BZA approves family apartment, with strict conditions

Last week’s (Oct. 28) 30-minute-long Rappahannock County Board of Zoning Appeals meeting was dominated by a discussion of Wakefield district resident Chris Coomer’s application for a special use permit. Coomer applied for permission to convert an existing dwelling to an apartment for his aging parents and build a main house for himself, his wife, and their children on his 55-acre property.

The Planning Commission at their Oct. 21 meeting recommended approval to the BZA, which the board did, not quite unanimously, after imposing strict conditions.

Coomer’s existing structure is a 2,560-square-foot one-story building divided into a 1,200-square-foot dwelling and a 1,360-square-foot garage accessible by a door between the two spaces and an exterior bay door. As the planners were, BZA members were concerned about the possibility that the garage area could become incorporated as living space without the county’s knowledge, creating a second dwelling that would be larger than allowed for a family apartment under the zoning ordinance.

Coomer assured the board that he had no such intention and would wall off the door between the spaces. “I understand the sticking point is that I have access from the residential portion to the accessory space,” said Coomer. “It’s a dwelling now, not a family apartment. We knew we’d be living in it awhile while we were building the main house. We just thought it made sense.” And he suggested that the final inspection of the main house could be contingent on walling off the apartment door between the dwelling and the garage.

Chair Alex Sharp pointed out that building the apartment first “is the opposite of what usually happens, which is that the family apartment is built after the main dwelling,” but said the BZA had approved situations like Coomer’s in the past.

With Vice Chair Jennifer Matthews saying that Coomer’s plan “seems reasonable,” the discussion appeared to be moving toward a provisional approval.  

Before the board could move to vote on the application, however, board member David Konick objected to the application. “I don’t think [Coomer’s plan] complies with the zoning ordinance,” he said. Referring to the exact ordinance, Konick said, “There are additional standards for family apartments. The way the ordinance is written, you can only build a family apartment if you have the primary residence there. There is no provision for what the applicant wants to do, in my opinion. Whether it’s reasonable is not the issue. The issue is what the ordinance allows and I don’t think it does.”

“But the end product is that you’ll have a big house and a little house,” Matthews said. “Since the beginning of time — look at Monticello, for instance — people have started off with a small cottage till they could get the big house done.”

“They didn’t have zoning back then,” Konick replied. He then expressed another concern about Coomer’s application in regard to housing density. Coomer’s property lies within a conservation zone. “The intent of the ordinance in the conservation district is to limit to one dwelling per 50 acres. And the apartment can’t be rented out [to non-family members] for a period of two years.  So in two years, Mom and Dad could move out and you’d have two separate dwelling units that could be rented out to anybody. You can have two dwellings in an agricultural zone, but not in a conservation zone. What does that tell you about the intent of the ordinance?”

Sharp opened the meeting for public comment. There being none, he asked for a motion to vote on Coomer’s application. After some discussion of the motion, the board voted on the application as submitted with the condition that the access is blocked between the apartment and the garage. And that the change be permanent and a condition of the permit.

The members voted almost unanimously to approve the application. Konick was the only member to vote no.  

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