Panel says no to parking exemption: Beer Museum owner wants to eliminate parking spaces

David Dowens stands outside his beer museum along Chester Street in Front Royal recently. Downes had legislation that was recently drafted to allow him to operate his museum and sell beer. Rich Cooley/Daily

FRONT ROYAL – David Downes, Virginia Beer Museum owner, fell short Wednesday in his quest to obtain an exemption from an off-street parking requirement governing his nonprofit Beer Museum. 

The Planning Commission at its regular Wednesday meeting unanimously voted against the request after 17 citizens spoke during a public hearing. Of those 17 speakers, 14 favored the exemption.

The Beer Museum, which serves a rotating selection of Virginia beers and has several rooms dedicated to the history of Virginia beer, opened in September 2016.

Downes, a lawyer, explained in work sessions that he wants to eliminate parking spaces located on his property behind his law office and the Beer Museum at 14 and 16 Chester Street. He said this would allow expansion of the museum’s beer garden, noting the spaces are not needed as his buildings are adjacent to the public Peyton Street and gazebo parking lots.

He said the museum has positively impacted the community and received about 250 favorable Facebook reviews, none of which have “suggested that we are somehow this evil, horrible, insidious place.”

Downes said the museum wants “to continue the goodwill that we have been generating and the appeal of the museum by extending our beer garden.” He said the nearby East Main and Jackson streets businesses have off-street parking exemptions, and the museum wants to “be treated like our neighbors.”

If his properties were not granted the exemption, he suggested an ordinance amendment giving exemptions for all museums. He noted that every local museum already has this exemption.

“I would suggest humbly that it would be a good policy decision to encourage rather than discourage museums to come into our fair town,” he said.

Joan Linch disputed whether the Beer Museum is a museum.

“To me, it looked like a bar. Maybe it’s a museum. But museums that I go to are more like the Smithsonian, and I don’t pick up people there, or sit and drink, or hang outside in beer gardens,” she said.

Ben Theis asked the Planning Commission to consider their ideal image for the Front Royal, noting it was once a “pass through town.”

“But now traffic is stopping. It’s stopping to see what we have downtown. Not a collection of little run-down shops anymore. It’s improving, and I’d like to see it keep improving. Restricting anything that goes on down here will just put a noose around our necks,” he said.

Inna Kolesnik owns Nicolle’s Jewelry, which borders the museum’s backyard. She said her main issue is the fence Downes erected that surrounds the museum’s backyard and the parking spaces he wishes to close. She noted that the fence has narrowed the back entrance to her store.

“My concern was fence. Because that fence destroyed the business model we built, our security is compromised…for me, fence is the problem,” she said.

Kolesnik added that if the spaces are closed, business owners have to park in public spaces, potentially taking spots from customers.

Downes said Thursday that parking within the fence is “for our motorcycle guests.” He said even if the museum were exempted from parking requirements, it “would always welcome our biker friends unless there was a special event requiring use of the entire back area.”

Jim Justice, who owns 12 Chester St. next to the museum, said the fence has had a good effect on his property.

“The transient traffic through the back of that building was concerning…feces in the backyard…clearly a transient had been back there,” he said. “The day the fence goes up, no more traffic there.”

Downes said that the parking exemption “has absolutely nothing to do with the fence” and “regardless of what the commission decides…the fence will stay up.”  

Commissioners Darryl Merchant and Cee Ann Davis said the town needs to reexamine downtown parking as a whole. Merchant said parking spaces are not free, that they are expensive to create and costly to maintain.

“Parking is the lifeblood of our downtown,” he said.

While downtown has seen an influx of businesses, Merchant said each addition is a strain on parking. He said businesses are generally expected to maintain a certain amount of parking spaces.

“I’m sure every business owner would like to be exempt from some ordinance” and “if we start piecemealing approval, I think we are going to open the door to a lot of other requests,” he said.

Davis said she opposed the exemption “in order to accomplish something greater and more useful to the Beer Museum and other businesses.”

She said it would be irresponsible to give unique permission to one establishment instead of examining downtown parking, which “is a patchwork mess.”