Nelson County’s Route 151 in the Rockfish Valley has been called the “Napa Valley of the East Coast.” But some residents fear that appellation will change with the newest development on its scenic byway: a massive 84,000- square-foot ammunition and firearms distribution warehouse that has an indoor firing range.
Neighbor Harold McCauley says he received no notice about the project that’s springing up literally in his backyard. And Nelson residents concerned about a firearms facility on the popular brewery byway have been told they have no standing and no possibility of public input because the project is by-right on industrial-zoned land.
Zenith Quest International, based in Afton, bought the 10-acre parcel from Blue Ridge Builders Supply in March 2014 for $500,000, according to Nelson property records. The company began importing natural stone tile from Turkey, says project manager Ray Miles, but with the demand for ammunition and firearms up, that’s what the new facility will be geared for, along with light manufacturing of firearms.
“Some weapons will be altered when they come here,” says Miles. He stresses they’re pistols or semi-automatic, not automatic weapons. Those firearms will require testing. Hence the 4,000-square-foot firing range in the basement, which will not be open to the public, he says.
The county’s industrial zoning allows noise levels of 70 decibels at the property line. “We aim to be below that,” says Miles.
He shows a reporter at the site the concrete walls that are a foot thick in the basement firing range. “Not much sound gets out of 12-inch concrete,” he says. “I don’t think our neighbors are going to be bothered at all.”
No ammunition will be manufactured at the site, assures Miles. And with a sprinkler system and 100,000 gallons of water on hand, he says, “No one is in danger from ammunition stored there if there’s a fire.”
Justin Shimp, an engineer who lives about a mile from the site, has appealed the county’s zoning determinations three times, and has been told three times he has no standing in the process. Shimp, who questioned the landscaping and emergency access to the property, as well as whether a firing range is an appropriate use under M-2 zoning, says he doesn’t have a problem with Zenith Quest so much as with how business is done in Nelson County.
For example, unlike Charlottesville and Albemarle, where even with by-right development, notice is sent out to all adjacent property owners, state law doesn’t require that, nor does Nelson County, says Shimp.
Nearby North Branch School, whose mission is to “foster respect, non-violence, environmental responsibility” and community involvement, has had no direct interaction with the company, according to a statement from the school.
Members of the Planning Commission told the school the project is by-right, and that “Zenith Quest has been responsive to requests from Nelson County and has made appropriate changes to their site plan,” says the North Branch statement.
Although the Zenith Quest site plan was approved at a public Planning Commission meeting, “They don’t permit public comment,” says Shimp. And despite County Administrator Steve Carter opining in an e-mail that a firing range is not a permitted use under the industrial zoning, Zenith Quest’s site plan was approved.
Shimp contends the project has been pushed through by longtime Supervisor Tommy Harvey, who rents Zenith Quest its current headquarters and whose son has done work on the new facility.
“Now you just stop right there,” Harvey says when asked about his ties to the project. “[Zenith Quest owners Kutlay and Hanri Kaya] bought that property long before they ever became my tenants,” he says. “My son bid on that project like everyone else. I had nothing to do with that whatsoever.” Nor has the project come before the Board of Supervisors for a vote, he says.
Harvey, who was elected to the board in 1984, says the property has been zoned industrial for 20 years, and the new operations will bring tax revenue and 30 jobs.
And he disagrees with residents who say a weaponry distribution center isn’t the type of business they want to see in Rockfish Valley. “We’re overrun with wineries,” says Harvey.
The McCauley family, whose properties are adjacent to Zenith Quest, has lived on Avon Road for several generations, and Harold McCauley can see the warehouse rising at the edge of his property. His daughter, Jessica Goines, lives next door, and says, “I can throw a rock and hit it.”
McCauley, who with his brother granted Zenith Quest an easement for emergency vehicles on their private road called Family Lane, says, “We’ve gotten very little information.”
“Having ammunition in a neighborhood backyard is just crazy,” says Goines.
Shimp prefers the Rockfish Valley as a corridor of winemaking, not weapons manufacturing. “I’m not an anti-gun guy,” he says. “This is a beautiful place. I don’t want to be the second road on the left after gunfire.”
“That’s not going to happen,” promises Miles. The landscaping will provide 80 percent coverage, not the 50 percent required by the county, he says. And the roof will be green to mitigate the views from the nearby Blue Ridge Parkway.
“We went to every length we could,” he says. “We understand it’s a scenic byway.” And if anyone has a concern, says Miles, they should give him a call.