Should certain county planners recuse themselves?
Rappahannock County Administrator Debbie Keyser says the county planning commission will wait until its July and August meetings to reconsider a controversial special exception permit application submitted to the county in April by Sperryville area resident Bill Fletcher.
“Because it’s a large application, the planning commission may want to consider it for two months,” Keyser explained to the Rappahannock News.
The application, which has been met with uproar by surrounding property owners, requests the right to stage up to 31 events — such as festivals, concerts, renaissance fairs, and weddings — on Fletcher’s Thornton Hill Farm property along Route 522 south of Sperryville. According to the application, events on the 158-acre site could draw as many as 8,000 people.
The planning commission previously voted to recommend the application at its May 17 meeting, kicking it up to the Rappahannock County Board of Supervisors to consider at its June 5 meeting.
However, following a barrage of complaints from property owners adjoining Thornton Hill Farm, as well as other nearby neighbors and concerned Rappahannock residents, the BOS sent the application back to the planning commission for further consideration and to correct defects in the application itself, including a negligent public notification process.
Many of the adjoining property owners complained that they had not received the ordinance-required mailed notification of the planning commission hearing in time to attend the May 17 meeting..
The earliest the BOS could receive the application back is for its September meeting.
Earlier, Keyser told this newspaper that the county would run public notice ads in time for the July and August planning commission meetings, and that property owners adjoining Thornton Hill Farm would be sent letters in time for the July meeting.
In an email to Keyser on Tuesday, this newspaper asked for further details surrounding what her office and the planning commission might be considering in the interim, such as “any further consultation, study or analysis by the sheriff, fire department, VDOT, etc., to respond to comments by the neighbors? An environmental study?”
Keyser replied, “We have two large applications for the month of June, so anything on the Fletcher application will need to wait until July.”
‘We have to get this right’
Planning commission vice chair Gary Light of the Stonewall-Hawthorne district, which is just south of the property in question, said in a phone call Tuesday that he hopes his commission and BOS do not rush the process of considering the application.
“We owe Mr. Fletcher action on this, but we still have a lot of work to do,” he said. “Among the challenges we face are that the application is ambiguous” as to the number, types and sizes of events, and mitigation actions for the traffic, safety, and noise issues that would affect the neighbors.
“Also, the ordinance itself is somewhat ambiguous” in what it requires, he said. “We need to empower the zoning administrator with the exact criteria by which applications can be evaluated.”
He was struck by the neighbors’ comments at the BOS meeting.
“At the board of supervisors meeting, many neighbors brought up compelling points related to the level of activity [suggested by the application],” he said. “Many noted that events should not change the nature of the community.”
And he suggested that one approach to the application might be to approve a modified version, but require a later review with additional public input.
Alvin Henry, the planning commission member from the Hampton district, which is also outside the property’s physical boundaries, voiced support for the application in a phone call Monday.
“Generally, I think this is a good concept,” he said. “The property is well suited for events. We need a place in the county for large events”
But Henry later conceded that the application “needs tweaking.”
Planning commissioner Jason Brady of the Wakefield district surrounding Flint Hill and Chester Gap, declined to comment on the application and subsequent actions.
“I missed the last [planning commission] meeting and need to look at the applications,” he said.
The other members of the planning commission — chair Gary Settle, Ray Brown, and the board of zoning representative Chris Bird — could not be reached for comment.
‘We were heartened’
Fletcher neighbor and private attorney Ron Goodman said in a phone call Tuesday that he and other neighbors “were heartened by the [BOS] decision to send the application back [to the planning commission.]”
He expressed concern again that the applicant’s request did not conform to the county’s current ordinance for festivals and field parties. The ordinance does not allow an open-ended permit for events. Instead, it limits the number of events and requires a permit request for each event.
“We hope the planning commission and the board of supervisors will be sensible and wise,” he said. “But we have talked to counsel and will continue to do so, not just to protect our own rights as neighbors, but because we think this application is really terrible for the county.”
Meanwhile, this newspaper reported in last week’s edition that the May 17 planning commission vote had been unanimous. But in fact, a written record of the vote indicates that Light abstained.
“I abstained,” he said, “because I felt we still had work to do [on the application]. I didn’t vote against it because I think there is a path to making this approvable.”
County attorney opines
Rappahannock County Attorney Art Goff said in a meeting yesterday that Keyser had requested an opinion letter about whether Fletcher would have to seek separate permits for each event.
“I wrote that in my opinion, Fletcher did not have to apply for every event,” he said. “But I wrote that the BOS could place whatever conditions it wanted on the permit regarding noise, light, traffic, sanitation, and the number of events,” and that the BOS could set up conditions for periodic review of the permit.
Question of recusal
While the Fletcher application works its way back through the process of coming before the planning commission, some opponents have suggested that several officials should recuse themselves from considering and voting on the application.
Jackson district Supervisor Ron Frazier, in an email to this newspaper Tuesday surrounding questions from residents about an abandoned house trailer that Fletcher has planted prominently on a hilltop property he owns overlooking F.T. Valley Road, noted: “Several County reps . . . should have recused themselves because of close connections with Bill because there is the ‘appearance of conflict of interest’ but it did not happen. But that’s the way the county operates, right?”
Three planning commissioners reached by phone responded to the question of recusal.
Brady said he may recuse himself because of a business relationship with Fletcher.
Henry, a close friend of Fletcher’s, said he didn’t see any reason to recuse himself.
And Light said: “I can’t think of any reason why I should.”
When asked whether he should also recuse himself should the application wind up in court, Rappahannock County Attorney Art Goff, another close friend of Fletcher’s, said yesterday that he too could see no reason to recuse himself.
“I don’t have a decision-making role in this,” he said. “I don’t have any conflict of interest. I am friends with just about everyone in the county.”