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Richmond releases FAQ explaining why its hands are tied on Sheetz project.

The “Not a Done Deal” signs have sprung up and despite the sentiment, it very much appears to be a done deal.

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If you’ve been anywhere near the local neighborhood groups or god-forbid brave enough to enter NextDoor you’ve no doubt seen some neighbors that have been adamantly opposed to the Sheetz that is going into Stratford Hills. The “Not a Done Deal” signs have sprung up and despite the sentiment, it very much appears to be a done deal.

Councilperson Kristen Nye linked to this handy FAQ on the Sheetz project and why the city won’t be stepping in.

Q: When was the Sheetz project first introduced to the city?

A: A development review committee meeting was held on June 29, 2021. The applicant submitted their official application with a complete set of plans on March 7, 2022. All City development applications are public documents and are available to every citizen who requests them.

Q: What was the approval process for this project?

A: This is a by-right project, meaning the requested use (construction of a Sheetz) was permitted based on the zoning regulations (B-2, which is designated for “community- wide business establishments”) for the parcel. As a by-right project, the project was approved by the City of Richmond Department of Planning & Development Review (PDR) once all City codes and zoning requirements were met. Multiple agencies, including PDR, Public Works, and Public Utilities reviewed the plans to ensure the project met or exceeded minimum requirements.

Q: This corridor doesn’t need another gas station. Why didn’t the City reject the gas station proposal in favor of a different type of business?

A: The city does not have the authority to reject the use of by-right projects. The city does exercise its authority to ensure the project meets all city codes, zoning regulations, and safety regulations. However, if a proposed project meets all requirements, then the city may not infringe on a property owner’s rights or discriminate against a potential business by rejecting the proposed use (for example, rejecting a gas station in favor of a grocery store). To do so would be unlawful.

Q: When did the City Council vote to approve this project?

A: City Council did not – and will not – have a vote to approve this project. City Council does not have any authority over by-right projects.

Q: When does the City Council vote on development projects?

A: City Council votes on individual development projects when the owner is asking for a change in the land’s zoning or to deviate from the zoning requirements through a special use permit or conditional use permit. The Sheetz gas station project did not require any changes to the zoning or any conditional or special use permits, meaning there is no action to be taken by City Council.

Q: Can construction at least be paused so residents have more time to engage with the City?

A: While the city always welcomes engagement with residents, it does not have the legal authority to pause, delay, or hinder the development of a permissible by-right project.

Q: Why was this project approved without a traffic impact analysis?

A: There are specific threshold use requirements that would necessitate a full traffic impact analysis, which this project did not exceed given the existing uses of this parcel and the commercial corridor.

Q: What specific enhanced traffic safety measures will be implemented upon completion of this project?

A: City traffic engineers have devoted significant time and resources to studying the project-specific impacts of this development. By doing so, the city has recommended improvements to signage, lighting, the timing of pedestrian signals, and other traffic considerations. The city was also able to ensure traffic-related adjustments to the development plan prior to the project’s approval. Safety has been – and will continue to be – a top priority with this project. Additionally, there is an upcoming project receiving federal grant funds that will focus on retiming approximately 400 traffic control signals citywide. This will occur over the next two years.

Q: The Richmond 300 Plan calls for the Stratford Hills area to become more walkable with less auto-related use businesses. Why isn’t this plan being followed?

A: Richmond 300 established the desired community vision for our city. To achieve the vision outlined by Richmond 300, the city is working to make significant changes to zoning districts and the zoning code across the city, which will be a multi-year process involving public outreach, engagement and comment, collaboration between agencies across the City, and approval by City Council.

As the current zoning code provides the legal basis for development, the city cannot reject projects that are permissible under the current zoning district because they may not be permissible in the future. While we understand the dissonance that this creates, the city legally must follow the current zoning regulations.

Please note that rewriting the zoning code is a top priority and PDR is working to hire a consultant to manage the process that should commence in 2023. This will be a complex, and very public process, that involves mapping our current development form, and establishing frameworks for a new ordinance and districts. The Director of PDR provided an update to this work a few weeks ago.

Q: Given the time required to make changes to the zoning ordinance, is there a way to expedite the process for implementing Richmond 300 in the Stratford Hills node?

