Rappahannock County 101

A brief overview (and a promise of more coursework) on local zoning, planning and building

You will have noticed a lot of talk of late about how confused, or confusing, the workings of local government may be, especially in light of (or in light of out-of-town media coverage of) such high-profile debates as the zoning and attitude issues the owners of Cooter’s in the Country say helped them decide to close down their museum, gift shop and cafe in Sperryville at the end of October.

Rappahannock County Administrator Debbie Keyser has certainly noticed it, and though she would not say the plans are definite, mentioned to a reporter this week that she and other county government officials have discussed proposing a series of courses to Rapp U., the new adult education and workforce training organization about to open classrooms at the old Sperryville Emporium.

The subject of the courses, Keyser said, would essentially be Rappahannock 101 — how the various parts of the local government work, or are meant to work; and how to use them, or at least understand them.

This following brief primer was conceived with the same educational purpose — though its focus is on zoning, planning and building, while Keyser’s possible educational project, she said, would involve all facets of local government including treasury, tax collection and assessments, courts, elections, social services, the sheriff and commonwealth’s attorney, building, zoning, planning, the board of supervisors and the volunteer fire and rescue system.

Building and permits

The first thing to know about building in Rappahannock County is that you are building, more pertinently, in Virginia — and the relevant Virginia state laws, governing building-code standards, fire prevention, soil and erosion control and health department requirements — will decide how many hoops are required on your particular course. Local building, stormwater maintenance and health inspectors are charged with making sure you jump through them.

The first stop most will make is at the county administrator’s office; Keyser, like her county-administrator predecessor John McCarthy, also doubles as the county’s zoning administrator. This is where you learn whether your property is zoned to allow what you want to do, and where your application presumably ends in a zoning permit (which is necessary before you can receive for a building permit).

The zoning permit application also triggers an inspection of the property by the county health department, who’ll decide if the soil, water table and topography can support the construction, how large the septic drain field ought to be and where it should be placed, along with the well.

If you’re ‘special’

Most jurisdictions in Virginia have a comprehensive plan — it’s a document that isn’t an ordinance, or law, but is the overarching “mission statement” that guides the creation and maintenance of local zoning laws. (Again, zoning — unlike building, health, fire prevention and soil and erosion control — is still primarily in local hands in Virginia.)

Rappahannock’s famously restrictive, 25-acre-minimum lot size zoning code actually has thousands more specific restrictions than the one almost everyone knows, and which distinguishes the county from most in Virginia. If your plans don’t fit into the larger plan — the zoning code — then you will be told, most likely by the zoning administrator, that you need one or more of the following: a special-use permit, a special-exception permit or a zoning variance.

This will send you before at least one board, and more likely two — the last of which will make a final decision.

You’ll need to read the code

At this point, the difference between special-use and special-exception permits varies by the zone you’re in — in some zones, a proposed unpermitted use requires a special-use permit, in others it requires a special-exception permit. (The zoning code is online at rappahannockcountyva.gov, and the table of such distinctions takes up many pages. This is one reason why a lawyer is often involved.)

In general, both special-use and special-exception permits start with a hearing at the planning commission, five of whose seven members are appointed by the supervisors in each electoral district (the other two being the appointed representatives of both the board of supervisors and the board of zoning appeals).

The planning commission hears the case and makes a recommendation to the next panel. The commission plays a purely advisory role in the process.

Special-use permits, which may come recommended for approval or not by the planning commission, are heard separately and decided by the board of zoning appeals, a quasi-judicial board whose members are appointed by the circuit court.

Special-exception permits are heard and decided by the board of supervisors, whose five members are elected for four-year terms (and whose terms are staggered, two being elected in one cycle, three in the next).

Zoning variance requests — almost always related to a project not meeting the setback requirements (the distance from a structure to the property line) of the particular zone it’s in — are heard and decided only by the board of zoning appeals.

All three panels hold public hearings as part of the process, almost always in the evening and almost always at the county courthouse.

Decisions by the supervisors and the zoning appeals board are final — but can be appealed to the circuit court or beyond.

The system works similarly within the other independent jurisdiction inside Rappahannock County’s borders — the town of Washington, which also shares certain resources, such as health and building inspectors and (until McCarthy retired in June) a part-time zoning administrator.

There might be quiz on this next week.

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