After postponing a public hearing on a special-use permit for the third time in as many months at its regular meeting Monday night (Aug. 11), the Washington Town Council found itself hosting an unscheduled public hearing on a related subject.
The subject was: public hearings in general. Also covered were: trust, transparency and the need for permit applications to be complete before public hearings are scheduled and advertised.
The last topic was acted on, at least going forward; the council agreed to town attorney John Bennett’s suggestion that he draft an amendment to the zoning ordinance to tighten the rules governing an application’s acceptance and subsequent scheduling of a public hearing.
Discussion of the other topics was merely enlightening.
Early in what appeared to be a relatively uneventful agenda, the council voted to continue again the special-use permit (SUP) application by the White Moose Inn to operate a tourist home at the property owned by Deborah Winsor at 199 Main St.
Mayor John Sullivan said the principals of the application — White Moose owner Jim Abdo and Winsor, an Abdo friend — had still not yet provided all the materials to complete the application, in part because of vacations and some initial confusion over what was required to complete it.
Sullivan said he had been assured the permit application would be complete and in town zoning administrator John McCarthy’s hands by the last week of this month, and recommended the hearing be rescheduled for the council’s September meeting (which the council rescheduled, in a separate vote, to Sept. 15 from the usual Sept. 8).
There was a brief discussion of the merits of re-advertising the hearing in the local newspaper — this newspaper — before the September session, in part because the newspaper had edited out mention in its editorial “Meetings and Notices” column in last week’s edition of the public hearing this Monday night (primarily because the notice said the hearing would be continued until September).
The resolution passed, 4-1. Council member Mary Ann Kuhn voted against it, saying she thought another legal notice was warranted, and just because “we are continuing a public hearing that never happened on an application that’s not complete.”
Several who came for Monday night’s meeting specifically for the SUP hearing then left — including Christine Smith, who was among several who publicly criticized town leaders at the Rappahannock News’ June 19 public forum for what she (and others) saw as an overly accommodating relationship with Abdo and his associates, who’ve spent $2.6 million on 10 properties in town over the last two years.
Then the public comment session at the end of the council’s agenda arrived.
Gay Street Inn co-owner Gary Aichele, who had championed the town’s public-hearing process and transparency at that June forum, rose to remind the council that he’d “defended the integrity of the council, and encouraged people to become involved in the process. And if you track the number of people who actually came to council meetings in the last three months, it peaked.
“And there is now some conversation in town about — and I’m just sharing this, not endorsing it — whether or not the council can be trusted, and whether its processes are up front,” Aichele said. “Because a critical issue [the Abdo-Winsor application] has been continued, by my count, for three months.”
“My concern about this application that keeps getting continued,” said longtime town resident Ray Gooch, a former member of the town council, “is that the trust of the community — that the council is doing its job — may suffer, this being the first of any number of applications [from Abdo and associates, who outlined plans at the June 19 forum for a restaurant, a bakery and cafe and various office and retail renovations of primarily older, neglected buildings around town].
“All of the people out there . . . have been saying awful things about this council, worse than any of the councils I sat on — and some pretty bad things were said about some of us — that ‘only this many people voted in the election,’ and ‘the town ought to lose their charter,’ and it’s ‘this closed little group that’s running the town’ . . . I think what you have to do is put some teeth in it, like say, if we continue it to the September meeting, and it is still an incomplete application, the application will be denied, or whatever you say to get it off your agenda, and make them re-file it.”
Council member Patrick O’Connell, chef and proprietor of The Inn at Little Washington — the town and Rappahannock County’s largest tourist draw, and a business that found itself in numerous battles with Washington’s town council and Architectural Review Board during the first two decades of the Inn’s more than 30-year tenure — suggested the Winsor and other Abdo-related applications shouldn’t be treated any differently than other SUP applications.
“If we had an applicant who is less controversial and who wanted to build, for example, a garage, no one would be here. And no one would be saying a thing about postponing the application until there was a more convenient time for them to present it. I think we would be subject to more distrust if we said, ‘Let’s posse up and punish, because they’re not here.’ We wouldn’t do that to any other member of the town.”
O’Connell cited what he called the “legacy of restored trust” of former mayor Eugene Leggett. “Without that trust between the community and the town council and the boards, he showed us, it would be impossible to function as a community,” O’Connell said. “People need to weigh out the fact that the dissolution of that hard-earned trust is going to be far more dangerously damaging to our future than someone restoring old buildings whose attitude wasn’t liked by some members of the community.
“The viciousness that these kind of things bring out are disturbing,” O’Connell said, “and make this community lose a great deal of its soul.”
Aichele thanked O’Connell for pointing out that the Winsor application postponement was not an exception but a continuation of council practice.
“Yes, we call it neighborliness,” O’Connell said. “But there was a time when people were punished, both by the council and the ARB, and that’s how you got even with your enemies. Fortunately, for the most part, we are somewhat beyond that.”
In other action, the council unanimously approved resolutions accepting an ESS/Enviroclean proposal to pump backwashed sand from the wastewater treatment plant’s filter system, and to spend $1,560 for a yearly contract with Fidelity Power Systems in Roanoke.
The sand removal, council member Gary Schwartz said, is an occasional necessity, and this is the first time it’s been required since the five-year-old plant went online.
The Fidelity maintenance contract was the cheaper of two bids to provide twice-yearly inspections and preventive maintenance on the town’s two emergency generators (a 50-kilowatt unit at the water works in Harris Hollow and a 350-kilowatt generator at the wastewater plant). The council resolved to accept the bid, provided Fidelity’s initial recommendations for necessary repairs (a requirement of the contract) do not exceed $2,500.
Sullivan also reported that the Rappahannock County Sheriff’s Office has stepped up speed-limit enforcement in the town, as the town had asked following last month’s long discussion of speeders.