A: The zoning ordinance and Richmond 300 consider the general welfare and long- term development of the entire city of Richmond. The city collaborates with developers to implement Richmond 300 as effectively as possible. However, in this case, the development is permitted by right, and expediting the process will have no impact on the situation. The best way to avoid such incidents in the future is to update the entire zoning code to reflect Richmond 300’s vision without giving any neighborhood special treatment.

Q: The head of the city’s Planning Commission is associated with Wilton Company, which owns the shopping center where the Sheetz will be located. Isn’t this a conflict of interest?

A: The Planning Commission has no input into this project. The Planning Commission is an appointed board that considers changes to land use. As a by-right project, there are no changes to the land use for this project. Therefore, there was no planning commission vote or allowances for this property or project. This project required review and permits via various city agencies. The Planning Commission has no influence or authority over any city agency.

Q: I’ve read that there will be 4,000 visits in this corridor because of the Sheetz. I am concerned about the increase in traffic. Has the city looked at this issue?

A: The city has devoted considerable research to determine the traffic impact of this specific project. While entities external to the city have cited traffic numbers for a generic Sheetz, the intensive research and analysis from the city engineers have determined that, at the high end, 30% of the trips into the project would be “new trips,” or occurring from vehicles that would not have otherwise been in the area. The majority of vehicles accessing this project would have been traveling on Forest Hill already and will be diverted from other options on the corridor.

Q: We love the local businesses in the existing shopping center. Will this construction put them out of business?

A: The city also loves all local businesses, including those in this shopping center, and strives to make Richmond a place that is open to business! The city has prioritized the success of existing businesses throughout this development process and while construction can be intrusive, the owner and developers have made various assurances related to the continued success of the small businesses. Specifically, assurances have been made that restaurants and storefronts will remain accessible throughout construction, overall shopping center improvements will be made (such as a new roof that was just added), and that parking disruption will be kept to the minimum possible level. We will continue to support our Richmond small businesses and hope residents and neighbors will do the same.

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Richard Hayes is the co-founder of RVAHub. When he isn't rounding up neighborhood news, he's likely watching soccer or chasing down the latest and greatest board game.

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Downtown

Virginia House votes to repeal Clean Cars law

Republicans in the House of Delegates passed legislation Wednesday to repeal a law tying Virginia to California vehicle emissions standards that are set to ban the sale of new gas-powered cars in 2035. 

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By Charlie Paullin

Republicans in the House of Delegates passed legislation Wednesday to repeal a law tying Virginia to California vehicle emissions standards that are set to ban the sale of new gas-powered cars in 2035.

Along party lines, the House of Delegates voted 52-48 to pass House Bill 1378, carried by Del. Tony Wilt, R-Rockingham.

Wilt’s bill faces a rocky road in the Senate, where Democrats have killed several Republican bills aimed at the same goal. Sen. Barbara Favola, D-Arlington, has said any bill to repeal the California emissions law that comes over from the House will meet the same fate.

Democrats struck down several Republican efforts to roll back or delay the enactment of climate laws including the more stringent vehicle emissions standards during the last General Assembly session.

In 2021, the General Assembly passed legislation that coupled Virginia vehicle emissions regulations with those set by the California Air Resources Board, a set of rules often called the “Clean Car” standards. Last year, CARB issued a new rule that will require that all new cars sold in the state be zero emission beginning in 2035.

The 2021 legislation Virginia enacted was one of two options the state has when it comes to regulating tailpipe emissions: either continue to follow the federal standards set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency or follow more stringent regulations set by California.

The Clean Air Act allows states only two choices on vehicle emissions regulations to limit the number of standards that manufacturers must adhere to. California was granted an exception to set its own standards to address smog issues. Over a dozen other states have also chosen to adopt the Golden State’s rule.

Wilt and Republicans argue the California standards place burdensome cost demands on Virginians and say the 2035 target is unrealistic. EVs will also put a strain on the grid, Wilt said in a floor speech Wednesday.

“The free market is driving this, I would dare say as fast as they can,” Wilt said, noting manufacturers’ plans to electrify their fleets. “I think we’re all on board, there’s just a distinct difference [on] how we want to go about it.”

But Del. Rip Sullivan, D-Arlington, said Virginia’s adoption of the Clean Cars standard positions it as a leader in the “acceleration” toward electric vehicles.

Passing Wilt’s bill sends a message that the state doesn’t want to lead “or, worse yet, can’t compete,” Sullivan said.

