City Council approves Colonial Williamsburg outdoor venue, city biennial goals

Staff writer

A new outdoor venue is coming to Williamsburg thanks to a zoning change and a special-use permit OK’d by City Council Thursday.

With a special-use permit in hand, Colonial Williamsburg may now hold outdoor special programming at Palace Farms, which consists of 21 acres and is located at 100 Visitor Center Drive near the Colonial Williamsburg Visitor Center.

The permit makes the 21 acres, which is part of a 42-acre property bordered by Visitor Center Drive, North Henry and Lafayette streets, available for events such as concerts, theater productions, outdoor lectures and food and beverage festivals. The application proposed temporary facilities such as grass seating, a stage and restroom facilities be set up to accommodate individual programs as needed, said Williamsburg Planning Director Carolyn Murphy. These facilities would be removed after each event.

City Council voted unanimously to approve the permit, which is in effect until Dec. 31, 2020. Council also approved a request to alter the city’s zoning ordinance to allow outdoor special events in the museum support district, where the venue is to be located, with a special-use permit.

Council members voiced support for the idea because it gives new life to unused land and may expand what entertainment the city can offer.

“This is a piece of property that was once used but is now not,” Vice Mayor Doug Pons said. “What Colonial Williamsburg has introduced here will hopefully be attractive to the new market.”

Mayor Paul Freiling abstained from the vote since he is a CW employee.

Colonial Williamsburg could return to request a longer-term permit with some permanent facilities once its current permit expires if it determines the venue is successful, the memo states.

The land has a closed interpretive family farm site and an underutilized overflow parking lot for the Visitor Center, according to the zoning and permit applications.

The parking lot has 400 spots and is adjacent to the Palace Farms site. That and the Visitor Center lot on the other side of the street could be used for the venue’s programming.

The venue will start holding events in June 2019, according to a letter Colonial Williamsburg Real Estate Vice President Jeffrey Duncan sent to Murphy Aug. 20.

Duncan said the venue will aim to accommodate up to 7,000 people during a Planning Commission meeting Oct. 18, when the commission signed off on the proposal. Documents related to the proposal peg the venue’s capacity at up to 5,000 attendees.

No one people spoke during the public hearing that preceded the vote.

Giles Cooke, who rents out a nearby home in Highland Park, expressed concern about how the noise of events might affect tenants.

“I am concerned that my legal obligation to my tenants, to provide for them a quiet and peaceable residence, will be seriously undermined by Colonial Williamsburg’s proposed use for Palace Farms,” Cooke wrote in a letter to City Council dated Oct. 30.

Biennial goals approved

In other news, City Council voted to adopt the 2019-2020 biennial strategic plan. The plan outlines 51 initiatives for the city to tackle, including short-term rental regulations, creation of an affordable housing task force and library renovations.

Council’s unanimous adoption of the Goals, Initiatives and Outcomes plan follows several months of discussion and public outreach. Every two years, the city maps out a list of milestones it hopes to achieve.

With 51 initiatives included in the plan, there’s a wide variety of efforts the city will undertake during 2019 and 2020. The plan has eight main sections — Character of the City, Economic Vitality, Human Resources, Health and Education, Recreation and Culture, Environmental Sustainability, Citizen Engagement and City Governance, Public Safety and Transportation. There are also seven initiatives that need additional development and 14 long-term projects.

On the question of short-term rentals, the city’s Planning Commission and staff will be tasked with determining whether short-term rentals to transient visitors should be allowed in owner-occupied, single-family residences. If so, an ordinance will be drafted for council’s consideration.

Also on tap is a task force devoted to studying affordable housing. The group will research affordable housing practices and report its recommendation on implementation strategies to City Council.

City staff will also be directed to collaborate with counterparts in James City and York, as well as Williamsburg Regional Library to determine how it can expand, renovate and redevelop its facility in Williamsburg.

Jacobs can be reached by phone at 757-298-6007.

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