Chrissie Lim believes that her American dream is gone.
The owner of Chrissie's Cleaners has seen a drop in the number of customers coming to her store since April 14, the day Dry Clean Depot opened just down the road at Route 7 and Augusta Drive and began charging $1.75 to dry clean garments.
"I don't know how I can survive," said Lim, who opened her store nine years ago. "Everybody is interested in the low price. We have no business. ... How can we survive as a small business?"
Young Lee, owner of Church Road Cleaners, considers competition to be competition. "It's a free market, but they destroyed the market," he said, adding that Dry Clean Depot operates on a volume market and can charge less than smaller dry cleaners.
Dry Clean Depot's price for dry cleaning garments is on the two storefront signs in letters larger than the business name. The signs face toward Route 7 and Augusta Drive. "Their occupancy of the building is horrifically ugly," said Gene Gaines, Westerley resident and former president of the Westerley Homeowners Association. "When you enter our community, all you can see is the back of their building. They don't care about the community. They care about attracting people from Route 7."
THE PROPERTY, on which Dry Clean Depot and the rest of the Augusta Center shopping plaza is located, is zoned neighborhood commercial, which under the county's zoning ordinance limits Dry Clean Depot's service area to the immediate neighborhood including the Westerley and Richland Acres developments.
Dry Clean Depot has six cash registers and spans 6,600 square feet, larger than most of Loudoun's dry cleaners, Gaines said. "Dry Clean Depot misrepresented themselves in order to obtain their building permit by stating they were a neighborhood dry cleaner to serve only the neighborhood," he said. "A dry cleaner that pulls its customers from 60,000 to 70,000 cars that pass by on Route 7 each day, that is not a neighborhood [cleaner]."
Randy Levan, CEO of Dry Clean Depot Franchises, believes a Korean dry clean association does not want to see any new competitors in the market. "They hate the fact we can charge less. Instead of competing with us, they [try to] eliminate the competition by pulling political strings," he said.
Since Dry Clean Depot opened, customers have been thanking the discount dry cleaner for taking the four extra months to open despite neighbor complaints and two appeals, Levan said. "Mr. Gaines has been harassing us from day one," he said. "We love the neighborhood, [but] there's a group of people we will never make happy. ... We want to be good neighbors."
Levan said customer feedback about the Sterling store has been positive so far. "The neighbors love us. They have never seen such a clean store," he said, adding that he walked the neighborhood two to three months ago and was told by residents that they wanted the business there. "If the customers are happy, we're going to do fine."
SUPERVISOR William Bogard (R-Sugarland Run) began receiving complaints about Dry Clean Depot's signs as soon as they were installed, anything from "I'm embarrassed to have guests see it" to a description of the signs as being "Las Vegas style." He questions whether the storefront signs and the signs in the windows comply with the county's sign ordinance and the rezoning proffer requirements for the shopping center. He asked that zoning inspectors inspect the signs.
Under the rezoning proffer requirements, the signs should complement the architectural design of the building and the lighting from the signs should point away from residentially-zoned areas abutting the property.
"Have they satisfied it? No. Have they violated it? Yes," Bogard said. "The problem is with all the stuff in the windows."
Bogard referred to neon signs mentioning hours of operation and the fact that shirts can be dry cleaned for 99 cents. "It looks garish. I think those signs push them over the edge for the sign ordinance," he said. "This is permanent because it's as much a part of their signage as the hideous thing that says a buck-75."
The rezoning proffer requires the commercial area to be buffered from the view of motorists using Route 7 and Augusta Drive with berming and landscaping. "The promise was made to mitigate and not have impacts on Route 7," Bogard said, adding that the promise has not been kept, since "when I drive by, the inside of my car is illuminated by their signs."
Under the proffers, the signage is required to complement the architectural design of the commercial buildings in the shopping center and the facades of the buildings to be architecturally compatible with the nearby residential area, zoned R-8.
"Does it follow [that] the signs should be compatible with the R-8 property. I think so," Bogard said. "We have gone back to them through building and development and asked them to tone them down. Every time we ask them to do something, they do the opposite."
THE SIGNS ARE LEGAL and county-approved, Levan said. "We're down to complaining about a sign," he said. "If you drive up and down Route 7, there's all kinds of signs, but they're complaining about mine. I'm starting to feel picked on."
Dry Clean Depot has an approved sign permit for 58.66 square feet in signage, which is allowed at 60 feet, and meets the county's lighting standards for the storefront signs, said zoning administrator Melinda Artman. "I will take Supervisor Bogard's comments seriously and look at the proffers and see if we have an issue there," she said.
Artman will check the signs with a light meter and discuss the signs in the windows with Dry Clean Depot. Signs are required to be permitted if they exceed the allowance for a sign in the door. "I need to clear that up with Dry Clean Depot, and I'm sure they will cooperate," she said. "[The owner] is limited to a certain number of signs and a certain number of square feet. He is at the max."
"We want to stay within the rules and regulations," said Steve Vento, vice-president of Angler Development, LLC in Warrenton and managing member of August Center Partners, LLC, also in Warrenton and the developer of the shopping center. "We as developers don't want to do anything offensive to the community. ... If a tenant is rejected by a local municipality, we don't push it. Gene is looking out for the neighborhood as we want to do. We want that retail center there to be a success. To be a success, it needs the support of the local residents."