DMV back on track? State awaits design changes

Published 12:40 pm Wednesday, March 22, 2023

Plans for a new Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles office in Smithfield may not be dead after all, despite its developer’s assertion that a town-required redesign would kill the project.

When Smithfield’s Planning Commission saw drawings of the DMV office and an adjacent restaurant and retail building slated for South Church Street on March 14, it voted 6-2 to reject the designs as too modern for Smithfield. Though the project isn’t located within the town’s historic district, it would be built within a 500-foot “entrance corridor overlay” district, which still requires developers to use brick or other historic-looking materials “appropriate to town character.”

Virginia Beach developer Warren Sachs, whose KLS Battery Park Development Group LLC owns the land and would lease the building to the DMV, contended at the March 14 meeting that changing the exterior would drive up his costs and prompt the state to “go someplace else.” But for now, the DMV is waiting and watching.

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According to DMV spokeswoman Jessica Cowardin, Sachs is working on a redesign based on the Planning Commission’s feedback.

“We are looking forward to seeing the new design,” she said in a March 21 email.

Sachs, in a March 22 email to The Smithfield Times, said he would defer commenting on the matter until after the project is completed.

Smithfield’s old DMV office shuttered in 2020 along with every other DMV office in the state in the early days of the pandemic, but stayed closed even when others reopened in 2021 – according to the DMV, due to its small lobby and lack of a public restroom. At the time, the state estimated the new DMV office would be built by mid-2022. By October of that year, Smithfield’s Town Council had approved the DMV to have up to 108 parking spaces – more than three times the maximum the 4,800-square-foot building would ordinarily be allowed – but the project had yet to break ground. 

Sachs contended at the March 14 meeting he’d revised his plans six times over the past two years, during which town officials said nothing about the designs not meeting Smithfield’s aesthetic standards. As of February, prior to the latest required redesign, Cowardin had estimated the project would break ground this spring.

Smithfield Town Attorney Bill Riddick, who was absent from the March 14 meeting, contended in a phone call to the Times that the latest delay was of Sachs’ “own making.”

The DMV, Riddick said, was “effectively approved” and “ready to go” by Oct. 26, 2022, for a final site plan and entrance corridor review by the Planning Commission following the Town Council’s vote on the parking lot. The reason the site plan and drawings didn’t get to the Planning commission until March, Riddick said, was because Sachs had submitted a revised site plan showing the location of the DMV and retail-restaurant buildings reversed.

In the October plan, the DMV would have been the closer of the two to an adjacent Dollar General. The October plan also listed the square footage of the retail-restaurant building at 6,000, not 7,200.

“That was his choice, not ours,” Riddick said.

Tammie Clary, Smithfield’s director of planning and community development, told the Times she received the illustration of the retail-restaurant building on Sept. 20 and the illustration of the DMV on Sept. 28. The drawings submitted in September were not a “full set” of “elevations,” Riddick said, using the industry term among planning and zoning officials for illustrations of proposed construction projects. The full elevations showing each building from all sides weren’t received until Feb. 16, he said.