Supervisors’ second marathon September session addresses fire and rescue issues and some zoning issues
The Rappahannock County Board of Supervisors convened at 7 p.m. for a public “work session” Monday night (Sept. 19), kicking off the board’s new policy — approved during a marathon six-hour board session Sept. 7 — to continue its regular monthly public meeting to a second Monday night later in the month whenever one was deemed necessary.
This one was evidently necessary; the supervisors (and the two members of the public who waited downstairs during their nearly two-hour closed session) didn’t get home until about 11:30 p.m.
Before an initial crowd of about 20, it was an alternately subdued and rancorous (and occasionally humorous) session, during which the first half hour was spent deciding what should or should not be on the agenda, including a public comment session (which then took up the next half hour). During the public discussions, Jackson district supervisor Ron Frazier and County Attorney Peter Luke at one point got into a brief shouting match over zoning ordinance interpretations.
During the closed session, those waiting on the courthouse steps could hear raised voices, continuing for several minutes, coming through the courtroom’s closed windows on the second floor.
Though many of the board’s discussions, including those in closed session, were prompted by recent zoning-based controversies, the board also took several other actions.
• It voted unanimously to make changes to the county’s EMS Cost Recovery ordinance that would ostensibly allow the county to continue submitting ambulance-transport bills to Medicare and other insurers on behalf of three volunteer companies (Sperryville Rescue, Chester Gap and Castleton; the other three companies with rescue duties having instituted their own billing systems after encountering problems with the county’s own process). It would also enable the county to contract with another billing vendor, since the current vendor (according to Paul Komar of Castleton, who spoke during the public comment) “has us on the border of being brought down by Medicaid and Medicare” because of billing and reporting errors.
• Also in the fire and rescue area, the board unanimously voted to move to amend an ordinance passed earlier this year that allows volunteers to receive a personal property tax break; extending the deadline by which volunteers needed to qualify by two months, to Oct. 1.
• It decided to postpone, until its Oct. 3 session, any action on budget changes that County Administrator Debbie Keyser told them would likely be necessary to fund additional expenses (including $200,000 for projected social services costs, and costs of training for planning commission and zoning appeals board members approved by the board Sept. 6).
• It unanimously agreed to advertise for citizens interested in serving on an ad hoc broadband committee, which it agreed Sept. 6 to create, to advise the board on the pursuit of broadband and cell coverage solutions, including potential technologies and available grants or other non-county funding.
• It consented, without a vote, to take no action on a county noise ordinance. This followed a public hearing on the possibility Sept. 6, at which a substantial majority of citizens objected, saying it would be difficult and/or expensive to enforce, and shouldn’t be a high priority considering the county’s other issues.
Zoning issues, part I
Those would include zoning, for instance.
On that front, one unusual action the board took was to unanimously approve scheduling a joint public hearing for Sept. 30, convened by the supervisors and planning commission, on a special permit application that may or may not be actually filed by John Henry, whose property off Crest Hill Road in Flint Hill is the site of what may or may not (according to the zoning ordinance) be “field parties” or “festivals” (which require a permit) or “carnivals” (which requires no permit if sponsored by a nonprofit, which Henry’s Stone Hill Foundation is) or “shows,” a term that’s not defined in the ordinance but which is a permitted use (if no admission is charged).
The next event at Stone Hill is a performance by longtime Rappahannock playwright and artist Peggy Schadler’s 1000 Faces Mask Theatre — on Oct. 1 (the day after the proposed joint public hearing). Advertisements mention a suggested donation for entry, which the law may interpret as an admission charge.
The joint public hearing was suggested during the public comment period by attorney and zoning appeals board member David Konick, who over the past week has posted to Rappnet, the Rappahannock-based email group list, a number of emails alleging that the Stone Hill events are violating the zoning ordinance. Three or four of those who have agreed enthusiastically with Konick, in the email forum, were in the crowd Monday night but did not speak.
“It’s obvious that it is not a carnival,” said Konick, who said the “carnival” definition was put in the ordinance in the mid-1980s to accommodate the volunteer fire companies. “This is exactly the same as Castleton Festival as far as the use goes . . . there’s no reason to undermine the ordinance . . . The way to get out of it, without harm to the ordinance . . . they can come in and apply, when this meeting’s over, and Mr. Henry can fill out the special exception permit application and you can have a joint public hearing Sept. 30, when the planning commission is having a special meeting.
“Nobody’s against what they’re doing up there,” he said. “Nobody thinks it’s a bad thing. What’s a bad thing is to jerk around with the ordinance and not make them comply.”
Henry was present during the public comment period, though he didn’t comment; by the time the board addressed the issue, closer to 9 p.m., he had left. Keyser had originally suggested the board postpone discussion of the Stone Hill issue until she and Luke finished investigating it — a process slowed in part by, Luke said, the fact that zoning consultant and former longtime county administrator John McCarthy was in Chicago — on a Cubs-related trip that the board of supervisors gave to McCarthy as a going-away gift.
It was during the board’s subsequent discussion of the Stone Hill situation that Frazier and Luke began loudly disagreeing about the interpretation of the zoning ordinance and the classification of what the events in Flint Hill legally were, Luke maintaining that they were neither carnival nor festival (or field party, another term for festival) but were “shows.”
