Preservation or change: the perennial debate

Recent actions by the Rappahannock County Board of Supervisors, Planning Commission and Board of Zoning Appeals have brought into sharp focus the perennial debate among residents about the future character of the county.

Round peg in a square hole?

In its May 2 public session, the board of supervisors considered a special exception application that would allow the FT Valley store to reopen on Route 231 outside Sperryville.

After an hour-long discussion, described as “torturous” by members of the board, they voted 3 to 2 in favor of granting the special exception under the adaptive use provisions of the county ordinance to Dwight Dunton, the current owner of the property. According to Dunton’s application, he wished to use the existing building “as a general store with potential food and gas services.”

However, the approval came with a long list of conditions responding to concerns of the property’s neighbors. The conditions include hours of operation, use of lighting that “does not trespass” on neighbors, managing noise and not allowing illegal activity on the property. The board will review the application in two years to give the store’s neighbors a chance to weigh in on how well the conditions had been followed.

At issue for the board in reaching approval was how to zone the property. At one time, the store — along with others in the county — had been grandfathered as a commercial establishment in an agricultural zone. But, as stated in a letter to the board from county administrator Debbie Keyser, “With the store not in use within the last two years, the Rappahannock County Zoning Ordinance voids the privilege of the grandfathered non-conforming use of commercial retail sales in an Agricultural Zone.”

During the public comment session, BZA member and former county zoning administrator David Konick explained that county officials in the 1970s marked tax maps with yellow crayons to designate commercial entities in agricultural zones, in effect creating “spot zoning.”

When the ordinance was changed in the mid-1980s, he said, “the decision was made not to have these spots on the map because each was a potential nucleus for another commercial zone.”

Keyser recommended the supervisors consider approving the application under the adaptive use provision. Under adaptive use, a non-residential building can be approved for certain limited uses, such “retail shops, arts and craft galleries, offices, restaurants, inns, bed-and-breakfasts, theaters, multifamily uses or other similar uses,” according to the ordinance.

Konick objected to approving the application under the adaptive use ordinance, saying “Not only will you undermine the integrity of the ordinance, but you will be reversing exactly what was created [in the 1980s] to clean up this mess. But here you are using some some hokey-pokey way of circumventing the ordinance. You are making a serious mistake that will have long-term consequences for the county.”

He chided the members for not having a copy of the ordinance available and suggested they re-read the part of the county’s Comprehensive Plan that addresses land use and preservation of agricultural operations.

Keyser and members of the board acknowledged that the adaptive use provision would likely have to be amended. As Hampton supervisor John Lesinski described it, “Applying adaptive use in this case is like fitting a round peg into a square hole.” But he went on to say that denying Dunton’s application until the ordinance was amended would be unfair to Dunton.

Residential variance: hardship or convenience?

A sign notifying neighbors of Carolyn Butler's application for a setback varience rests in the grass along Hopewell Road in Sperryville.Patty Hardee | Rappahannock News
A sign notifying neighbors of Carolyn Butler’s application for a setback varience rests in the grass along Hopewell Road in Sperryville.

Members of the BZA considered an application at their April 27 meeting for a variance to the setback requirements for a dwelling and garage on Hopewell Road, off Woodward Road in Sperryville. After a spirited debate, the BZA voted 3 to 2 in favor of granting the variance. Two days later, Konick issued an eight-page explanation of his dissent, citing case law and other precedent that supported the objections he stated during the meeting.

According to owner Carolyn Butler’s application, “Topographic and pre-existing site conditions from a previous dwelling are forcing the new dwelling into a specific location on this parcel.”

Because the lot slopes sharply down toward Woodward Road, said Butler, the best place to build is on the flat area at the top of the property. “We consider it best to place the new structure as close to the previous dwelling location as possible,” Butler stated in a letter accompanying the application. Building elsewhere on the property “would require a tremendous amount of excavation and terrain manipulation” to meet the current zoning standards. In addition, the placement of the existing well further restricts the placement of the buildings.

Under today’s zoning, the planned garage, although sited where a former kitchen structure had once stood, would be too close to the property line. Said Butler, “I am asking for a setback variance for the garage.”

After much discussion with Butler and her contractor, and after studying the site plan and drawings of past and planned structures, BZA vice chair Jennifer Matthews moved to grant the variance. William Anderson seconded the motion.

However, before the board could vote, Konick objected. According to code, he said, “To get a variance you have to make findings that the ordinance would effectively prohibit or unreasonably restrict the uses of the property, and that granting of the variance will alleviate the demonstrable hardship, as distinguished from a special privilege or convenience.”

Konick suggested that removal of the garage would eliminate the need for a variance. “I don’t think that this is a hardship that will effectively prohibit or restrict the use of the property,” but is instead a convenience.

Meanwhile, on Christmas Tree Lane

Before the April 27 BZA meeting, Sadhna Singh withdrew her special-use permit application to add two rooms to her B&B, Parma in Little Washington. The application has been reviewed twice by the planning commission. Both times they referred it to the BZA recommending denial based on several factors — unpaid property and meals and lodging taxes, disagreement with her neighbors about road maintenance, the absence of a site plan, and language on the Parma website suggesting that the facility would offer some kind of healthcare services.

In an April 18 email to Keyser informing the county of her application withdrawal, Singh, a physician, said, “It is my sincere wish to do whatever I do in Rappahannock with the blessing of as many people involved in the process as possible. I would clearly like to identify that Parma will continue operations as a bed and breakfast with 3 bedrooms and this withdrawal in no way represents a withdrawal from our continuing as an existing permitted bed and breakfast at 105 Christmas Tree Lane. Moving forward, I would like to clear misconceptions that have pervaded the environment regarding medical services at Parma Inn, as well as improve the road issues with the neighbors before revisiting this issue.”

It is not yet known whether Singh will re-apply, but under zoning regulations, she must wait a year to resubmit her application.

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