Fishburn Park Coffee Shop Bid Gets Second Chance After Roanoke Council Amends Sale

City Council extended its sale of the cottage and 1.1 acres of parkland through September, allowing more time for a new rezoning.

The fate of the old Fishburn Park caretaker's cottage has divided neighbors. PHOTO BY HENRI GENDREAU FOR THE ROANOKE RAMBLER

A Roanoke couple has a second chance to develop Fishburn Park’s dilapidated caretaker’s cottage into a coffee shop.

City Council on Tuesday voted to extend its sale of the cottage and 1.1 acres of parkland to Keri Kidd and Justin vanBlaricom through September, allowing the couple three more months to rezone a portion of the property after Council last month denied their request to do so.

The amended contract also allows the city the first rights to buy the property back from the vanBlaricoms if they sell. The vote was 6-0 in favor, with Councilman Luke Priddy absent.

“We have sold parkland before, but I don’t necessarily think that’s the right thing to do,” said Councilman Peter Volosin, who came on Council after the original contract was adopted. “With that being said, I am going to vote yes today because I believe that we have come up with what is the best compromise.”

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Council agreed back in December to sell the property to the vanBlaricoms for $10, on the condition they invest at least $150,000 in restoring the cottage, which dates to the 1830s.

That decision sparked controversy in the Grandin Court neighborhood.

Some residents and leaders of the neighborhood association lobbied against the project, saying it was a sweetheart deal that would cause traffic, stormwater and noise concerns. Many others rallied around the vanBlaricoms, saying a new small business that fixes up the historic cottage would attract people to the park.

After the December vote agreeing to the sale, Council stunned residents last month when it voted to deny the vanBlaricoms’ request to rezone the property to allow for a coffee shop.

Councilwoman Trish White-Boyd had expressed concerns over parking and the watershed and noted the deal was opposed by the city’s Parks and Recreation Advisory Board, which said it was not acceptable to sell so much parkland to a private developer.

Yet the amended contract still entails the city selling 1.1 acres of parkland.

The vanBlaricoms say they need the full acreage to leverage a bank loan on the project, whose cost they expect will far exceed the required $150,000 investment.

“In order to get the loan, you have to have the acreage. That’s the problem if you want to use private money,” Compton Biddle, an attorney representing the vanBlaricoms, told Council. “These folks do not have a trust fund paying for all this.”

White-Boyd said she was satisfied with the changes in the contract amendment.

“For me, it’s not a win-win situation, unfortunately, but the coffee shop I think is a plus, losing the parkland is a negative, but we do have a compromise,” she said, “and I am happy with the compromise.”

Councilwoman Stephanie Moon-Reynolds, who voted against the contract in December, said she opposed the sale of parkland. But in voting for the contract amendment, she told The Rambler she could live with the compromise that carves out more green space from being zoned for commercial use.

While the vanBlaricoms could have closed on the sale by June 30 without rezoning, according to City Attorney Tim Spencer, the couple said it made better sense to get proper zoning so they could start work on the coffee shop.

The vanBlaricoms intend to rezone only 0.6 acres of the property to allow for the coffee shop, leaving half an acre zoned as Recreation Open Space District, according to a city report.

After Council rejects a rezoning request, a developer cannot bring a “substantially similar” proposal before the Council for another year. But Roanoke’s zoning administrator says the vanBlaricoms’ new rezoning request would constitute a “substantially different” application, meaning Council can vote on it before the September closing date, a city report says.

Justin vanBlaricom said they plan to submit a revised rezoning application next week, which will go before Council in August.

The amended contract also notes, “The City agrees to waive any fees or cost associated with this new rezoning application.”

Opposition to the vanBlaricoms’ proposal for the “Fishburn Perk” coffee shop has led to its own backlash, with Grandin Court Neighborhood Association leaders Freeda Cathcart and Owen McGuire — among the most vocal opponents — facing calls for their removal.

Some residents blamed Cathcart and McGuire for effectively raising concerns that led Council to deny the vanBlaricoms’ rezoning request.

Political factors have also been raised.

A day before Council rejected the vanBlaricoms’ application, the chairman of the local Democratic Party emailed Council members with a newly adopted resolution seemingly at odds with the rezoning proposal, according to a copy obtained by The Rambler.

That party policy statement says the city should “act to protect our park land from being sold for private development.”

“Please see the attached resolution, which was passed during our April meeting. This is now the position of RCDC,” Mark Lazar, chairman of the Roanoke City Democratic Committee (RCDC), emailed members of Council at 2 p.m. Sunday. “This may bear on acgtions [sic] pending before Roanoke City Council.”

Asked whether any Council members responded to his email, Lazar told The Rambler in a text message, “I don't discuss private conversations with elected officials.”

But three days after Council voted down the rezoning, Lazar issued a monthly report to members of the Democratic committee that took some credit for the outcome.

“Our leaders listen to us,” he wrote. “We passed a resolution last month related to protection of parks and green spaces, and while there may have been other considerations, I believe that played a role in city council’s decision not to give away a piece of Fishburn Park to a private business.”

White-Boyd and Mayor Sherman Lea told The Rambler that the party's resolution did not factor into their vote. All members of Council are Democrats except for independent Moon-Reynolds.

The point of contact for the Democratic committee’s resolution on parkland, according to committee emails, was Cathcart, who is a member of the group.

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