Stephanie Porter-Nichols | Smyth County News and Messenger
The property owner and developer has put jobs, restaurants, services and about $5.5 million in first-year taxes on the table.
Then, speaker after speaker, the environment, health and history were put next to them.
All spoke of a truck stop and proposed travel center for land near exit 39.
A crowd that exceeded the capacity of the supervisory board’s meeting room turned out Thursday evening for a public hearing on the project. Although the land abutting 416 Chestnut Ridge Road in Marion and just off Interstate 81 Exit 39 is zoned for commercial development, a truck stop is not a permitted use and would require the county to issue a special use permit.
A preliminary drawing of the truck stop shows it, including a truck wash, restrooms and truck repair center, travel center, and four possible outbound packages.
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Speaking on behalf of his family’s company, Soni Holdings LLC, Arpit Soni told the Supervisory Board and Planning Commission, which were jointly conducting the hearing, that they were not new to the area and had reopened the Adwolfe Food Mart in recent years. Now, he says, they would like to develop a truck stop with restaurants on the outer plots. He said Wendy’s and Subway have confirmed they will be moving there and have spoken with Taco Bell, Buffalo Wild Wings and Cracker Barrel, among others.
Soni said they would like to survey Smyth County residents to see which restaurants they would prefer.
He also noted that the project would create jobs, and he presented officials with a study that indicated that in its first year of operation, the truck stop would generate $5.5 million in local, state and other taxes.
George Palmer, owner of the land, said it was the right time for the project, adding that local residents were tired of traveling to Washington County or Wythe County for their needs.
Tom Roberts, a civil engineer and vice president of H2R Engineering, told officials the project meets Virginia Department of Transportation guidelines, can handle stormwater, and can access utility water and sewer services.
Roberts, who works for the developers, acknowledged the presence of wetlands and waterways and said measures would be needed to mitigate any impact on them.
The potential effects of the Project on these wetlands as well as the nearby Holston River, endangered species and air quality have been of concern to many stakeholders.
Several speakers noted that the site contains more than five acres of land designated by US Fish and Wildlife as national wetlands.
Rebecca Wilkinson-Smith of Chilhowie also pointed to the protected varieties of mussels in the river and that their threat of extinction could increase with an increased risk of diesel or other chemical spills.
A few miles away, staff at the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources Aquatic Wildlife Conservation Center (AWCC) work year-round to keep endangered mussel species alive and even help them repopulate and thrive in the rivers of the region.
This region of Appalachia is recognized as one of the nation’s biodiversity hotspots for freshwater mussels and other species. Yet mussels are considered the most endangered species. Their survival is intimately linked to that of other life forms, including humans. The mussels filter bacteria, algae, sediment and other small particles from the river. Essentially, they clean the water.
Julie Reimer noted that the Holston is the main source of water for a number of communities.
Mark Hash, who said he lived just 100 yards from the proposed site for the roadhouse, said he was mainly concerned about the toxicity of the fumes and the possible presence of carcinogens.
Several of the property’s neighbors simply said they didn’t want to live near a truck stop.
Kendall Johnson cited the fumes, noise, lights and extra traffic, which he said he would experience from his home.
He invited the officials to come and sit on his back porch. “Would you like this in your garden?” Put yourself in our shoes, in our homes,” Johnson said.
Kenneth Harris agreed, saying the neighborhood as it is now is excellent without any problems.
A widow who lives directly opposite the site expressed similar concerns.
Paul Grinstead asked officials to imagine 24 hours of non-stop noise. Noting that he has served in local government, Grinstead acknowledged county leaders have a difficult decision to make. He urged them to consider all potential impacts.
Not least was the increase in traffic and the intersection’s capacity for it. Several suggested that the intersection was not designed for such heavy traffic and that when tractor-trailers use it now, their drivers often have difficulty navigating tight turns and crossing the two lanes of traffic.
June Harris asked officials to visit the site at some of the busiest times and “just watch the traffic.”
