Residents alarmed by ‘far-reaching’ proposal and ‘speed’ of application approval
Venue applicant Bill Fletcher has his share of supporters
The Rappahannock County Board of Supervisors sent a flawed application for a special exception permit that seeks to allow up to 31 events per year on private farm property near Sperryville back to the Rappahannock County Planning Commission for further study, including what impacts such a large venue would have on adjoining properties, transportation, safety and the environment.
In addition, the BOS cited the county’s failure in properly notifying the owners of properties that adjoin so-called “Stuart Field,” as well as other procedural errors with the application itself.
All of which prompted the BOS to scrap last Monday’s public hearing on the controversial proposal and return the application to the Planning Commission for further review.
Given they faced a packed courtroom of concerned citizens at Monday’s meeting, the supervisors voted to still allow public comment.
All told, 16 county residents addressed the BOS, most expressing general alarm and specific concerns about the application submitted by Bill Fletcher, whose family has owned the agricultural land in question for generations.
The open-ended application requests the right to hold up to 31 events a year on a 158-acre parcel of Fletcher’s Thornton Hill Farm known as Stuart Field, which fronts Route 522 south of Sperryville. Events such as concerts, craft shows, renaissance fairs — even RV camping — could draw as many as 8,000 people at a time, Fletcher foresees.
By comparison, the annual Sperryville Volunteer Fire Department Fourth of July fireworks display held at Stuart Field attracts up to 4,500 people, according to estimates reported in the Rappahannock News last July.
Fletcher estimates the number of events and crowd sizes to be “no more than eight large events per year (2,000-8,000 people), eight mid-size events (500-2,000 people) … and 15 small events (20-499 people).”
In a phone call Tuesday, Hampton Supervisor John Lesinski, who also represents the BOS on the Planning Commission, declared the application defective, partly because adjoining property owners had not been properly notified as is required.
“Had property owners been at the [earlier] Planning Commission meeting, we’d have had a different perspective,” Lesinski said. “But we didn’t have the proper appreciation for the magnitude of [the application].”
Indeed, several direct neighbors of the Fletcher property complained about the inadequate notice surrounding the application. According to the county ordinance, adjoining property owners should have received mailed notices of the May 17 Planning Commission hearing five days ahead of the meeting. But in fact, most did not receive letters until the day of the meeting — or after.
Regardless, said adjoining property owner and private attorney Ron Goodman, “the application is outside the scope, letter, and spirit of the ordinance. It seems to allow anything the applicant can dream up.”
The current county zoning ordinance limits the number and kind of events that can be held and also requires a permit application for each event, not blanket approval. But Fletcher said at the May 17 Planning Commission meeting that he did not want to be required to seek individual permits.
Goodman noted the slogan on the county government’s website — “A Scenic Masterpiece Made Perfect By Nature” — and wondered how it squared with the idea of 31 events a year — or “one or two events every weekend” during the warmer time of the year when outdoor events normally take place, as in May through October.
“The differences between [the sizes of] events are huge,” the resident pointed out, in terms of the amount of litter, noise, lighting, waste, and traffic each would generate.
He urged the supervisors to “look at the overarching consequences for the county.”
Elizabeth Johns, a neighbor of Fletcher’s for 27 years, said she was “profoundly concerned by the scope of the application and the speed with which it was [considered] by the Planning Commission.”
She addressed Fletcher’s argument in the application that the county needs a designated event space, as do surrounding counties. But event space or fairgrounds in the other jurisdictions, she argued, are owned by nonprofit organizations or the communities themselves.
“Any income from events [in those jurisdictions] flows back to the community,” she said. Instead, Fletcher “would make a profit while degrading the neighbors’ quality of life.”
She also was concerned that official input from the Rappahannock County Sheriff’s office and local fire and rescue departments had seemingly been neither required by the planning commission nor received by the BOS.
Other speakers expressed the same concern.
Sperryville area resident Matthew Black said, “I run with Sperryville Rescue,” and told the supervisors that “emergency squads are already overtasked. Normally I would support a proposal for events, but the enormity of [this application] baffles me.”