Del. Alfonso Lopez, D- Arlington, contended that data centers, which have proliferated in Northern Virginia, are already putting demands on the grid.

Earlier Wednesday, a House subcommittee advanced a bill by Sullivan that would set up a $25 million fund for the establishment of charging infrastructure outside of highway corridors. Sen. Dave Marsden, D-Fairfax, has a similar bill in the Senate that is scheduled to be taken up Thursday.

“We want every part of Virginia” to be part of the transition, said Sullivan in the subcommittee meeting.

Similar proposals were put forward in 2022 but failed to pass the General Assembly or make it into the budget.

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Community

Climb a Tree in Fonticello Park this Saturday

The Friends of Fonticello Park have teamed up with Riverside Outfitters to get folk up close and personal with the trees in the park.

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From Friends of Fonticello Park

Come climb with us at @riversideoutfittersrva ! Tree climbing is an exciting and special way to get to know your favorite park trees from a new perspective!
Details:
🌳Participants must be at least 6 years old and have their waiver signed by a parent/guardian. Minors must be accompanied by an adult throughout the event. Adults can climb, too!
🌳 Climbers will take turns climbing one at a time and are always belayed by an instructor. Helmets and harnesses must be worn and are provided.
🌳 When not climbing, feel free to enjoy some fun tree-related arts and activities.
🌳 Dress comfortably and for the weather. Wear closed-toed shoes and bring a water bottle and any snacks and medications you may need. We will have a full water cooler for refills.
Fill out the required waiver online here to reserve your spot:

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Community

James River Association is Recruiting Students for the Adventure of a Lifetime

The James River Association (JRA) is currently seeking student and teacher applications for James River Leadership Expeditions (JRLE), a year-long program for high schoolers interested in advocating for the James River.

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The James River Association (JRA) is currently seeking student and teacher applications for James River Leadership Expeditions (JRLE), a year-long program for high schoolers interested in advocating for the James River.

Photo Credit: JRA

The program is segmented into four sessions running from July 2023 through May 2024, and it provides students with the opportunity to enjoy river-based education, build new friendships, develop leadership skills, and carry out a community capstone project. JRA will accept 30 students in the 2023-24 program across the James River watershed.

JRLE kicks off during the summer with Session One, perhaps the program’s most beloved experience: a week-long, overnight paddle adventure on the James River. These trips are divided into three excursions covering the Upper, Middle, and Lower James.

Photo Credit: JRA

Throughout the trip, students learn technical skills like how to canoe and camp overnight and they receive further education through unparalleled access to local culture, history, and environmental teachings. They also experience a highly unique setting that gives them the chance to build confidence, self-esteem, and relationships with their fellow participants.

Nash McDowell, a JRLE alum who previously participated in the program, has this advice for students considering the program: “If I could tell students one thing, it’s that you will never experience something like this again. The James River Association is offering an incredible experience that I wouldn’t trade for the world. To spend one week on the James River, technology-free, with good company, is something very hard to find. When the opportunity presents itself, take it.”

Continuing into the school year, JRLE’s second session offers an overnight brainstorming event where students discuss community capstone projects together. The third session consists of a working group complete with games that tap into personality styles, self-awareness, public speaking, and relationship management. The program ends with session four, a leadership launch and environmental symposium, where students can present their capstone projects and celebrate their accomplishments for the year.

“Through James River Leadership Expeditions, students learn they are capable of far more than they realize,” said Genevieve Wall, Senior Environmental Educator for JRA. “The experiences and relationships they build throughout the program help provide skills and awareness they will develop and use for years to come. As educators, we are honored to be able to sow seeds of knowledge, understanding, and connection to the James River through this unique and life-changing program. We look forward to welcoming new river stewards of tomorrow to our 2023-24 season.”

Photo Credit: JRA

The James River Leadership Expeditions program is made possible in part by generous support from the Luck Companies Foundation Fund. To learn more about JRLE and apply, visit https://thejamesriver.org/students-of-the-james/james-river-leadership-expeditions/.

Will you help support independent, local journalism?

We need your help. RVAHub is a small, independent publication, and we depend on our readers to help us provide a vital community service. If you enjoy our content, would you consider a donation as small as $5? We would be immensely grateful! Interested in advertising your business, organization, or event? Get the details here.

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