The county government — or, more specifically, attorneys whose fees are paid by government liability insurance policies — has been spending more than the usual amount of time in circuit court these last few past months.
Most recently, Sperryville resident Eric Tollefson’s action in Rappahannock County Circuit Court, which sought to force the county school board to comply with his Virginia Freedom of Information Act (VFOIA) for the details of its negotiations to lease high school property to a cell tower builder, was dropped last week just before a scheduled hearing last Thursday (Jan. 15).
Another circuit court civil case — in which residents of Clark Lane are seeking to overturn the county board of zoning appeals’ 2013 decision to grant Harmony House B&B a special-use permit to increase their available bedrooms from two to five — is apparently back in court, or at least in the clerk’s office.
In the VFOIA case, according to Tollefson’s attorney David Konick, the school board and Tollefson reached agreement out of court, the details of which were not disclosed. Konick said publicly that the agreement meant his client would receive all the board’s requested emails, letters and other communications related to the lease negotiation; in turn, the school board authorized its superintendent to consult with counsel about proper VFOIA procedures regarding closed sessions.
It was those procedures, heard by Circuit Court Judge Jeffrey W. Parker at a temporary injunction hearing the day before the school board’s meeting last week, that the judge said appeared to constitute “prima facie” evidence of VFOIA violations.
In any case, at its monthly meeting the next night (Tuesday, Jan. 13), the school board voted the lease down, by a 3-2 vote, after a charged public hearing in the high school auditorium.
At that meeting, school board chair John Lesinski pointed out this week, “you may have noticed already some new language” reflecting the board’s greater care in announcing what would be discussed — and then what was discussed — by its members in closed-door sessions.
Lesinski said the board had not heard from Community Wireless Structures (CWS), the Arlington company that offered to build the tower at the high school and lease it to carriers (and had also talked of plans to revive the other two cell tower permits, near U.S. 522 in Boston and on Woodward Road in Sperryville, approved four years ago and then abandoned by AT&T.)
County Administrator John McCarthy said he had not heard from CWS, either; the newspaper’s request for comment last week from a CWS spokesperson remains unanswered.
Judge Parker issued a letter of opinion Dec. 8 and a related court order Dec. 11, effectively stopping the residents of Clark Lane, led by Allan Rexinger, in their suit against the county and the owners of Harmony House B&B, Kimberly and Randall Fort, which they said negatively impacted safety and property values along the narrow lane that heads up Little Jenkins Mountain from the Rappahannock Farmer’s Coop.
In the letter, Parker essentially agreed with the demurrer — an action that questions the legal standing of the civil petition itself — filed by the Forts’ and the county’s attorneys.
In an unusually disapproving objection, however, Merle Fallon, the attorney representing Rexinger and three of his Clark Lane neighbors, complained that Parker’s opinion was “poorly written and not subject to proper interpretation by the parties,” containing “incorrect references to ‘Petitioners’ and ‘Respondents’ . . . typos and ambiguities on substantive issues.”
Moreover, Fallon wrote in his Jan. 5 objection (which was filed with an amended petition, asking once again that the original appeal go forward), “the Court sent its Opinion to the wrong address for Petitioners’ Counsel, i.e., 130 Main Street, Warrenton . . . instead of the correct address set forth in the pleadings, 110 Main Street . . . depriving Petitioners of critical response time, especially given the intervening Christmas holiday.”
According to Judge Parker’s Dec. 11 order, the respondents — the Forts and the county — have 21 days to file a response to Fallon’s amended petition. The judge himself has not yet officially weighed in, according to the circuit court clerk’s office on Wednesday.