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Planning Commissioners to school board: Keep the new sign, but skip the animation
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Planning Commissioners to school board: Keep the new sign, but skip the animation

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Goochland County Public Schools will soon be installing brand new electronic message board signs at the entrance to Randolph Elementary School and the Goochland High School and Middle School Complex, though just how the signs will be used remains to be seen.

While the Planning Commission in June voted 5-0 in favor of the Conditional Use Permit (CUP) needed before the school division could install the signs, a more recent request by the schools to amend the CUP was not met with the same enthusiasm.

At issue were a number of exemptions to the county’s sign ordinance that the school board was requesting, including allowing video and movement on the screen; the changing of messages more frequently than allowed by code; and the ability to turn on the sign at 7 a.m. even if the sun was not yet up. For the sign at the High School/Middle School complex, the schools had additionally asked for permission to have the front and back of the sign display different messages, which is also prohibited in the county’s sign ordinance.

Electronic message boards have been a thorny issue in Goochland for years. In July 2020, Salem Baptist Church on Broad Street Road was the first to get approved for an electronic message board under the county’s newly revised regulations. The only other such sign in the county, located at Reynolds Community College, is located on state property and not subject to county requirements.

Goochland County Schools assistant superintendent Andy Armstrong explained to the Commissioners during a presentation at the July 8 Planning Commission meeting that the school board was making the request in order to “deliver a better experience for our citizens and for our students.” Armstrong noted there would also be opportunities to integrate the signs into students’ learning experience.

When it came time to make their decision, commissioners expressed concern over the idea of including video or any kind of animation on the sign, but also with the possibility of affording privileges to the school board that would not necessarily be afforded to private citizens.

“My concern here is that we are trying to deal with these ordinances uniformly across the county, and it kind of gets me when a government entity comes in and wants to do something we don’t allow private citizens to do,” said District 5 commissioner Tom Rockecharlie. “They have enough privileges that the public does not enjoy. With four exemptions you might as well take the sign ordinance and throw it away.”

Ultimately the commissioners voted in favor of all exemptions except for the change that would allow animation or video on the sign.

The final decision on the revised CUP will rest with the Board of Supervisors.

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An effort by a local church to get into the restaurant business is not sitting will with its neighbors, and now it will be up to county supervisors to decide whether or not to allow the project to move forward.

On July 8, Hope Church’s plan to create a café-style eating establishment within their current church building, located at 12445 Patterson Ave., went before county Planning Commissioners. And while the new venture was described by pastor David Dwight as a simple, small-scale project intended to offer coffee and café-style fare with limited cooking, several county residents living near the church say they already feel like they’ve been burned.

As detailed in the church’s request for an amendment to its original Conditional Use Permit (CUP), opening the planned café and coffee shop would require some renovation to the existing structure — and the installation of commercial kitchen equipment--but no modifications to the outside of the church. Kitchen renovations will not be permitted to include the installation of a hood system for ventilation, which will limit the type of cooking that can be done and also prevent any odors from impacting nearby properties.

According to the request, the church will be entering into an agreement with the owners of Toast, who also own other dining establishments in the area and are members of the church, to create and operate the coffee shop and café.

Dwight explained that the café would not be run as a for-profit enterprise, although the church leadership’s goal would be to break even if possible. If necessary, Dwight said, the church would be willing to provide a reasonable amount of support to the café.

According to Dwight, the project would rely on microwaves and small convection ovens to reheat pre-prepared foods, and would not be expected to see numbers even close to the 75 occupants that would be allowed under the CUP. Above all, he insisted, the café would offer “a place for people to gather together, especially after COVID, without the pressure of a commercially driven enterprise.”

But while Dwight described the café as “a ministry that welcomes people in,” those living near the church have made clear the church is already beginning to wear its own welcome thin.

Several residents of the Rivergate neighborhood, which is located directly adjacent to Hope Church, said they are already dealing with significant noise issues stemming from church-related activities, including the use of what they described as bullhorns and “nightclub-style” thumping music.

It has made it impossible to enjoy the tranquility they had been seeking when they moved to the neighborhood, they said, adding that the problem is worse during the fall and winter when there are no leaves on the trees.

“In my opinion the church is more an events space than a church,” said Rob Allen, who lives directly across the street from the church. “They are holding these events in their parking lot. So this restaurant may be serving inside but it may be serving inside while there are events outside that is supporting. So 75 limit? They can count the 1,000 people in the parking lot and say there is only 60 inside and they are still within compliance.”

Allen said he had already called the Sheriff’s Department once, and “I will continue to call them when the noises are too much to bear.”

Ileana Shulman told commissioners that she finds the claim that the church will be selling essentially just “cookies and coffee” difficult to believe, and agreed with several other residents that allowing the café would only exacerbate existing noise issues.

While the ultimate decision on whether to approve the church’s request rests with the Board of Supervisors, Planning Commissioners appeared to hear residents’ concerns loud and clear.

“Obviously there is a great deal of opposition to this,” said District 2 Commissioner Matt Brewer. “I don’t see how we could recommend approval.”

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