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For Toano native Jessica Aiken, opening a wedding and event venue has been a lifelong dream. So when an ideal location went up for sale on Richmond Road, she started a business plan, connected with local businesses and lined up a potential investor.
There was just one problem—the rural location was zoned A1, a designation that does not permit event venues of any kind.
Rather than give up on her dream, Aiken is working with the James City County Planning Department to make the zoning of rural lands inclusive of event facilities, a potential change that has garnered mixed responses from planning commissioners, business owners and residents.
Aiken, the owner of Wedding Company of Williamsburg, said the demand is high for events on rural lands, especially weddings. She said brides who want to have a wedding at a barn near Williamsburg have three options, all of which are in New Kent.
“James City County is in serious need of a venue space, whether it’s for a wedding, anniversary or party,” Aiken said. “It’s so difficult as a wedding planner to drive everyone outside of James City County, and the reason I do that is because we don’t have any venue space here.”
She noted that Legacy Hall in New Town is a “beautiful venue” for events, but the building can only hold 150 people.
“With wedding sizes increasing, it’s been really difficult to find something that’s within everyone’s parameters at an affordable price,” Aiken said.
JCC Senior Planners Ellen Cook and Leanne Pollock said in the past 12 months they have received three conceptual plans for event facilities in rural lands. Pollock added that the county has also explored alternative ways rural land owners could use their property to generate additional income as part of a grant-funded rural economic development study.
“It bubbled up as something that could help rural land owners through our strategic plan process and it also bubbled up with people asking if they could start these types of facilities on their properties,” Pollock said.
In October, Cook and Pollock included zoning ordinance amendments to address event venues in rural lands among a list of items the Planning Commission’s Policy Committee could consider in the coming year. The committee met Jan. 27 to discuss initial planning for such amendments and the Planning Commission adopted a resolution to initiate the consideration of amendments during its Feb. 3 meeting.
Cook presented a research memo with amendment options to the Policy Committee on March 10. A hybrid approach, which was recommended by the committee, could allow event facilities as a by-right or permitted use on rural lands if they meet certain performance standards. Proposals that do not meet those performance standards would be evaluated on a case-by-case basis through the Special Use Permit process, planners said.
The performance standards range from the size of the property – 10 acres or more, planners recommend – and its location to the maximum number of people who can be on site – a recommended cap of 250 – and the availability of restrooms to accommodate them.
There are also standards that encourage property owners to “protect the future production capacity of farmland and silviculture” so as not to “eliminate future production potential of the property,” according to the memo.
While some commissioners immediately embraced the research memo, others raised questions about venue capacity, potential compliance violations and the risk of abandoned buildings when operators leave a site to expand elsewhere.
Commissioner Tim O’Connor (At-Large) was the most vocal critic of the research memo, arguing for parity among venue operators and suggesting the language of the ordinance amendments could mirror that of the commercial SUP requirement.
“By making certain things permitted, you’re going to have those who create venues with tents that stay up for however long and they’re not going to have facilities other than what is available in the nearby farmhouse or porta potties,” O’Connor said, recalling his hospitality experience of catering events that did not have enough restrooms for the number of guests.
Commissioner Robin Bledsoe (Jamestown) said she felt the memo covered “just about every possible way” to catch venue operators who are violating the zoning ordinance. Commissioner Rich Krapf (Powhatan) recommended including a statement in the amendments that indicates the permitted use is designed for smaller operations but also that going over the “threshold” of certain performance standards would require a commercial SUP.
“All venues are not equal, and that’s the nice thing about this proposal here. It recognizes the fact people want to work on a very limited capacity and others want to go full-blown into a larger commercial operation,” Krapf said. “To require an SUP across the board will encourage more noncompliance.”
Committee Chairman John Wright III (At-Large) agreed, arguing the process “shouldn’t be like pulling teeth.”
Bledsoe added she is “pro-opportunity” and sees the amendments as an opportunity to encourage small businesses to start in James City County.
“I just think this is very exciting because it allows people who don’t have millions of dollars or investors to grow, and that’s what this should be about,” Bledsoe said.
For Steve Rose, owner of Williamsburg Event Rentals, amending the zoning ordinance would benefit his business, even though more brick-and-mortar venues could mean fewer requests for tents.
“Some of those [clients] may have used tents and now they won’t, but on the other hand it’s more venues, so more tables, chairs, décor,” Rose said. “I’m positive about anything that encourages more events in the area. It shows off the natural beauty that we have.”
That natural beauty is something Linda Rice does not want to see disturbed by the ordinance amendments.
Rice, a 38-year resident of Forge Road and a member of Friends of Forge Road and Toano, said the “big concern” for her personally is how amending zoning ordinances will affect the character of the rural community in upper James City County.
“The farm houses are fairly close together. We’re not talking a couple hundred acres between these properties. That doesn’t exist,” Rice said. “There are not tree lines hiding tents or porta potties or facilities people are talking about. I think that takes away a bit from it.”
She said she understands why some property owners might want to find additional commercial uses for farms or other rural parcels, but she said the event venues could bring unwanted noise and traffic, potentially disrupt water and sewage systems – many rural properties are outside the primary service area and depend on well water – or even affect property values.
The research memo as written is “very open-ended,” Rice said, adding she is concerned uses like a dirt racing track could be permitted.
Before the county changes the zoning, Rice said she would rather see it focus on promoting the agritourism and recreational offerings already available in upper James City County, such as walking trails, fishing spots and equestrian centers.
“Is this really what we want, to transform our rural lands into commercial establishments?” Rice said.
Aiken said the concerns Rice raised are important to her as well. Any event venue Aiken would open would adhere to noise ordinances and implement a strict policy of ending all events by 11 p.m., she said.
“I want to preserve the land as well, and if you get the wrong people in there, you might have venues that may not be the best or they’re not upholding the rural kind of feel,” Aiken said.
Aiken’s dream is about more than weddings. She envisions it as a place for the community to gather for movie nights, charity events and conferences.
“I grew up in the area and I want to give back to the community,” Aiken said.
Overall, Aiken said she feels the Planning Department has done a “phenomenal job” researching and presenting options for permitting event facilities on rural lands.
Bringing such a place to James City County is so important to her she is willing to dream a little smaller and start with the capacity limit set by the county, which could be significantly less than the 600- to 700-person venue she hopes to establish in the future.
“I hope that people are open to the idea of it potentially growing into something bigger,” Aiken said. “If anyone is concerned about this process and what it might do, I don’t think it will hurt anything.”
Planners intend to present draft amendments to the Policy Committee during its May 20 meeting. Final amendments could go before the committee June 16. The Planning Commission could vote to recommend any amendments in August, and the Board of Supervisors could approve them in September.