David Downes stands outside his beer museum along Chester Street in Front Royal.   Rich Cooley/Daily file

Virginia Beer Museum owner David Downes’ pursuit for an off-street parking exemption has moved into the court system.

Downes, who is also a lawyer, filed a circuit court civil suit seeking a declaratory judgment to overturn the Front Royal Town Council’s denial of a request for an off-street parking exemption at 14 and 16 Chester St., which houses his law office and the museum.

Downes is required to maintain 15 off-street parking spaces, which include six on the side of the museum and nine on the building’s rear. He is seeking the exemption to expand a beer garden behind the museum.

His attempts to receive the parking exemption began in July 2018, when the Planning Commission held its first work session regarding the matter. The commission later unanimously voted against the exemption even though speakers in favor of the request during a public hearing significantly outnumbered those opposed.

Before the November Town Council election, Downes initiated the Warren County Beer Party with the belief that certain members of the local Republican committee opposed his request due to personal reasons. If Republican-endorsed candidates won, Downes believed his request would fail.

While one Beer Party-endorsed candidate, Letasha Thompson, was elected, Downes was correct in his prediction that the vote would fail.

The Town Council in December passed the first reading of an exemption that would have applied to all museums and art galleries. That passed on a 4-3 vote with Mayor Hollis Tharpe breaking a tie.

In December, the exemption was denied on a 4-2 vote during its second and final reading when Vice Mayor William Sealock opposed the request after previously voting in its favor. Two of the remaining votes against the exemption were cast by Republican-endorsed councilmen.

One reason Sealock gave for flipping was that the council was presented with four motions that were “almost identical except for the last few words” during the first vote.

The four options were: amend town code, so a portion of Chester Street is exempt from off-street parking requirements; approve a special use permit granting off-street parking exemptions to a portion of Chester Street; amend town code to grant all museums and art galleries exemptions from off-street parking requirements; or to deny Downes’ request.

Sealock added that he was almost hit by a car on Chester Street near the museum in the fall during the busy tourist months.

During past Town Council meetings, Downes has noted that he is being treated differently from his neighbors as businesses fronting Main and Jackson streets have no off-street parking requirements and that other art galleries and museums are exempt.

Downes states in the filing that he is being “intentionally” and “unconstitutionally” treated as a “class of one” and that there is no legislative history in Front Royal that offers a “rational basis” for the denial.

Downes said he continues attempts to be granted the off-street parking exemption because he learned about courage from relatives who survived bombings in London.

“In their darkest hour, Winston Churchill reminded them to never give up in something they believed in,” Downes said.

Town Attorney Doug Napier said he believes that Downes’ intention is that filing suit will lead to the matter being settled outside of court.

Napier noted that no response to the filing is due until he or Mayor Hollis Tharpe is served and that no intent to serve has been filed. He said Downes has about two years to officially serve the town.

Downes said it is entirely up to councilmen whether there will be a resolution to the issues without further litigation.

While Napier said it is his job to follow the wishes of the Town Council, “if it can be resolved without a full-blown lawsuit, that’s wonderful.”

The matter could again be voted upon, Napier said, if one councilman who voted against the exemption brings it back to the table.

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