Planners pressed, press on

Swords crossed on comp plan; commission acts to curb Cooter’s events

Sometimes heated comments and discussion at the Rappahannock County Planning Commission’s monthly meeting last week presented a vivid snapshot of some of the county’s more pressing issues.

During the July 20 meeting’s public comment session, attendees rose to speak about zoning pressures, the status and usefulness of the comprehensive plan, the need for long-range financial and resource planning, the readiness of the county’s volunteer emergency-response system, and the direction the county should be taking in terms of both growth and the sustainability of its rural way of life.

Later in the proceedings, the commissioners strived to address many of the concerns raised, but ready solutions were elusive. The commission did act on at least one current concern.

County to Cooter’s: cease and desist

In a unanimous vote, the commissioners authorized County Administrator Debbie Keyser to take action against the owners of Cooter’s in the Country, and the surrounding land, for alleged zoning violations.

The vote follows weeks of large outdoor events at Cooter’s that have attracted hundreds of people and cars to the small cafe and “Dukes of Hazzard”-themed gift shop and museum on U.S. 211 just east of Sperryville — as well as a series of complaints by county residents objecting to the improper expansion of commercial activities into property zoned for agricultural use.

The planning commission approved that a cease and desist letter be sent — most likely to Dick McNear, who owns the property on which Cooter’s sits and the surrounding land, as well as to Ben Jones and Alma Viator, owners of Cooter’s — demanding that no further events be held at the establishment until zoning and permitted issues are resolved. Jones, Viator and their attorney, Michael Brown, did not respond to requests for comment this week.

In June, McNear submitted an application to rezone from agricultural to commercial the portion of his property adjacent to Cooter’s that is used for overflow parking. The property is behind Cooter’s along Old Hollow Road. McNear later withdrew his application after the commission tabled it. Viator said in a phone call then that the McNear family planned to ask for a special exception to allow parking for the term of Cooter’s lease. To date, no application has been submitted.

In a phone call after the July meeting, Keyser said that she had not yet sent the letter but was still researching the issue.

Comments from residents at the July 20 meeting reflected both support of and frustration over the events at Cooter’s. Sharon Kilpatrick of Stonewall-Hampton district was the first to speak and the lone voice in support of Cooter’s, noting the benefits the business brings.

“This county has only real estate taxes and sales and meals and lodging taxes to support the budget,” she said. “It seems insane to be driving away tourist business. What McNear was talking about was not expanding that business but making what was already happening there conform to zoning. I hope you’ll support it and not go driving away the income from tourism.”

Andrew Haley of Piedmont district, owner of Haley Fine Art and a close neighbor of Cooter’s, said he wanted the commission “to know that Cooter’s recent events have greatly expanded the scope of the commercial operation into an ag zone.”

This reporter also addressed the commissioners: “I know that [McNear’s] application was withdrawn but I would have liked to have seen something on the agenda about it that made a public statement for the video and for the public record. I know a complaint was submitted to Ms. Keyser about the events that are going on at Cooter’s, so I would have liked to have heard something about that as well. I would hope the county is working toward a resolution.”

Normally, the commissioners do not respond directly to statements made during the public comment period, but commission chair Gary Settle of Piedmont district chose to answer: “The applications are put before this body and we review those and make recommendations,” he said. “That’s why this is a recommending body, not an enforcing body. That falls into the purview of the county administrator right now. The public comments and the questions that the commissioners make while the application is heard … all that is open to the public. It’s very clear with that particular application there was work to be done on the part of the applicant and some reconsideration. All that was stated … I say that because there was complete transparency.”

The comprehensive plan

According to state and county laws, the planning commission is tasked with reviewing and, if warranted, updating the county’s comprehensive plan every five years. Several residents expressed frustration with the pace of updates to the current version, which has not been revised since 2004.

Bill Freitag of Hampton district, after saying that he had read the seven chapters of the county’s comprehensive plan, offered a suggestion for the plan’s composition. “I would make one comment and that is I think the structure of this plan is useless. The plan is [really just] chapter six, [and] a little of seven . . .  and make [chapters] two through five appendices. That puts what you really want right up front and all this stuff about how grand and glorious the mountains are and the fields and everything else, put it in the back where it’s a nice reference.” (Full disclosure: Freitag is married to this reporter.)