When there is a large event, he asked, where will emergency services come from? And will other citizens be left hanging while rescue squads respond to that event?
“The fact that we are three minutes up the road doesn’t comfort me,” Black said.
‘Not in anybody’s back yard’
“Before I read the application, I thought, ‘Not in my backyard,’” said Mary Kugel, another direct neighbor of Thornton Hill Farm. “But now having read it, I say, ‘Not in anybody’s back yard.’”
She, too, objected to the vague nature of the application.
“This is a blanket permit application for unspecified events on unspecified dates for unspecified duration.” Kugel said. “This means there could be rock concerts, Hell’s Angels gatherings, KKK rallies. We don’t know.”
She questioned whether in today’s political environment Fletcher or the county could deny certain groups access.
Several speakers asked that traffic and environmental studies be included in the application.
The potential increase in traffic on 522, a two-lane road, could be significant, said Fletcher neighbor Charlie Joughin.
He also spoke of the current noise from Stuart Field, including from a kennel for fox hounds that rents space on the property.
“Noise echoes off the hills from miles away,” he Joughin pointed out. “We can hear everything from the hounds to the [clanging of the] chain on the flagpole.”
The application proposes limiting event activity to between 7 a.m. and 10 p.m.
“But,” added Peter Bressman, who lives across Sperryville Pike from Fletcher’s property, “that is not a meaningful limitation.”
He said he was “deeply concerned” about the application and feared that the increased noise and light from events could “turn our dream home into a nightmare.”
Sharon Pierce, a former member of the Planning Commission, said: “I am gobsmacked that the Planning Commission approved this.”
With the potential for 31 events and upwards of 8,000 people, “this is not even a serious application,” Pierce said.
“This [application] never should have reached the planning commission,” agreed Henry Gorfein. “The whole thing is fraught and too open-ended.” He urged the supervisors to demand a comprehensive site plan.
While listening to opponents of the application voice their concerns, Fletcher leaned over to Rappahannock News Editor John McCaslin and said: “I didn’t know I was this evil.”
Local attorney David Konick, who also sits on the county’s Board of Zoning Appeals, took a broader view by suggesting that the ordinance needs updating.
“Most of the ordinance was written in 1985,” he said, “and needs to be looked at in a serious way.”
Those in favor
Mike Biniek, Piedmont supervisor, expressed surprise in a phone call Tuesday evening for the number of people who spoke in favor of Fletcher’s plans, at the meeting and privately.
“Initially we just hear from people who are opposed,” he said. “Usually people who are for it don’t come forward.”
John Genho, farm manager at the 7,100-acre Eldon Farms, defended Fletcher as a fellow farmer.
“Fletcher is serving the county by holding the land open,” Genho noted. “It’s a benefit to Rapp County and the peacefulness and tranquility of the county. People don’t know the difficulty of holding land open.”
He suggested the Planning Commission and supervisors consider the specifics of the application and maybe grant provisional approval with regular reviews.
“Small farmers walk a precarious balance,” added Boston resident and farm owner Melanie Kopjanski in support of the application.
“Small farms are tied to the good of the county,” she said.
The Planning Commission that will now have to reexamine the application consists of chairman Gary Settle, Gary Light, Raymond Brown, Al Henry, and Jason Brady. The BOS representative to the commission is John Lesinski, while the Board of Zoning Appeals representative is Chris Bird.
As stated by county code, “The Planning Commission shall advise the Board of Supervisors on all matters related to the orderly growth and development of Rappahannock County and it shall approve or disapprove the location, character and extent of all public facilities in the county [and] approve or disapprove the general or approximate location, character or extent of streets, parks or other public areas.”
The application and related documents are online at boarddocs.com/va/corva/Board.nsf/Public. Select the May 17 Planning Commission meeting.
RappNews coverage of the May 17 meeting is online at http://rappnews.com/2017/05/29/sperryville-festivals-and-camping-neighbor-notifications-vex-planning-commission/