’s Compre-hensive Plan.” Kelly also noted the disregard of the “Rockfish Valley Area Plan issued in 2017 and written with input solicited from the community.”
Phillip Dejong shares 1400 feet of boundary with the site. He expressed concern over adding another alcohol-fueled venue with amplified music that resonates loudly in the mountains and valleys. He played an audio recording for the Board made on his cellphone from his front porch that demonstrated what the local residents hear regularly.
Shirley McGatha, residing since 1992 in the first home built in Rockfish Orchard, has concern about encroachment onto her two-acre pond. Her property line is two inches from the roof line of an existing non-conforming building on the subject property.
Michael and Connie Fox, whose family has lived in the vicinity the since 1759, spoke against the project and about their concern as neighbors living across the road. The peaceful life Fox remembered has been altered dramatically since they became sandwiched between Brewing Tree and Silverback Distillery. Connie Fox experienced a rear-end collision when turning into her driveway, struck by a driver believed to be traveling about 60 mph around a curve on Rt. 151 that has limited sightlines.
Margaret Flather, an active opponent of the proposal, has started a Facebook page, Keep Afton Rural, that is not to be confused with an imitator calling itself Keeping Afton Rural. Flather called attention to a letter sent to all members of the Board in April from MADD— Mothers Against Drunk Driving. The letter stressed the dangers of adding new alcohol-related businesses to the Route 151 area. Flather provided information from the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles’ website that showed the number of alcohol-related accidents in Nelson County. The total was at 18 in 2016, 24 in 2017 and 18 so far this year. Flather summarized, “All we are asking is for the Board of Supervisors to follow the Planning and Zoning Ordinance for Nelson.”
Maynard Sipe, attorney for Rockfish Orchard, is a land use lawyer with Boyds & Sipe PLC. Sipe described the application as “one piece of a grand project” that is “not appropriately sited” and noted the “approval of zoning by special use permits violates the Comprehensive Plan.”
Two residents of Nellysford joined Lindsay Dorrier, the president of Nelson 151, a business organization, in speaking in favor of the permit.
Rath addressed the board again after the public hearing to rebut the negative remarks. Rath told the board that “if you don’t approve this Special Use Permit application, I will just develop it by-right.”
Thomas Harvey, North District Supervisor representing Afton, expressed his clear opposition to the project with many concerns on changes between the original and the current Special Use Permit application. Harvey stressed the professional qualifications, in-depth review process and recommendation of the Planning and Zoning Commission who have voted to deny this project. Ernie Reed, of Nellysford, representing the Central District, also spoke against the project, citing strong opposition in the community. However, Jessie Rutherford, East District, and Larry Saunders, South District, in addition to current chair and West District representative Thomas Bruguiere, Jr., favored the development and voted to approve the permit.
Subsequent to the Board of Supervisors meeting, a group of community members met with Dorrier, representing Nelson 151, to identify what member businesses could do to be better neighbors. The casual setting at Rockfish Valley Community Center was intended to share concerns about the effect local business growth has had on the quality of life in the Rockfish Valley. Recommendations from neighbors included playing outdoor acoustic music, protecting residences and the night sky from lighting effects and offering of non-alcoholic beverages. Dorrier thanked the group, saying, “We want to be good neighbors and know the responsibility that comes with alcohol.”