Dinosaurs will continue to inhabit Clarke County’s Double Toll Gate area for a while longer.
Dinosaur Land’s owners said Tuesday that they have a proposal from Sheetz, Inc. to convert Clarke County’s most beloved tourist attraction into a pit-stop for commuter gas and goodies. Fortunately for the dinosaurs, the area’s lack of development infrastructure is preventing the project plan from going forward.
“I have a lease in hand from Sheetz” Dinosaur Land President Barbara Seldon told the Clarke County Board of Supervisors. “But I can’t sign the lease because there’s no sewer and water. What are we supposed to do? We have 18 acres there [at the corner of US Route 50 and US 522] that we can’t develop because we have no sewer and water – and this has been going on for 10 years!”
Seldon’s comments and frustration framed a subsequent debate between the Board of Supervisors about the wisdom of spending additional consulting funds to create a commercial vision for Double Toll Gate and how best to set property owner expectations of the county’s ability to extend water and sewer to the area.
On the surface, Tuesday’s Double Toll Gate discussion revolved around whether or not to issue a new request for consulting services to establish the acreage and boundaries for a redefined commercial zoning district at Double Toll Gate and to study the feasibility of extending sewer, water and storm water management services to the area. The consulting services solicitation would have followed two previous studies of the same area conducted in February and March of this year.
Although the debate began as a referendum on whether or not spending an additional $40K in consulting fees for another study made sense, a broader question about Clarke County’s support for new business growth quickly took the stage.
“The cost estimate for the water plant is roughly $2M and the pumping station would be another $2M” said planning administrator Chuck Johnston. “The sewage treatment plant could cost anywhere from $1.8M to $4.5M. So for the 50 acre area the cost of extending services could be as much as $160K per acre.”
Double Toll Gate’s current development area is only 50 acres.
Johnston said that an additional Double Toll Gate study would determine whether creating a larger development area would economically benefit the county given the underlying infrastructure costs.
“The intent of the study is to determine if a larger scale of development would be financially beneficial to the county – something on the scale of hundreds of acres rather than fifty” Johnston explained to the lawmakers. “If the study determines that it isn’t financially beneficial then we can revise the area’s master plan to say that financial development in the area doesn’t make sense right now.”
Supervisor Barbara Byrd (Russell) noted that it is important for the public to realize that the Board of Supervisors hard spent significant time working on a Double Toll Gate commercial solution but that a consultant wasn’t needed to determine that the cost of extending water and sewer to the area is beyond the county’s means.
“It has to be zoned in a way that will entice a big dog developer who is willing to pay for the water and sewer because Clarke County can’t afford to pay for it” Byrd said. “Why do we need to spend $40K more on studies to figure that out?”
However, David Weiss (Buckmarsh) rejected Byrd’s view.
“We still haven’t given any direction to staff on what we want done and there hasn’t been any rezoning there in ten years” said an exasperated Weiss. “Right now we have no basis for making decisions about a future plan for the area. Bringing in a consultant can help us define what the plan should be. We need to spend the $40K and figure out what we want to do based on the report.”
Supervisor John Staelin (Millwood) agreed that the high cost of extending water and sewer to the current 50-acre Double Toll Gate commercial zone didn’t make economic sense and said that the county owed it to landowners to make its position clear through the county’s comprehensive plan.
“We need to either change the comprehensive plan – which says one thing – because the economic facts say something different” Staelin said. “My view is that we need to get the comprehensive plan and the Double Toll Gate plan in synch. One way to do that is through the study. The other option is to change the comprehensive plan [to allow development in the Double Toll gate area] but make it clear not to expect sewer and water there for a very long time.”
Staelin said that he believed the realistic timeframe for enough development in the area to support the cost of extending water and sewer is probably 20 years.
Supervisor Pete Dunning (White Post), whose district includes Dinosaur Land, argued that the county will be trying to figure out what to do at Double Toll Gate for years but in the meantime needed do something to accommodate Ms. Seldon’s Sheetz dilemma.
“Sheetz wants to build on the 18 acres there so why don’t we let them put a septic field in like we did for the Sheetz at 340 & 50?” Dunning asked administrator Johnston. “We’re already drowning in consultants that haven’t done a thing for us.”
“This is a different location and circumstances” Johnston replied. “but the septic field you are referring to ultimately failed.”
Supervisor Weiss expressed concerns about Dunning’s willingness to encourage a vendor like Sheetz to locate at Double Toll Gate when public water and sewer is not in place.
“Encouraging pump and haul under the banner of economic development seems a little backward to me” Weiss said.
Supervisor Chairman Michael Hobert (Berryville) joined Weiss in advocating in favor of the additional study saying that “sequential studies can be necessary in order to get to a point where we can act.”
“I agree that this is a big thing that we are trying to do here. But this is an area that we have identified as a place for economic development and this study will help us know what should be done there even if we don’t do it anytime soon. The $40K will help us better understand what we need to do there.”
“Clarke County has a reputation for not being open for business” Hobert told the other Supervisors. “We need to prepare for when business begins to come back and this study will help us to do that.”
Against Hobert and Weiss’s opposition, a motion by Supervisor Staelin to ask the Clarke County Planning Commission to review Double Toll Gate’s zoning and economic boundaries, rather than spending funds for a consultant, passed with Supervisors Byrd, Staelin and Dunning in favor.