In addition to the comp plan, Page Glennie of Jackson district urged the commission to write a five- to 10-year financial plan, citing the future possibility of having to pay firefighters rather than rely on volunteers.  “What are the possibilities of what our firefighters are going to need and what’s going to happen to the schools? As [the county’s demographics] get richer and richer, do we start losing more and more of the state and federal school funding? What is that plan gonna be?”

Later, Ron Frazier, the board of supervisors representative on the planning commission, responded to Glennie’s suggestion. Calling it a capital improvement plan, he said, “the planning commission does that in several other jurisdictions, but we have never been tasked with that by the board of supervisors. You’re right, we’re not planning and it is difficult, I’m sure, to come up with an intelligent comprehensive plan and this five-year goal when we have no funding for it.”

David Konick of Stonewall-Hawthorne district took the planning commission to task on its performance. “With all due respect to you I want to take issue with you about something you just explained to people, that it’s not the function of this board to do anything much except deal with applications,” he said.  “I think that is fundamentally incorrect. The primary purpose of this board, as several others have said tonight — you’re the brains and the planning commission of this county, and the No. 1 instrument of that planning is the comprehensive plan. . . . So I wish that you would get back to basics and think about what is the purpose of the comprehensive plan and get it done.”

Looking ahead on the agenda, Konick, who serves on the county’s board of zoning appeals, criticized two upcoming items. Referring to the video monitor in the meeting room, he said, “Here up on the screen I see ‘economic development and tourism’ and on the agenda on BoardDocs and I see this vision statement and ‘introduction to creative placemaking.’

“I’ve been involved in zoning in Rappahannock County for — I hesitate to count it up — but a long time, since I first came here almost.  Since the 1970s . . .  and, you know, I don’t know what this stuff is doing on your agenda. I just can’t imagine what it’s doing on there because it doesn’t have anything to do with land use issues, or whatever it has to do with it is tangential.”

When Konick began pointing out, without mentioning her name, that Keyser, tasked with drafting the comprehensive plan revisions, “has the least experience in zoning and planning of anybody up there,” Hampton district commissioner Alvin Henry interrupted.

“Hey, Dave,” he said, “you want to attack anybody…”

“I’m not attacking,” Konick said. “I’m sorry, that’s a fact.”

“Dave,” said Henry, “if you want to take up these issues you just mentioned, go to the board of supervisors. They hire people and that’s [their] ultimate responsibility.”

“I’m saying you need a committee with someone with experience in zoning and planning on it. That’s my comment,” said Konick.

Settle then intervened with, “Your comments are over,” and asked if anyone else wished to speak.

They did.

Beth Gyorgy of Stonewall-Hawthorne district expressed concern about the seeming priorities of the county’s governing bodies. “What I have personally seen,” she said, “is our elected officials, our constitutional officers, and appointed staff and officials doing what I will term ‘switching constituencies,’’ which she explained was when exceptions to the process “are tending to be accommodated rather than the county’s comp plan and ordinances.”  Rather than accommodating applicants, she said, “What I’d like to see my elected officials require is ask that applicants accommodate the county’s comp plan and the county’s ordinances, especially zoning.”

Phil Irwin of Flint Hill had the last word in the public comment session. “I’m disturbed by the very concept of the word ‘planning,’ because you can plan to keep things the way they are or you can plan to grow. If our comprehensive plan is to grow like our surrounding communities, I don’t want any part of it. We need to plan in Rappahannock County how to keep this county the way it is — environmentally sensitive, attractive, and a good place to live.“

Later, the commission discussed how to continue moving forward with reviewing and revising the comprehensive plan to include topics such as affordable housing, transportation, broadband and sustainability. They will schedule working group sessions once all commissioners are available.

Economic development and tourism

With Konick’s criticisms still echoing in the courtroom, Keyser gamely plowed ahead with her presentation on economic development and tourism.. “This idea does have relevance to the comprehensive plan,” she said.

Explaining that the ideas in the presentation were developed in meetings with area artists, artisans and tourism advocates, she said that part of the vision was to “create and sustain a strong agriculture, artisan, food, beverage, and folklore culture for our county” as a way to bring in revenue.

The group’s vision, she said, as stated in the presentation, “supports our comprehensive plan and our goal for the community to remain sustainable and environmentally pristine.”

Watch the Rappahannnock Record’s video recording of this meeting at youtube.com/watch?v=rXz5vdjrExI.

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