Planners approve family apartment, hear noise complaint

The Rappahannock County Planning Commission at its Oct. 21 monthly session approved Christopher Coomer’s special-use permit, passing it on to the board of zoning appeals. The commission also heard from a Huntly resident who complained of noise from a nearby winery.

Coomer appeared before the commission to explain his request “to build a second structure on my property and to revert my current structure to a ‘family apartment’ ” to be used as a residence by his mother. The existing structure is 1,200 square feet, Coomer explained, with an attached garage of approximately 1,300 square feet, which would be walled off from the remaining structure.

In addressing the commission, Coomer said that he had built the existing structure in 2014 with the plan in mind to use it for an apartment for his parents once he had built a main house on the same property. “We’re all getting old,” he said. “We want less steps to take up and down. The main house will have a first-floor bedroom for me and my wife.”

During the commission’s discussion period, members expressed concern about the side-by-side dwelling and garage, as it presented the potential to break through the wall between the garage and the dwelling to create a larger dwelling without the county’s knowledge. Alvin Henry of Hampton district said, “We’ve received applications for apartments above a garage and for separate garage buildings,” but not for one of the type Coomer built.

Commission chair Gary Settle sought reassurance from Coomer about his intent for the building. “Can you unequivocally say you won’t expand the space?”

Coomer replied, “Yes, if I’m building a main dwelling I’m less likely to do that. I’ll be living with my wife and five kids. I bought this property specifically to take care of my parents and my family.”

Jason Brady of Wakefield district asked if Coomer had heard from his neighbors about the proposal. Coomer replied no, but Deputy County Administrator Debbie Keyser told the commission that one neighbor had called the zoning office and had no objection to Coomer’s plans.

Before the commission voted, Henry expressed what seemed to be the view shared by other members. “This is a very isolated parcel in a very private location,” he said. “No neighbors would be impacted. Your site size helps mitigate the concern, but if you violate the ordinance [by opening up the wall between the dwelling and garage] there’s a record of the discussion tonight. I’m inclined to approve the request. If the site were smaller or near a road, it would be a different matter.”

The commission members voted unanimously to recommend that the permit request be considered by the BZA.

James McGrail of Huntly appeared before the commission to request a change to the county’s noise ordinance regarding agricultural operations, alluding in his comments to an unidentified nearby winery. In his 17-page petition, McGrail complained that the “Health and General welfare of the Public has been and likely will be Substantially impacted from noise emanating from ‘Winery’ agricultural operations, in a very adverse manner!”

In the document and in person before the commission, McGrail refused to name the winery, saying he didn’t want to hurt the winery’s business. But requested that the county “tell wineries to close their doors and windows after 9:00 p.m.,” if they were going to have events. Specifically, he requested that the state code to be changed to remove the noise-level exemption for agricultural operations.

During the public discussion period, Bill Freitag, a vineyard owner in the Hampton district, told the panel that, after McGrail’s petition was made public, “I’ve talked to some of the wineries in the county. None has activities beyond 6 or 7 at night. One winery had a birthday party for the owner, one time. The wineries in our county have been very conscious of noise.”

Settle opened the commission members’ discussion by telling McGrail, “As there is nothing to be recommended or decided on tonight, this is just a conversation about the issue.”

Brady agreed with Freitag, saying, “I’ve heard the same thing, that the events at the winery in question had been private and isolated.”

McGrail said that on one occasion he had called the Rappahannock County Sheriff’s Office only to be told that the winery is in Warren County. The Warren County Sheriff’s Office claimed the winery was in Rappahannock. Keyser told the commission that the winery sits on the border of the two counties, but that it is in fact in Rappahannock. “I talked to the [Rappahannock] sheriff,” said Keyser, “and explained the situation. She said McGrail should call whenever there is a problem.”

McGrail said he was hesitant to do that. “I hate to do that and screw up their business.”

Henry replied, “You’re asking us to create more regs. I understand your reluctance, but you still have to call the sheriff. Maybe a couple of calls to the sheriff would make a difference.”

He also explained, “We are trying to accommodate as many businesses as possible in the county, trying to encourage businesses to make the county sustainable.”

In a letter to the commission, John McCarthy, the county administrator, cited county and state regulations concerning agricultural operations. “I believe we are effectively barred from enacting most of the changes sought [by McGrail] and the Board of Supervisors is not likely legislatively inclined to impose a new set of noise standards, suburban or urbanizing in their form, on the rural community.”

However, before the meeting was adjourned, Keyser told McGrail, “We can notify the legislature to let them know that this is a concern.”

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