What’s next for Sandy River? Nearby residents raise traffic question

Published 10:37 pm Thursday, June 22, 2023

RICE – Even for most of the people who opposed Mark Smith’s proposal Tuesday, the problem had nothing to do with him. Most of them like Sandy River Distillery being there and some even drop by for a drink from time to time. The issue is about Monroe Church Road and the situations residents say the Virginia Department of Transportation is ignoring. 

First, some background. Smith was at the Prince Edward County Planning Commission on Tuesday, June 20, requesting a permit to open a restaurant on his property near Sandy River Distillery, located at 147 Monroe Church Road in Rice. He was also asking for authorization to allow up to five food trucks at the facility at any given time during operating hours. Since the property is zoned agricultural, a restaurant or brew pub needs a special use permit.  

“What we’re doing here is just trying to have more viable business,” Smith told the commission. “Our customers have been asking for food and that’s what we want to give them. We’re not trying to do a large restaurant out there by any means, we just want something for our patrons to have while they’re out there enjoying the view.” 

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As for food trucks, Smith said he didn’t anticipate having anywhere close to five at one time. Usually, he expects between one or two during a special event. But he’d rather have permission and not need it than the reverse.  

One step for Sandy River

In fact, the restaurant won’t be the first thing going up. Smith said if approved, he plans to start by bringing in the food trucks. He’s been in contact with a wood-fired pizza operation Smith said was one of the best he’s had in America. 

Then, once the food trucks take root and customers start coming, he’ll focus on the restaurant. The first version would seat 30 people, be farm to table and operate seasonally. He’s requesting hours of noon to 9 p.m. for the restaurant, with the option of being open seven days a week. Even though that part of the plan is at best months away, Smith told the board he’d rather have the approval now. 

“(I) didn’t want to come back in a year or two to build the brew pub,” Smith said. “(I) wanted to get it all approved now.”

Smith said making an adjustment like this, bringing in food, was needed to help his business grow. 

“Traffic has dropped significantly after COVID-19,” Smith said. “They’re going to hotels again, they’re going overseas. We planned this in advance, because we knew we needed something to make it a sustainable business.” 

Several people spoke in support of the project, with Caroline Bowman saying she was excited for it. The owner of Farmer’s Daughters said it’s needed. 

“A lot of people stop at my shop and ask where’s a good place to eat,” Bowman said. “And it’s few and far between, so I hope this will (pass), so we can now send them into Rice. They’re very successful with what they’re doing now and I know they can do this.” 

For Rex Williams, the argument was even simpler. The owner of Lost Creek Cabin Rentals said it was Smith’s right to do what he wanted. 

“I don’t think we should stop progress,” Williams said. “If a man wants to do something on his property, let him do it. That’s America.” 

The problem for residents

Nobody argued against that point. Instead, local residents just took the opportunity to ask for something to be done about Monroe Church Road before traffic increases, due to a new food truck or restaurant. 

Julia Maserjian was one of those. She and her husband moved to Monroe Church Road a year ago and love Sandy River Distillery. But the road is a problem. 

“From Reservoir Road to Green Bay, it narrows,” Maserjian said. “Some people play chicken (and) I’ve ended up in the ditch a couple of times.” 

She added that there’s also no real adherence to the crosswalk, which almost comes up as a blind curve, adding another problem for drivers. Currently, the speed limit is 55 mph through the area. She suggested dropping it down to 25 mph, “knowing full well that everyone will go 35.” 

Amy Alliston shared another story in a letter shared with the commission. Her property neighbors Sandy River and she’s also concerned about expansion.
“The traffic will be dangerous on our small road, which is very narrow and fast, with no shoulder,” Alliston said. “Not to mention the light and noise pollution is appreciated from inside my house since I’m near the street.” 

But beyond that, Alliston wrote that businesses and things like this went against why she and her husband moved out to Rice in the first place. 

“I’m not thrilled with the idea of living near a restaurant and bar with five food trucks always offering takeout,” Alliston said. “The level of activity doesn’t seem to comply with the rural lifestyle for those of us who want to enjoy the peaceful countryside of our community.”  

What’s next? 

Prince Edward County Administrator Doug Stanley said the county had asked VDOT about a speed study before, similar to what Maserjian had suggested. At the time, VDOT rejected the request, saying there wasn’t enough traffic on the road to justify doing one. VDOT officials have now agreed to go back out and check to see if that’s changed. Without VDOT approval, you can’t change the speed limits. 

Commission members also recommended changing the entrance to the proposed restaurant and food truck site. Instead of coming in from Monroe Church Road, they suggested doing it from Green Bay Road, on a different side of the property, which should be able to handle the traffic better. 

With that, Smith’s request was approved unanimously and sent on to the county board of supervisors, for discussion at a later date.