Raceway vote called ‘foregone conclusion’
Opponents of the proposed Dominion Raceway in Thornburg say they think Spotsylvania County’s decision-makers have already made up their minds about the project.
It was a “foregone conclusion,” they say, that the Board of Supervisors would vote last week to grant a request from the developer for amendments to Spotsylvania’s Comprehensive Plan. Those changes make the raceway compatible with the plan, which is a long-term guide for growth in the county.
Raceway opponent Diane Kuechler notes that supervisors didn’t have much to say before they voted Tuesday, after a lengthy public hearing that drew almost 50 speakers. Twelve of the speakers were opposed to the raceway.
“They never really had any conversation,” said Kuechler, a member of the Coalition to Preserve the Thornburg Countryside, which was formed late last year in opposition to the racetrack. “I think they’d all made up their minds before they even sat there for three hours listening to everyone talk.”
But some supervisors say their vote last week isn’t necessarily an indication of how they feel about the project as a whole.
“I am remaining open-minded and in learning mode on the overall Dominion Raceway project,” Supervisor David Ross said in an email. “My vote on the Comp Plan amendment was support for continuing to learn more about the project.”
Dominion Raceway must clear other government hurdles, including earning Virginia Department of Transportation approvals, before it can be built.
The Planning Commission and supervisors have yet to schedule public hearings on the raceway’s biggest requests, for a rezoning and special-use permit. Commission members will make recommendations, and supervisors will have the final say on all raceway proposals.
Supervisors Chairman Paul Trampe said he didn’t want county staff’s recommendation on the raceway’s rezoning application to be based on a 5-year-old Comprehensive Plan.
“I just wanted to remove that obstacle,” he said of his vote Tuesday. Trampe said he believes the plan is a guide, not a hard and fast rule.
Supervisor Benjamin Pitts said he won’t make up his mind on the raceway until after all public hearings. He said he supported the Comprehensive Plan amendment because it gives the county another option for future development in Thornburg.
Previously, the plan had primarily called for office and industrial space in the area.
“I don’t see a lot of interest in developers stepping forward with proposals for a business-center-type development or anything close in that part of the county,” Pitts wrote in an email. “However, I do see a lot of empty office space presently throughout the county.”
Raceway opponents say the facility would eliminate the potential for drawing high-wage jobs. They point out other raceways in the state that are surrounded by fast-food restaurants and gas stations.
Supervisor Gary Skinner said he thinks opponents are making accusations because “they’re losing their battle.”
“There are so many people showing their support for it,” he said of the raceway.
Trampe said he hopes some compromise can be reached on the raceway, particularly when it comes to noise.
Both sides in the debate have commissioned dueling noise studies.
“I don’t know the science of noise mitigation,” Trampe said. “My understanding is that there are some things they can do. I don’t know that we’re ever going to be able to satisfy everybody, but I would certainly like to try and work toward compromise.”
It appears that the raceway would be exempt from county noise restrictions from 6 a.m. until 10 p.m., based on Spotsylvania’s noise ordinance. But some of its events would last until 11 p.m., or an hour past that exempt period.
Opponents have pointed out that the county would have to weaken its noise ordinance to accommodate the track. All raceway attorney Charlie Payne would say is that the developer is aware of noise restrictions and would operate accordingly.
Raceway developer Steve Britt hopes to open the facility in spring 2014 on 160 acres at the northeast corner of the Thornburg exit off Interstate 95. If built, it will include an oval track for stock-car racing, a drag strip and a road course.
Both sides in the debate agree that drag-racing events would be the loudest. But they disagree over the extent of that noise.
The raceway says noise from its drag-strip events would be up to 80 decibels—about equivalent to the noise emitted by city traffic—at locations half a mile away and at the nearest home 2,600 feet from the site.
But in a memo to the county dated April 10, a raceway consultant describes several factors that it said would reduce the drag-strip noise. Among those “noise barriers” are a 50-foot building at the raceway site and grandstands with closed risers.
The raceway consultant says the proposed building would be along the drag strip’s noisiest locations. It also says nearby trees and the proposed topography of the drag strip and oval track would decrease noise.
And Payne, the raceway attorney, notes that many nearby homes are on the other side of I–95, which he has described as a natural sound barrier.
The raceway opposition isn’t buying it, with Thornburg resident Matt Williamson calling some of the claims “preposterous.”
“To me, it’s just smoke and mirrors,” he said.
ROOM FOR COMPROMISE?
Williamson said he’s not confident about the potential for compromise.
Raceway officials “don’t want compromise,” he said. “How can you compromise? If they’re there, they’re going to make a lot of noise.”
The Coalition to Preserve the Thornburg Countryside has noted on its Facebook page that Shenandoah Speedway in Page County constructed noise walls after receiving complaints.
Shenandoah owner Jeff Vaughan installed a 1,400-foot-long sound barrier at a cost of $400,000, according to a newspaper report.
Efforts by The Free Lance–Star to reach Vaughan were unsuccessful.
Building a noise wall isn’t among Dominion’s proposals right now. Payne, the raceway attorney, said Dominion’s success depends on its visibility from I–95.
“We are investing millions in its appearance as an attraction and entertainment venue, which is why we have used alternative mitigation measures” like the closed-in grandstands, he said.
Neither side is budging from its position, at least for now.
“If the raceway does come, that’s it,” Williamson said. “Nothing else good is going to come to Thornburg.”
Jeff Branscome: 540/374-5402