There is discontent on Main Street in Old Town Warrenton, where a few merchants are criticizing the town government's treatment of local business.
On the east end of the strip, Will Green, a recently arrived entrepreneur, is trying to muster a campaign to oust the town's top officials after a dispute over an access ramp for the disabled that he installed near his building. Last week, he mailed 700 letters to local merchants calling for a meeting Aug. 2 at his Blue Ridge Arts Building on Main Street to consider ways to do that.
On the west end, flower shop owner Teresa Bowles is fuming at the Town Council after the Warrenton Architectural Review Board decided that her second-floor windows--installed earlier this year at no small expense--do not conform with guidelines of a historic preservation district.
In between are business owners who complain that town bureaucrats and politicians are going out of their way to make merchants squirm at a time when the town is fighting to keep its share of trade as strip malls and big box stores go up on the outskirts.
"This is not a business-friendly place," said Bette Sherman, owner of Back in the Woods, a puppet and children's book shop. When she moved to her current location just off Main Street in January after five years in town, she said she was not allowed to put up the kind of sign she wanted. "If there are hoops out there that they can make you jump through, they will make you jump through them."
Susan Feeley, who has been in business for 23 years as owner of Jimmie's Market and Kidwell Caterers, said making improvements last year involved lots of official hassle. Although she said she thinks Green's anger is an overreaction and his proposed solution somewhat drastic, she agrees that something needs to be done. "The Architectural Review Board is out of control. Somebody has to put a lid on them," she said.
Other business owners, officials and Chamber of Commerce representatives say that a few complaints do not properly reflect the average experience.
"My experience in dealing with the Town Council and with the town administrator has been very positive, a very give-and-take relationship," said Colleen Dawson, chairman of Partnership for Warrenton, the Main Street merchants association. "I have found them to be very open minded and generally good people to work with."
That cuts no ice with Green, who says the opening of his trade association office on Main Street was delayed nine months by red tape.
Town Manager John A. Anzivino and Community Development Director Raymond Ocel said the delay came about because Green and his attorney did not provide the necessary information. Because Green had installed a ramp for the disabled on property owned by the town, Anzivino said, he was required to show that taxpayers would not have to pay to replace the ramp if it had to be broken up for utility work underground.
Such explanations don't appease Green, who received papers giving him the 707 square feet of easement for the ramp and sidewalk earlier last week. "They messed with the wrong guy," he said. In his letter inviting other merchants to join his crusade against the bureaucracy, he said, "It is time to take Warrenton to a higher level of prosperity."
It is a higher level, the second story to be precise, that has Bowles in a bind. That is where she replaced some dilapidated windows on her flower shop, Designs By Teresa, earlier this year. She said she contacted the town and was told she didn't need a permit for the work.
After the windows were installed, however, she said she was notified that she would need the approval of the Old Town Warrenton Architectural Review Board, a group of local residents appointed by the Town Council, because her building is within a historic district that obliges property owners to live within strict guidelines. That board voted against her new windows and so did the Town Council, last week.
The problem with her new windows is that they have a vinyl, not wood, covering, and the cross-section that runs vertically through the center of the windows is on the inside, not the outside, Bowles said.
"For some reason, they want them on the outside," Bowles said. Phone calls to Cheryl Shepherd, chairman of the review board, were not returned.
Bowles said she would not discuss the dispute further, and she and Sherman both said they would wait to see how Green's meeting goes before deciding whether to join him. But Bowles said she thinks that local officials are imperiling their own efforts to revitalize downtown.
"The businesses that are here have to really struggle and ask permission to do anything," she said. "Things that need doing aren't getting done."
Many Main Street merchants point to the old Sweeney Building as one of the things that's not being done. The building, owned by Marshall developer Walter Story, is crumbling, shedding the occasional brick onto the sidewalk.
Story hoped to turn it into a Irish-style pub and took his plans before the Architectural Review Board. He would not comment on what happened, saying only, "The town could stand to cooperate more with local merchants." Other business owners said the board's scrutiny exasperated Story and caused him to abandon his plans.
Story said he has put his plans "on the back burner"--not because of any run-ins with local officials but because of economics. There isn't enough trade in Old Town to support his business, he said.
Dennis Bachetti, who recently opened an ice cream stand in Rankin's Furniture parking lot, near Broadview Avenue and Waterloo Street, said he was discouraged at first when Ocel told him erroneously during their first meeting that zoning ordinances prohibited the stand.
Ocel said in an interview that he made no misrepresentations and that Bachetti's permit application was inadequate. Eventually, Bachetti said, he studied the ordinances himself.
"I just kept coming back and coming back. I guess if you're relentless, then they're business-friendly here," he said from behind his stand, Carousel Frozen Treats.
Anzivino is philosophical about disgruntled business owners and the fingers being pointed at him.
"A lot of folks believe that we live in a small town, and it is their thought that things are much simpler than they might be in a big city," Anzivino said. "But . . . we have much of the same regulations here."
Vice Mayor John "Sparky" Lewis (Ward 5) said many business owners appear to be unfamiliar with the raft of regulations and ordinances that are commonplace in any jurisdiction. He said he is seeking a meeting with Green in an effort to cool the controversy.
"I think it's a communication problem," Lewis said. "For each person that you find that feels there's been a mistreatment . . . I can direct you to five that feel like their relationship with the town has been generally efficient and pleasant."