Smithfield DMV plans likely dead due to planners’ 6-2 vote, developer says

Published 4:22 pm Wednesday, March 15, 2023

The Smithfield Planning Commission’s 6-2 vote to reject architectural drawings of Virginia’s new Department of Motor Vehicles office on South Church Street will likely kill the project, its developer says.

Warren Sachs, whose KLS Battery Park Development Group LLC owns the land and would lease the building to the DMV, appeared before the commission on March 14 to request two approvals, one for the site plan and the other declaring the design in conformance with the town’s entrance corridor overlay district requirements. The Planning Commission voted unanimously to grant the former but split 6-2 on a vote to deny the latter.

Smithfield’s DMV office, Sachs said, would be modeled off one in Virginia Beach, where he lives. A drawing of the building shows an exterior made of gray-colored concrete masonry and beige vinyl siding.

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Commissioner Randy Pack called the design “commonplace” and argued it would look out of place next to the adjacent Royal Farms gas station and Dollar General store, both of which have brick exteriors.

“We are not Virginia Beach,” Pack said.

Smithfield’s zoning ordinance defines the entrance corridor overlay district as all land within 500 feet of each side of South Church Street, and it mandates developers use brick or other materials “appropriate to town character.”

Though that evening was the Planning Commission’s first look at the submitted drawing, Sachs contends he’s revised his plans six times over the past two years at the request of town staff, none of whom said anything about the design not meeting Smithfield’s architectural standards.

When Smithfield’s old DMV office stayed closed even as others reopened in 2021 from their pandemic-induced shuttering, state officials said a new DMV would be built by mid-2022, though the project has yet to break ground. The DMV, Sachs said, is becoming increasingly frustrated with the delays.

According to DMV spokeswoman Jessica Cowardin, the terms of the 10-year lease specify Virginia is to pay Sachs $115,200 annually in rent via monthly installments. Changing the exterior “at the 11th hour,” Sachs said, would make the project cost more, and require a change in the terms of the lease.

“That’s not going to happen,” Sachs said. “They’re not going to pay one extra nickel. … They’re going to go someplace else.”

Cowardin did not immediately respond to The Smithfield Times’ request for comments.

According to Sachs, one of the changes the town requested during the six submittals was that the site connect to the access road serving Royal Farms and Dollar General to facilitate traffic to and from Battery Park Road. That change then prompted the need for a “pork chop” intersection at Royal Farms’ South Church Street access. The change would involve adding a triangular concrete island shaped like a pork chop to allow traffic to enter from the northbound or southbound lanes of South Church Street, but only allow exiting vehicles to turn right. The “pork chop,” Sachs said, will cost him an extra $20,000 even though he doesn’t own the Royal Farms entrance.

Commissioners Mike Swecker and Bill Davidson cast the two dissenting votes on Pack’s motion to deny the entrance corridor overlay approval.

“(People are) all talking about when’s the DMV coming,” Swecker said. “They’re getting tired of going to Suffolk and Newport News.”

By approving the site plan, the town has approved its entrances, exits and the square footage of the DMV and an adjacent commercial building. The site plans call for a 4,800-square-foot DMV and a 7,200-square-foot detached building that would house a restaurant and retail business. By denying the entrance corridor overlay approval, the town has rejected the appearance of the two structures.

“I’m not trying to hold this project up. … I want a DMV as much as the next guy,” Pack said. But he asserted he would not vote for the approval of a building he felt conflicted with the town’s design standards “just to get it approved.”

Planning Commission Chairman Charles Bryan denied Sachs an opportunity to speak again following the vote. “DMV’s going to go away,” Sachs said as he left the meeting chamber.

According to Tammie Clary, the town’s director of planning and community development, site plan and entrance corridor approvals are one of the rare situations where the Planning Commission, rather than Smithfield’s Town Council, has the final say. Sachs does have the option, however, of appealing to the Town Council to overturn the Planning Commission’s decision.

In the event Sachs appeals, the Town Council’s decision would likely also result in a split vote, given that Pack also serves on the council as its liaison to the Planning Commission.