After a tense, two-hour hearing at which many spoke emotionally both for and against Harmony Manor Bed and Breakfast’s proposal to expand from two bedrooms to five, the Rappahannock County Planning Commission voted to recommend denial of the permit last week — just as it originally voted to recommend denial of the B&B opening 18 months ago.
Back then, Harmony Manor co-owners Randall and Kimberly Fort applied for their original special-use permit to operate the B&B, and despite recommended denials from County Administrator John McCarthy — and, by a 6-1 vote, the planning commission (Alex Sharp cast the only favorable vote) — the Board of Zoning Appeals (BZA) granted the permit the following week, with a 3-2 vote.
McCarthy had also recommended against granting the expansion permit last week. The BZA was to hear the case last night (Wednesday, Oct. 23).
The safety and traffic hazards of a B&B on narrow Clark Lane drew the ire of the Forts’ neighbors, who formed the Clark Lane Residents Committee, headed by Allan Rexinger and consisting of all six neighbors along the lane, which climbs Little Jenkins Mountain from U.S. 211 next to the Farmer’s Coop.
The house, whose original owner alienated his neighbors a decade ago by illegally using it as a hotel, was purchased last year by the Forts. When the Forts announced plans to open a B&B, the Clark Lane Residents regrouped. After the BZA decision last year, the neighbors’ group sued Rappahannock County, claiming vehicular traffic would be hazardous and conflict with existing traffic. (Circuit Court Judge Jeffrey W. Parker dismissed the suit in June 2012.)
Those emotions and arguments emerged again at last Wednesday’s meeting (Oct. 16), as all six members of the CLRC spoke against the expansion. Nine supporters from the community, meanwhile, spoke in favor of the Forts’ plan.
Randall Fort said he and his wife wanted to expand to five rooms because of increased demand in their B&B and a desire to maximize their property’s useage. “We have successfully, safely, operated for a year,” Fort said. “No propane trucks exploded, no hapless weed-whackers or children were run down . . . Absolutely nothing negative has happened.”
Fort said he’d turned down nearly 80 reservations in the past year — which could have amounted to an extra $2,000 in taxes for the county, not to mention the money Harmony Manor guests spend at the county’s small businesses.
“Eighty percent of our guests go to the Inn. They visit wineries, art galleries . . . Now is not the time to dismiss new revenues,” Fort said.
Fort added that his neighbors have “actively conspired to make the traffic situation worse,” claiming that they had put rocks and reflectors in the road to make it more difficult for cars to access Harmony Manor and accusing them of impugning his (and his wife’s) character in “this legal jihad.”
“We have done everything we said we’d do [safety-wise],” said Fort. “We’ve already reached out to VDOT to address their concerns . . . [The CLRC] has contributed to an unsafe condition which they are now decrying. You can’t have it both ways.”
Numerous members of the packed courthouse crowd spoke in support of the Forts’ business and possible expansion, including Haley Fine Arts owner Andrew Haley, artist Tom Mullany, Wakefield Country Day School head of school Jessica Lindstrom and student body president Alex Foster, Little Washington Winery owner Carl Henrickson, Kid Pan Alley’s Paul Reisler and others.
The professions varied, but the message was largely the same: The Forts’ supporters argued that Harmony Manor greatly contributed to the community, both professionally (by increasing other businesses’ revenues) and personally (through acts of hospitality and charity).
“B&Bs are the lifeblood of my business,” said Haley. “I’ve sold tens of thousands of dollars worth [of art] to [Harmony Manor’s] guests. There aren’t a lot of places here where B&Bs can be built . . . and if we take them for granted, where will the tourists stay?”
Foster and Lindstrom both spoke to the Forts’ generosity and professionalism when hosting Wakefield’s prom last year, while Reisler deemed it “a great application from great people.” Audrey Regnery of Washington said she couldn’t understand the neighbors’ reservations.
“It’s not a biker bar or a brothel,” Regnery said. “It’s top of the line in there. [The county] should be pleased to have it here . . . B&Bs are a part of this county.”
For their part, the Forts’ neighbors — Janice Jenkins, Brian Schultz, Pat Choate and Rexinger, joined in protest by Washington resident and longtime real estate agent Sam Snead — said they believed the road was simply unsafe and too narrow to properly accommodate a B&B, let alone the proposed expansion. (B&Bs typically have to be served by a 50-foot right of way; the one on Clark Lane is only 30 feet wide.)
“I feel sorry for the people on that lane,” said Snead. “We’ve given [the Forts] a not-so-good introduction to this county . . . but it’s unfortunate [the B&B] was ever approved in the first place. The neighbors clearly don’t want it . . . When the county administrator and planning commission vote against it, that ought to be enough.”
“That road is too narrow. That is enough in itself,” said Choate. “VDOT recommends against it. That’s enough in itself. Six of the seven people on that road oppose it . . . There’s as good a reason now as then to deny the application.”
Rexinger spoke last, summing up the CLRC’s objections: “The people who have spoken in favor of this tonight are not our neighbors. They don’t live on Clark Lane . . . If it was their private road being made public, they’d probably be singing a different tune . . . The road won’t accommodate commercial traffic . . . [and] just because an accident hasn’t happened yet, doesn’t mean it won’t. It’s the right business in the wrong place.”
“This is not about the neighbors not approving of a B&B,” said Stonewall-Hawthorne commissioner Gary Light prior to making a decision. “I just want to make that clear.”
Light agreed that the right-of-way was simply too narrow to accommodate increased traffic to Harmony Manor and recommended the application be denied. “I understand and appreciate what the Forts do for and bring to this community . . . [but] I would have voted against it [18 months ago] too.”
Five other commissioners — chairman Charles Strittmatter, Ron Frazier, Gary Settle, Raymond Brown and Alvin F. Henry — agreed with Light and recommended denial.
“Some ventures simply work better in certain places than others,” said Henry, who was on the planning commission when the original application was submitted and voted against it then as well. “The Rappahannock way is to get along with your neighbors . . . I was hoping time would pass and help this situation, but it seems that hasn’t happened . . . Maybe this is just the wrong location.”
The commissioners voted, 6-1, to deny the expansion request. (Sharp, as before, was the only member in favor.) Nonetheless, the application was heard by the BZA last night (Wednesday, Oct. 23) and approved, 3-2.
Proposed zoning amendments brought forth by Cliff Miller IV — which would, if approved, allow the commission to consider his proposal to build a nine-hole golf course on 25 acres of his property in Sperryville — were tabled until the commission’s November meeting.
The small handful of people left in the audience after the Harmony Manor permit seemed excited about the idea of a golf course in Rappahannock, with several saying they’d gladly play it if it were approved. “I think it’s a terrible use of horse pasture,” joked Frazier.
Frazier and Sharp expressed concern about the possibility of stray balls being hit onto U.S. 211, while the others wondered about the water reserves necessary to maintain a golf course. Ultimately the commissioners voted 6-1 to table the matter until their Nov. 20 meeting. (Settle voted against tabling and implored the commission to come to a decision that night.)