“You’re twisting it, it doesn’t mean what you say it does,” Frazier said.
“I’m just reading you what it says,” Luke said.
“You’re reading it because you’re trying to make me look like I came up here with some bogus —”
“— you’re doing a pretty good job of that yourself,” Luke interjected.
“Listen, sir, you . . . you are out of order, you do not talk to board members like this,” Frazier said sharply. The other board members raised their voices at this point to end the discussion.
After Stonewall supervisor Chris Parrish attempted to make a motion that the issue be tabled, pointing out that Henry had actually left the building, Frazier insisted that the board go ahead and schedule the joint public hearing, and allow Keyser and Luke time to look into the issue properly in the meantime.
“And Mr. Chairman, point of order,” Frazier said, “when you have the county attorney that can get by talking to members of this board like that . . .”
“I just want no anger,” said board chair Roger Welch. The board voted unanimously not long after to take Konick’s suggestion and schedule the joint public hearing for 1 p.m. Sept. 30 — just in case. Henry had, by Wednesday, apparently consulted with an attorney, but no evidence of a pending application could be found before press time.
“We don’t have much for entertainment here,” said Sharron Proper during the public comment period, speaking of the tradition of field parties in the county, including the Fourth of July and point-to-point races. “What’s the difference between those events and these people’s events, she added, referring to Stone Hill as well as another recent zoning-related, parking-in-fields-related controversy that led the owners of Cooter’s in the Country to announce they were closing their museum and gift shop/cafe at the end of October.
“We live in a small community,” said Proper. “I mean, we chase opposums for fun here. Anything that we can have that would be more fun is a good idea.”
Planning commission member Gary Light of the Stonewall district, who stood to speak during public comment to question the wisdom of adding agenda items at the last minute, also addressed what he characterized as undue attention given to issues, particularly zoning and planning issues, that become the subject of online discussions.
“Operating in this manner puts a lot of emphasis on attacks made on Rappnet,” he said. “I really hope you resist the temptation to have Rappnet be a substitute for a real public discussion, at a public meeting in a public forum. Some of the reasons why I don’t think that’s a very viable public forum . . . first of all they allow anonymity . . . it’s unregulated with respect to commenters addressing, instead of you the supervisors, addressing one another — which allows for the sort of discourse that’s subject more to personal attacks, and personal exchanges.
“And it allows for people with the loudest voices, or the most time, to kind of clog those airwaves,” Light said. “With the changes to the agenda tonight, in some ways reacting this way seems as if you’re giving extra weight to the discussion that takes place on Rappnet. And there are a lot of citizens who just aren’t on Rappnet.”
Zoning issues, part II
The board ultimately decided not to take any action on an agenda item proposed by Keyser and Luke — after agreeing to put it on the night’s agenda — to look into legal counsel for the board of zoning appeals, specifically in its hearing Sept. 28 of an appeal by the owner of Harmony Manor B&B of Keyser’s decision to revoke the B&B’s permit for two of its five rentable bedrooms.
A related dispute over the structure of that hearing brought BZA member Konick and BZA acting chair Jennifer Matthews (acting because the BZA chair, Alex Sharp, is the B&B owner’s real estate agent) into circuit court last week, after Konick petitioned the court to prevent Matthews from having a special meeting to alter the hearing’s rules that he, as secretary, had set up for Sept. 28.
The suit was removed from the docket after Konick and Matthews, at the judge’s urging, agreed that the special meeting would not be held.
During Monday night’s meeting, Konick objected to the agenda item concerning the BZA’s legal counsel, saying Keyser had recused herself from the BZA’s proceedings, since it’s her decision that Harmony Manor owner Randall Fort is appealing, but that she still suggested to the board that they discuss the matter of BZA legal representation — which the BZA last month actually voted, 4-1, not to pursue.
“I concur with Mr. Frazier that it is a mess,” said Hampton supervisor John Lesinski. “We have a situation there [on the BZA] where members are recusing themselves . . . attorneys, administrators are conflicted or recused, we’ve got a situation where one member has sued another member. That is a situation that is in as much disarray and possibly dysfunction as I care to speculate about.
“For all those reasons, even though the BZA thinks it doesn’t need counsel, to me it points to the fact that they do — or that we [the county] do,” he said.
In closed session, the supervisors discussed filling the position of county attorney (Luke is leaving at the end of the year); the Harmony Manor BZA appeal; the 800 Mhz radio system financing; potential improvements at the county landfill; and the “evaluation of performance of zoning and building departments.”
That last item was how Keyser started the meeting, in asking the board to approve agenda changes, including moving the discussion of proposed zoning-enforcement and -interpretation changes for her and county building official Richie Burke until after she could have what amounted to a “personnel-related” private discussion with the supervisors. She singled out public criticism from Frazier which she said had turned the issue of how county officials interpreted the zoning code into a personnel issue.
After the closed session, the board calmly agreed to postpone taking up Keyser’s list of proposed changes — or decisions the supervisors must make about how to approach about a dozen different issues and permits — at its Oct. 3 meeting.
That list, Keyser said, will be on the county’s boarddocs website (boarddocs.com/va/corva/Board.nsf/Public) by midweek next week.
The following video is courtesy of Kaitlin Struckmann’s Rappahannock Record Youtube channel: