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Summer is peak wedding season, but in James City County an outdoor wedding venue is hard to find — because odds are it’s illegal.
Last week the county’s policy committee passed a draft ordinance allowing event-based businesses to operate on rural lands. If adopted, the ordinance would legalize rural wedding venues, which were previously prohibited in the county.
The policy change comes as part of a countywide effort to explore alternative ways rural landowners can use their property to generate additional income as part of a grant-funded rural economic development study. The proposed ordinance will allow commercial event facilities to operate on rural locations zoned A1 (General Agricultural) and R8 (Rural Residential). Formerly, the designation did not permit event venues of any kind.
All venues located on arterial roads, like Route 60, would be designated Permitted Use under the proposed ordinance. Venues located on collector roads, like Forge Road, would need a Special Use Permit (SUP), which would have to be approved by the Board of Supervisors on a case-by-case basis. According to Commissioner Heath Richardson (Stonehouse), once a Special Use Permit is granted, the permit remains with the property in perpetuity, even after a change of ownership.
The only committee member to vote against the draft ordinance, which passed 2-1 at the Aug. 11 meeting, was Commissioner Rich Krapf (Powhatan). He worried that even one SUP venue could cause traffic delays for area residents.
“I am supportive in principle of coming up with non-housing development on rural lands, but I am very concerned about this one,” Krapf said. “The more I look into the possibilities, the more I worry that the events could run the gamut from weddings to rallies. It has the potential to bring in a lot of vehicles. For example, a motorcycle rally could have 250 motorcycles coming in and out on collector roads.”
Jessica Aiken, owner of Wedding Company of Williamsburg, hopes to open an event venue in James City County. Last July, she and her husband Tristan decided to make an offer on several acres of property along Richmond Road, but quickly discovered their wedding business would violate county zoning laws.
“I grew up here my whole life,” said Jessica Aiken. “I’m familiar with the county and I understand why they want rural land to stay rural…but I also know how much we need a venue and how much support there will be from the industry if we can pull this together.”
For more than a year, she has been working with the James City County Planning Department to make the zoning of rural lands inclusive of event facilities.
“I tend to be a very optimistic person,” she said. “Until they say ‘no,’ we’re full steam ahead. Once that ‘no’ happens — should it happen — we’ll have to reevaluate and decide if we want to go to another county. If we moved to York or New Kent County we could open tomorrow, but my heart is in James City and that’s where I want to have it.”
Aiken’s proposed zoning change has garnered mixed responses from planning commissioners, business owners and residents. For Linda Rice, 38-year resident of Forge Road and member of Friends of Forge Road and Toano, the main concern is not the venues, but the events they host.
“There still is really no limitation to the frequency of the events,” she said. “I mean, assuming you received an SUP for whatever that event was, you would be able to hold that event, in theory, at least 365 days a year.”
The draft ordinance will go before the Planning Commission on Oct. 5, at which time there will be a public hearing. If the ordinance is approved, it will move on to the Board of Supervisors for a vote.
Click here to read the proposed ordinance.