By John McCaslin and Roger Piantadosi
A pair of unrelated lawsuits were filed this past week against Rappahannock County, one targeting the current and former revenue commissioners over land use, the other a new lawsuit following on the heels of the plaintiff’s previous suit related to the board of supervisors and the board of zoning adjustment.
Rappahannock County resident Lynn Sullivan filed her suit surrounding 34 acres that she owns off Route 211 between the towns of Washington and Sperryville.
Naming Rappahannock Revenue Commissioner Sharon Dodson as a defendant, the suit states its purpose is twofold: “an appeal for a series of erroneous assessments” made on Sullivan’s land “for which there is no other forum for appeal,” and to force Dodson to abide by Virginia state statutes when conducting her duties.
Reached this week, Dodson, who’s been in her post for just over one year, said she “can’t comment” on the record. She was deputy revenue commissioner for 17 years under Beverly Atkins, who retired in 2016 after 30 years in the commissioner’s post.
From 1998 until 2012, according to the complaint, Sullivan’s tax assessments reflected that her land was being credited for agriculture use under the county’s land use program.
To have property approved as agriculture land, and therefore receive tax credits, landowners like Sullivan are required each year to submit evidence of farming — in her case an affidavit from the farmer who was growing crops on the land for commercial use.
But in 2013, according to the suit, the farmer reported he had farmed only 28 of Sullivan’s 34 acres — which she now publicly disputes — at which point the county removed six acres of Sullivan’s land from agricultural use. Sullivan charges that she was never given due notice of the county’s action or “an opportunity for an appeal to be heard.”
She further alleges that when she finally learned of the reclassification “over one year later” she was informed “that she was going to be penalized . . . and told it was too late to appeal.”
The suit also identifies previous years — 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011 and 2012 — in which the county has called into question Sullivan’s land use.
In 2008, for instance, the farmer certified that he raised and sold hay, but only on 20 acres of the land. Sullivan says that as the owner of the property she was not allowed to review — and in this case dispute — the affidavit filed by the farmer.
“As a result of the removal of six acres from land use,” according to the complaint, Sullivan “was subjected by the Commissioner of Revenue [COR] to roll-back taxes resulting in taxes she would otherwise have not paid, amounting to $3,433.15, which includes a penalty of $2,128.99, plus the difference in real estate taxes for three years” amounting to approximately $1,300.
The suit claims that Sullivan has incurred monetary damages and a loss of property “due to the capricious acts” of the revenue commissioner and her predecessors. She is seeking reimbursement for property taxes, interest and penalties paid, as well as attorney fees.
In an interview with this newspaper, Sullivan said the “current practices by the COR as it relates to the Land Use Program has a broader impact on the wellbeing of the county.”
“This is a tax program for the benefit of agriculture and farming land use,” she said “Similar to all tax programs it is an honor system, such as when we file our taxes, and if the COR disagrees with our signed revalidation form they must write the landowner within 30 days and audit the form.”
Rappahannock County, she said, “instituted an ‘enforcement farmer’s affidavit’ in the case of land that is not directly farmed by the owner. The property owner is not permitted to review or sign the farmer’s affidavit and they can only comment on this affidavit after it is turned into the COR office.”
Sullivan further charged that the affidavit form “is not legal without the signature of the landowner or legal agent.”
“If a landowner who is in land use has a dispute with the COR, there is no independent body in the county in which the property owner can appeal a decision,” she concluded. “She/he must either abide by the COR decision or go to the court of appeals.
“This is also in violation of the state land use statute as well as a land owner’s due process, which is a constitutional right. Further, I was told both by Beverly Atkins, the former COR and Ms. Dodson, the current COR that I did not have a right to an appeal.”
Bottom line: “I do not agree with my tax bill based on decisions made by the COR regarding my participation in the county land use program,” Sullivan said.
Another Konick lawsuit
Meanwhile, David Konick, the Rock Mills resident and attorney who is representing Sperryville llama farmer Marian Bragg in her current Freedom of Information Act-related lawsuit against the board of supervisors, filed another circuit court petition last Friday (Jan. 27).
The suit came one day before the 30-day deadline allowed for appeals of decisions by the board of zoning adjustment — a board on which he has served since 2014.
Though appeals of BZA decisions are usually related to its actions in zoning or permit-related matters, the decision that Konick’s new lawsuit says aggrieves him is a resolution passed by the board Dec. 28.
That’s when a majority of its members voted to direct Konick to dismiss another lawsuit he filed in September against the BZA and its acting chair, Jennifer Matthews — and to dismiss it “with prejudice,” meaning it cannot be brought again before the court.
Konick’s new suit asks the court to declare the BZA’s Dec. 28 resolution unlawful and void, and seeks attorney’s fees and unspecified other relief, including a possible injunction or prohibitive order.
Konick did file a motion to “nonsuit,” or dismiss the September lawsuit — but not “with prejudice.”
He did so after the original applicant, Harmony Manor B&B, abandoned its appeal to the BZA last summer of Zoning Administrator Deborah Keyser’s decision to revoke its permit for extra bedrooms. Konick and the board (and then county attorney Peter Luke) disagreed on who should be allowed to speak at that appeal hearing.
Harmony Manor is no longer operating and is for sale.