Application by Bill Fletcher seeks 31 events per year
Adjoining landowners left in dark on Planning Commission hearing
A group of residents whose properties abut Thornton Hill Farm in Sperryville have organized to protest an application for a special exception permit that would allow up to 31 events of varying sizes on the farm property. These events would be in addition to the annual Fourth of July fireworks held each year on the property by the Sperryville Volunteer Fire Department.
In addition to objecting to the substance of the application, the residents also complain that they did not receive timely notification of the application’s hearing at the May 17 Rappahannock County Planning Commission meeting.
Thornton Hill Farm, in the Piedmont district, covers over 651 acres along Route 522 outside of Sperryville. According to the application, only a portion of that will be used for the events.
“The property to be used is Tax Map 39, parcel 3A, which consists of 158 acres, also known as ‘Stuart Field Parcel,’” reads the application.
The application was submitted to the county on April 27 by the farm’s owner, Bill Fletcher. The planning commission in its May 17 meeting voted unanimously to recommend the application to the Board of Supervisors for consideration. Next Monday, June 5, the board will take up the application at its 2 p.m. meeting in the county courthouse.
Fletcher states the reasons for the permit as “carnival, field party, or music festival,” which all have specific meanings and requirements in the county ordinance. However, his request greatly expands the common understanding of a permit for these events. Rather than seeking individual permits for occasional or one-time events — as the county code requires — the application appears to seek an open-ended permit for as many as 31 events a year, some of which could attract up to 8,000 people.
“It is expected that the property will have no more than 8 large events per year (2,000 – 8,000 people),” reads the application, “8 mid-size events (500 – 2,000 people) (one of those being the July 4th Fireworks) and 15 small events (20 – 499 people).”
The application envisions weddings, hunting, and events “such as a renaissance fair, craft fair, or bluegrass music festival. [One area] is the perfect location for Recreational Vehicles for overnight camping for those attending events.”
In the application and in his presentation before the planning commission, Fletcher addressed the need for events to supplement the farm’s income, saying “it is difficult to be self-sufficient in today’s environment as a farmer.”
The county also could benefit from the events, he said.
“There is an increasing need for a large open space parcel to accommodate a growing interest in agri-tourism outdoor events,” reads the application. “All of our adjoining counties have parcels such as fairgrounds or 4-H parcels that are either County owned or owned by non-profit organizations. This application goes toward meeting those needs and helping my farm to be more economically sustainable.”
In a phone call Wednesday, Fletcher said his application was in response to people asking to hold events at Stuart Field.
“I filed the application because of requests from other people,” he said.
A letter to the editor in this edition of the RappNews states the concerns of many of the owners of property adjoining Thornton Hill Farm about the events.
“This unwelcome application would pose severe risks of course to the safety, quality of life, and property values of surrounding residents,” writes James Buss of Woodville. “[We] consider this to be a drastic departure from what has helped protect the historic, scenic, agricultural and environmental richness of Rappahannock County for generations.”
In phone calls Tuesday, owners of adjoining and non-adjoining properties expressed worries about increased traffic on Route 522, the risk of fires caused by campers or hunters, and accountability in case of emergency, among other concerns. All of the owners requested anonymity as they feared repercussions from speaking out.
The application implies that the events would be run by outside contractors or “event groups.” In that case, asked one property owner, “who is responsible if a camper sets a fire and burns my house down? There has to be some level of accountability.”
Another owner wondered whether a Virginia Department of Transportation assessment of the traffic load on 522 would be required.
“Eight thousand people for one event is more than the population of Rappahannock County,” said the owner. “Imagine that many people on one weekend on 522.”
And still another owner mentioned a safety concern that is common across the county — the lack of cell service at Thornton Hill Farm. In the event of an emergency, “you would have to drive someplace to call 911.”
When asked about the neighbors’ complaints, Fletcher said he had not been contacted.
“No neighbors have actually called me,” he said. “We’ve been having events here since 1943 and haven’t had any problems.”
All of the owners spoken to on Tuesday complained of not receiving notification of the application in time to attend the May 17 Planning Commission meeting.
According to the county ordinance, owners of property adjoining the property in the application must be notified at least five business days in advance of the initial public hearing, in case they would like to comment in person or in writing. Owners must be sent copies of the application in two ways: by certified mail and by first-class mail.
Because the planning commission was scheduled to meet on May 17, owners should have received notification no later than May 10.
Records in County Administrator Debbie Keyser’s office show that seven identified property owners were sent the two notifications on Thursday, May 11. In fact, a notification letter supplied by one of the owners shows a postmark of Friday, May 12.
None of the owners spoken to on Tuesday received a certified mail notification, and none received the first-class mailing before May 17. Some, because they have post office box addresses that they don’t check every day, did not see the notification until after the planning commission had met and considered the application.
Mike Biniek, Piedmont district supervisor, commented on Fletcher’s contributions to the county over the years.
“Bill has been very generous to the county,” said Biniek. “He’s let his property be used for the Fourth of July fireworks and the steeplechase. These events are part of the culture here.”
But he also noted the importance of community input.
“The application needs to be carefully looked at,” he said. “Listening to the neighbors is an important part of the process.”
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 https://rappnews.com/2017/05/29/sperryville-festivals-and-camping-neighbor-notifications-vex-planning-commission/