Nearby landowner: ‘Granting the Fletcher application would be not only unlawful but very bad . . . for the county’
By Patty Hardee and John McCaslin
Rappahannock News staff
Opposition to a special exception permit application to hold up to 31 events per year at the Thornton Hill Farm near Sperryville was ratcheted up this week when outside counsel was retained by adjoining landowners and neighbors.
On Friday, a letter from the Fairfax law firm of Blankingship & Keith, representing a dozen neighbors who live adjacent to or nearby the 158-acre property along U.S. Route 522, was delivered to the Rappahannock County Board of Supervisors and Planning Commission.
The Piedmont Environmental Council (PEC) in recent days also wrote to the county in opposition of the application. And a homemade video was released documenting noise and light pollution experienced by neighbors during this month’s annual Sperryville Volunteer Fire Department Fourth of July fireworks at the Thornton Hill Farm site.
The video was shot from the front porch of the neighbor living closest to the event site and shows activity leading up to and during the event.
In April, the farm’s owner Bill Fletcher submitted an application to the county requesting a blanket permit to hold as many as 31 events a year, defined in the county code as “field parties.” As outlined in Fletcher’s application, some events could attract as many as 8,000 people.
In comparison, during fair weather the Fourth of July fireworks event held at the property draws about 2,500 people.
In his five-page letter delivered to the county, Gifford Hampshire, a principal with Blankingship & Keith who specializes in areas including land use and zoning, wrote: “Our clients object to the application because it requests action that would be [beyond] the county’s authority to issue special permits and because approval of the permits would be in contradiction to well-established precedent from the Supreme Court of Virginia.”
Hampshire refers specifically to an opinion letter issued May 29 by Rappahannock County Attorney Art Goff at the request of then County Administrator/Zoning Administrator Debbie Keyser.
Keyser requested Goff’s opinion on whether the county’s ordinance allowed an applicant for several events to waive the requirement to apply for and obtain a special exception permit for each individual event.
Goff, in this letter wrote: “It is my opinion that a … special exception for each separate event in not required.”
His opinion seemingly contradicts the county’s zoning ordinance, which also restricts the number of events to be held in a given period of time.
According to section 170-69E(3) of the county zoning ordinance: “The Zoning Administrator may issue a permit to any person or persons to have a field party no more frequently than once per three-year period.”
This provision was last invoked in 2016 when Ben Jones, former owner of Cooter’s Place at the corner of U.S. Route 211 and Old Hollow Road in Sperryville, applied to expand his operation.
Fletcher was unavailable for comment this week, said a secretary in his office.
Speaking to the Rappahannock News, Ronald Goodman, one of the neighbors opposed to the application, said the letter from the external counsel “demonstrates, among other things, that under the Rappahannock County code and Virginia law it would be illegal for the board of supervisors to grant a blanket special exception for multiple, wildly diverse events to a private landowner for his profit — and to the very significant detriment of his neighbors —,as is requested in the Fletcher application.
“To do so,” Goodman continued, “would be to attempt to illegitimately duck the duties of the board by not exercising its legally-mandated oversight over each event, a duty which cannot be legally delegated. To grant the application, Mr. Hampshire says, would also circumvent citizens’ due process rights.”
On a broader note, said Goodman, a career attorney whose practice has focused on international arbitration and alternative dispute resolution, the communication from the PEC evidences “concerns about the types of uses being proposed, the scale of the proposed events, and the consistency of the application with sound planning policy being applied to all land use requests.”
More specifically, the counsel states that it is extremely concerned that the application “is completely inconsistent with the intent of the [Rappahannock County] Code, the Rappahannock County Comprehensive Plan, and the ability of local infrastructure to sustain its impact.”
“These letters support what we and other concerned citizens throughout the county have said from the beginning: granting the Fletcher application would be not only unlawful but very bad for neighbors and for the county, whose leaders should, as a matter of priority now, rather be thinking about how to give careful, balanced, and wise guidance for the development of the County as a whole in changing times,” Goodman told the News.
“It seems to me that the county should not be making inadvertent general policy through piecemeal, precedent-making, and illegal decisions that it would very much regret in the future,” he said.
Claire Catlett, field representative of the PEC, raised several issues in her three-page letter.
“We have significant concerns about the types of uses being proposed, the scale of the proposed events, and the consistency of the application with sound planning policy being applied to all land use requests,” she wrote.
“[PEC] feels that the proposed users are too large in scale, too frequent and too nebulously conditioned to merit approval and that more detailed scoping and conditioning would yield better protections for attendees, neighboring property owners, and the public interest.
The planning commission took up the application at its May and June meetings before voting to refer it to the board of supervisors. The supervisors, after hearing opposition from numerous neighbors and others at their July meeting, voted to send the application back to the planning commission, which was to take it up again at last night’s [July 19] meeting scheduled to begin at 7:30 p.m., after this newspaper went to press.
However, an unedited video of the meeting will be posted as quickly as possible at rappnews.com, where other public meeting video archives can be found. In addition, the letters and neighbor’s video referenced above can be found on the county website Boarddocs at boarddocs.com/va/corva/Board.nsf/Public.