Frank Michel stands outside of property he purchased along Wythe Creek Road Wednesday afternoon June 15, 2022. Michel can't relocate his business, Express Autobody, due to a rezoning issue. (Jonathon Gruenke/Daily Press)
Since Frank Michel bought 53 Wythe Creek Road in September, he’s had trees trimmed, removed old machinery, and cleaned up the parking lot.
The grass is neatly cut, the building is painted and the garage area is tidy.
But it’s the office, littered with manila folders full of documents, that tells the story of Michel’s struggle — though it’s a self-inflicted one.
Nine months after his purchase, he still can’t use the building. Michel’s auto body shop is a couple doors down. He wanted to expand, so when the spacious corner property went up for sale, he jumped on it. He’d already had a dustup involving land zoning once before, yet he still neglected to look into how the zoning on the new property would affect his business. So he’s learning the hard way — at $75,000 and counting.
Michel started renting space at 63 Wythe Creek Road in 2005. In that building, he operates Express Auto Body, which focuses on panel work. In 2013, it came to the city’s attention that Michel had been operating out of compliance of the property’s zoning for eight years — and he was issued a violation. It was overturned by the Board of Zoning Appeals in Hampton, which issued a decision that allows him to run his business from the current location.
But Michel, 56, who lives in Poquoson, wanted to expand because he’s outgrown the current location and needs more space for vehicles.
So when he saw the “For Sale” sign at 53 Wythe Creek, he quickly put it under contract. It was a building he’d always coveted because it’s a corner lot with lots of room. He thought he could obtain a use permit, transfer the zoning board’s approval to operate in his current space, and get a certificate of occupancy within a few months.
But after he got packets from the city, he discovered his permission to operate outside the zoning restrictions doesn’t transfer from one location to another. Instead, he would have to get the property rezoned.
“Of course that’s my fault for assuming it would be transferable. Now I know it’s not transferable,” he said.
Frank Michel stands inside a garage on recently purchased property along Wythe Creek Road in Hampton. (Jonathon Gruenke/Daily Press)
Michel’s case recently went before the Hampton City Council, which considered whether to rezone his property to allow “light vehicle repair.” They ultimately voted to defer it for 60 more days.
It appears, though, that he has an uphill battle to getting approval a second time around.
The Planning Commission recommended that Michel’s rezoning request be denied because it was concerned about the impact of rezoning an individual property.
The city’s planning staff recommended denial too because the original intent of the zoning district was to attract businesses that would serve the space industry and because it felt Michel’s intended use was not appropriate for the area.
The current zoning, called M-1, generally means manufacturing, industrial uses, or research that doesn’t involve noise or smoke emissions.
No vehicle uses are permitted, but trucks can be stored in the rear of a building, said Robin McCormick, a spokeswoman for the city.
Some of the streets in the area still have names like Shuttle Court and Challenger Way, but the city’s original vision doesn’t seem to have panned out.
The building next door to Michel is a car repair shop. Behind him is MGL Granite, which has a loud, screeching stone-cutting saw. Across the street is a waste-to-energy steam plant, which emits fumes that he said he can smell on his property. Nearby is a landscaping company that stores trucks behind its building.
“Where’s the line?” Michel asks. “Just because you’re working on them? So it’s ok to have the 35 trucks just as long as you’re not working on them.”
At the council meeting, Councilman Billy Hobbs, who is the service manager for Pearson Toyota, agreed. He said he didn’t understand the difference between Michel’s sheet metal work on vehicles and the sheet metal work done by Lighthouse Mechanical, an HVAC company across the street from Michel’s new building.
McCormick said planning and codes staff are investigating whether the other businesses are legal. No notices of violation have been issued yet.
For now though, Michel’s paying “double everything,” he said: Wi-Fi, electricity, and rent and mortgage payments.
Despite his struggle, he’s optimistic that things will work out.
But if they don’t, he plans to keep the property, though it may mean he’s stuck with an empty building. With the current zoning, he thinks it would be hard to find a renter. He’s had interest from other businesses, like a towing company, but he’s had to tell them that they too couldn’t legally operate from the site.
Noble Brigham, firstname.lastname@example.org