Roanoke City Council overwhelmingly rejected delivering an acre of Fishburn Park and a dilapidated cottage to a couple proposing to turn the site into a coffee shop.
In a move that surprised even the plan’s detractors, Council on Monday voted 6-1 against rezoning 1.1 acre of land for the business, despite agreeing 6-1 in December to sell the land and building for that purpose. The city's planning commission voted 6-0 last week to recommend approval.
“The road is now over as we can’t close on the contract that council approved with a super majority previously,” Keri Kidd vanBlaricom and Justin vanBlaricom wrote Monday night after the vote on their Facebook Page for Fishburn Perk, the name of the proposed shop. “We are super sad that we won’t be able to bring this amenity to the park, but more sad that we are unable to give you all a space to come together across the table.”
Sale of the roughly 200-years-old caretaker’s cottage was hotly contested in the Grandin Court neighborhood.
Supporters said a small, locally owned coffee shop would be a boon to the neighborhood, bring vibrancy to an underused area of the park and prove one of the last, best chances to restore the historic building that the city has let fall into disrepair.
Opponents decried the sale of public parkland, raised concerns about the business’s viability and environmental impact and said taxpayers got a raw deal in the contract that would sell the property for $10 on the condition the vanBlaricoms invest at least $150,000 in restoring the cottage.
Seventeen residents spoke before Council Monday night, with the standing-room only chamber appearing about evenly split.
“You have a historic property that will fall down or be torn down because of safety issues. … You have a young couple who's willing to invest, willing and interested and enthusiastic about investing in the community,” Grandin Court neighborhood resident Chris Turnbull told Council.
“I'll add there's 1,300 or so other people who are also interested in seeing that coffee shop move forward,” he said, referring to an online petition started by supporters.
Several opponents said the city should not give away so much parkland as part of the agreement. The vanBlaricoms said they needed the full acre as equity for a bank loan.
“The city is destroying our parks,” Wildwood neighborhood resident Chris Craft said. “If they want to build the coffee shop, fine. We don't need to give them the land that's around. They can do it with a smaller part.”
City staff appeared stunned by Council’s vote, huddling afterward and gesticulating.
Vice Mayor Joe Cobb was the lone vote to approve rezoning.
“I think it's marvelous that we are seeing an increased usage of our parks,” Cobb said prior to the vote. “I think we need to celebrate that and not fight it.”
In January, Council took on two new faces — Luke Priddy and Peter Volosin — replacing Anita Price and Bill Bestpitch. From the start, both Priddy and Volosin had expressed skepticism with the vanBlaricom’s proposal.
But the rejection by three members of Council who in December approved the sale — Mayor Sherman Lea and Council members Trish White-Boyd and Vivian Sanchez-Jones — came as a surprise to observers.
“I just had a lot of concerns, so I was compelled to vote no,” White-Boyd said after the meeting. “There was just too many questions we have not gotten answered. I was just concerned about the watershed, for one, and the parking and then, you know, the question that my colleague raised about them using the land for collateral.”
Volosin asked the vanBlaricoms why they needed the full acre and whether they could use other business assets as equity for a bank loan.
“We’re trying to set this up for success at the beginning,” Justin vanBlaricom replied, noting that a prior prospective buyer — who agreed to buy the cottage and 0.7 acres in 2017 — walked away after receiving high renovation cost estimates.
VanBlaricom said it made sense to tie the land to the cottage financing so that the project is “not contingent on another business working out.”
Some residents had expressed fears that the shop could become a bar or fast food joint down the road.
Terms of the sale would have limited the property’s use to certain businesses, such as a bakery, community market, meeting hall or eating establishment.
If the vanBlaricoms were to sell the property within four years, the couple would pay the city $83,000, roughly the assessed value of the cottage.
Controversy over the Fishburn Perk proposal divided members of the neighborhood association. Some leaders in the group led the opposition, gathering signatures of neighbors against the sale, while other residents claimed the neighborhood association spread misinformation and censored their posts on the group’s social media pages.
“I think the points made by the folks who were opposed to it were stronger,” Lea said after the vote, noting he had received many emails against the proposal. “I wanted to make sure that the public felt good about it, and I didn't think, from what I got, the sentiment wasn't that strong.”
In retrospect, there was an inkling of broader discontent on Council.
In March, Council reluctantly agreed to delay the closing date after the vanBlaricoms said they needed more time to complete a land survey and property subdivision. Some Council members said the vanBlaricoms hadn’t held up their end of the bargain, while the couple said they are not professional developers and were figuring out the process as they went along.
And before residents spoke on Monday, an awkward moment foretold trouble. In a routine vote to hear the Fishburn Park matter, Cobb made a motion and the clerk asked for a second. There was silence as Council members glanced at one another waiting on someone to second.
Eventually, Sanchez-Jones did, and the public hearing began.
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