During the hearing, great passion and affection was expressed for the late Lucy Herndon Crockett and her home which still stands on the property proposed for the roadhouse.
Lauren Rhea of Chilhowie said the pre-Civil War home continues to serve as a testament to Crockett. Additionally, the house is significant to American history, she said.
Crockett has distinguished herself as a writer and artist. She also served as a Red Cross worker in the Pacific during World War II. She traveled as a speechwriter and secretary to the president of the American Red Cross. These experiences inspired his best-known novel, The Magnificent Bastards. Paramount turned the book into an Oscar-nominated film called “The Proud and the Profane” in 1956.
Crockett has written nine books and illustrated 10. The illustrations from his award-winning first book are on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
Crockett operated the 22-room Seven Mile Ford brick house, also known as Preston House, on US 11 as the Wilderness Road Trading Post.
The house was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1969. It was built in 1842 by John Montgomery Preston on land that his wife, Maria Thornton Carter Preston, inherited from her father, General Francis Preston. The property had come into the possession of this branch of the Preston family through the marriage of General Preston to Sarah Buchanan Campbell, the daughter of General William Campbell, a Revolutionary War soldier and hero of the Battle of King’s Mountain. General Campbell had inherited the property from his father, Charles Campbell.
John Clark, who serves as Chilhowie’s city manager but said he was speaking as a private citizen, also noted Civil War ties to the country.
He noted that Union General George Stoneman allegedly led troops there in 1864.
In “Smyth County History and Traditions,” Goodridge Wilson wrote, “Stoneman passed through southwestern Virginia on his famous raid. His troops take possession of the premises. They ground beef on the mahogany tables, stabled their horses in the hallways and upstairs rooms, and generally ruined the place.
Lori Rouse, who taught Crockett to students at area schools when she was featured in an exhibition at the William King Museum of Art, said she realized she and Crockett shared many common characteristics , most notably “a deep love for the place where we live”.
In 1984, Crockett wrote a letter to the editor of this newspaper. She explained that she “offered this historic abode, my home, to the organization of the United Methodist Conference of Holston, this mansion to be used exclusively and always as a religious retreat”.
If that didn’t work out, Crockett wrote, “Otherwise when I go this house goes…. Inevitably, when I die, this magnificent monument will be destroyed. Demolishers, bulldozers and property developers would move in: the lake would fill up and factories would go up. Shame. A pre-Civil War building, the house features both quaint and rare backyard structures: a sturdy, and almost never encountered, traditional smokehouse – a delicate spring, where women worked. Together they form a delightfully antique whole, which everyone should hate to see destroyed.
Crockett continued, “Please share with me my fervent wish that this does not happen.”
Clark asked the officials who should approve the permit to stipulate that the house be preserved.
After the hearing concluded Thursday evening, the planning commission deliberated its recommendation to the supervisory board.
Commissioner Joel Pugh said he initially viewed the truck stop in a positive light, bringing development and revenue to the county. However, he also said he “heard loud and clear from opposition people”.
He expressed concerns about environmental impacts and said a plan was needed for the house.
While Pugh said he would like to see the land developed commercially, he would vote against recommending the permit. He made a motion to recommend that the supervisors deny the permit.
This motion was seconded by Tony Dean, who noted that the project could have adverse effects on other properties in the area. Dean said the commission did not have enough information to act otherwise.
The commission voted to recommend that the county deny the special use permit.
Supervisor Phil Stevenson was the only member of that board to comment on the hearing.
He noted that other agencies oversee environmental issues. Stevenson said the land is zoned for commercial use and is along I-81. “It will grow,” he said.
He also noted that earlier in the evening, supervisors had talked about funding a new radio system for law enforcement and first responders, which one study put the cost at $22 million. It doesn’t add to the county taking on a bigger role in EMS and associated costs, Stevenson said. “As bad as I hate growth,” he said, “you have to be open-minded about the revenue coming up.”
Supervisors will likely review the permit application and commission recommendation at their meeting on Thursday, March 10. They can accept the recommendation or reject it and grant the permit. They could also put stipulations on the permit.