FRONT ROYAL – Virginia Beer Museum owner and lawyer David Downes has filed a lawsuit against the Town Council in hopes of overturning its decision to deny the museum an exemption from off-street parking requirements.
The exemption would allow Downes to expand the museum’s beer garden by closing off parking spots that are located behind his law office and the museum at 14 and 16 Chester St. He has said the request is an attempt to be treated the same as neighbors and fellow museums, which are not required to maintain off-street parking spots.
At the Town Council’s regular Monday meeting, Councilman Eugene Tewalt’s motion that discussion regarding the potential litigation be added to a closed session’s agenda failed by a 5-1 vote with Councilman Chris Holloway as the lone dissenter.
Since a unanimous vote was required to pass the motion, the item was not added to the closed session’s agenda.
Town Attorney Doug Napier previously noted that he believes Downes’ intention in filing the suit Friday was to settle the matter outside of court. For that to happen, Napier said one of the councilmen who voted against the exemption would have to bring it back for a vote. He added that the town has not yet been served, an action that Downes has two years to take.
After a first reading on the exemption passed in December, it failed by a 4-2 vote in January with Vice Mayor William Sealock and councilmen Gary Gillispie, Chris Holloway and Eugene Tewalt opposed.
Holloway said after the meeting that he voted against adding the matter to the closed session because “I can’t be bullied into flipping my vote” and there was nothing to discuss at this point. He added that the councilmen just received information regarding the lawsuit.
Councilman Gary Gillispie said he would not change his mind regarding the exemption vote. He said he would like to answer why he voted against the exemption but declined to comment as Downes is moving toward litigation on the matter. He added he does have a legitimate reason for his vote.
Sealock voted in favor of the exemption during the first reading and changed his vote to oppose it during the second reading.
He said he would stand by his last vote because the town should stick to its ordinance and not keep passing exemptions to its rules. He noted that he also voted against a curb and gutter waiver request by the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 1860 because it would have defied the town’s ordinance.
“If you’ve got an ordinance, why do you waive everything? Follow the ordinance...If the ordinance is wrong, then change the ordinance,” Sealock said.
He added that there is a bottleneck traffic issue in the area of Chester Street near the museum that renders a parking exemption a bad decision.
Councilman Eugene Tewalt said he just heard about Downes’ lawsuit Monday night and “I haven’t even considered anything yet."
“I haven’t seen anything that would make me change my mind at this point,” Tewalt added.
Councilwoman Letasha Thompson outlined why she supports the parking exemption in a recent Facebook post. She states that the main issue is the fence behind the building that has irritated a neighbor. She added that a parking study shows that the nearby public lot is less than 40 percent full during peak business hours.
She states that the uniqueness of the beer garden can draw people downtown as the museum “already receives decent foot traffic from those passing through.” She adds that other nearby businesses are not required to have off-street parking and the museum seeks equal treatment.
Thompson states that there is ample parking space during the museum’s business hours, which operates between 4 p.m. and 8 p.m. on weeknights. She adds that most businesses that would fill parking spaces during the museum’s hours are not open past 5 p.m.
“I am aware that a lot of folks don’t like David as he is a defense attorney but that should have no bearing on this issue,” Thompson states.
The council also:
• Went into about hour-long closed session for consultation with legal counsel regarding the handling of potential debt service related to the Afton Inn and the handling of debt service related to the Front Royal-Warren County Economic Development Authority.
• Unanimously approved less restrictive allowable uses for BMW LLC.’s property at 986 John Marshall Highway. In return for more allowable uses, the property owners volunteered to erect an 8-foot fence on the property and to plant trees that comply with town code when development begins.