Application denied following vehement citizen opposition
The county courtroom was practically full at the Feb. 21 meeting of the Rappahannock County Planning Commission, with most of nearly 50 members of the public anxious to hear the planners’ approach to a special exception permit application with the provocative title of “Active Shooter and Training Center.”
All of the planners and fourteen members of the public spoke in opposition to the application from RSM Consulting. Only one resident spoke in favor of the proposal.
According to the application, the Manassas-based company had hoped to use the 39-acre property on Old Kennels Lane off Crest Hill and North Poes Roads as a “training center … to teach charities, philanthropic groups and NGOs [non-governmental organizations] on how to conduct their missions in a safe and productive manner” when operating in war zones or other hostile environments.
RSM also provides free training to schools and law enforcement agencies in how to respond to active shooter situations, such as the massacre of 17 students and teachers in Parkland, Fl., last month.
In his opening remarks, Michael Blyth, co-owner of the small woman-owned company, sought to anticipate any community concerns.
There would be “very, very sporadic light firearms usage” using blanks, he said. “The noise from blank-firing is probably a half to a third of the noise of live bullets. We only fire one or two rounds and then we stop….There is zero danger at all.”
He explained that the training would have a low impact on the community.
“We normally conduct two-day trainings [once or twice a month],” Blyth said. “The first day is in a classroom. The next day we take them outdoors and walk them through scenarios” perhaps involving mines or booby traps using fake devices.
As for traffic on the roads, he said, “Traffic will be limited to one or two vehicles that will come in, stay for the day, and then we will leave at the end of the day, so we’re not going to clog up your roads. There will be 40 to 50 participants, maximum, and then they will be disappearing at the end of the day.”
Nor would they change the nature of the landscape, he said. “We are very keen on the environment.”
Despite Blyth’s assurances, many people were not convinced. Comments against the application ranged from concerns that any gunfire noise would spook livestock and dogs, to the fear of depreciated property values, to the erosion of the zoning ordinance by allowing a commercial operation in an agricultural zone.
Jean Clemmons of the Wakefield district urged the planners to look at the ordinance. “The permitted uses do not include what’s in this application,” she said.
Jim Warwick, who lives on North Poes Road, said he felt the application was “90 percent fluff. I don’t think the usage proposed has been fully defined.”
Phil Irwin of Flint Hill, an avid environmentalist, objected to the gunfire.
“We have amplified music, festivals, barking dogs,” Irwin said, “but the worst sound I could think of would be the sound of guns.”
Ron Makela of the Jackson district, at one point, mistook Blyth’s company for a large global accounting firm with the same name, RSM. “We get nervous about large organizations coming into Rappahannock County and we don’t know who they are,” said Makela.
When Blyth refuted Makela’s objections, Makela refused to back down, saying he had additional proof of a connection between the two RSMs. But in a phone call Saturday, Makela admitted he had made a mistake and later realized the two companies were not related.
Only Betsy Burke Parker, whose property shares a road with the Old Kennels property, spoke in favor of the application: “In my opinion, I cannot see a reason why the applicant won’t improve the property.”
During the planners’ discussion, Chris Bird, the BZA rep on the Planning Commission, called the proposal “difficult to support” because of questions in the application that “need to be answered better than they have.”
Wakefield planner Holly Meade said she didn’t think the application had been noticed properly to the public. She said she also had concerns about the environment, safety, noise, and property setbacks.
Gary Light, elected that evening as Planning Commission chair to replace the outgoing Gary Settle, called the application “ambiguous.”
“Our purpose is to define boundaries,” Light told Blyth. “You’ve presented a business profile, but we look at usage. You’ve left your neighbors in a vacuum.”
The planners voted unanimously not to recommend the application to the BZA.
Members of the county Fire & Rescue Association requested that an amendment to section 174-94 of the county’s code be considered to exempt the companies from provisions of the sign ordinance. Approving the exemption would allow the companies to install brightly lit, programmable signs outside the stations.
Art Candenquist of Amissville explained that the signs would be illuminated, but the text would not flash or scroll to distract motorists.
Amissville VFD Chief Scott Chamberlain told the planners that “technology has changed” and that new programmable signs could be used to inform the public of road conditions, events, or other situations.
Makela, a retired firefighter, said he was opposed to the amendment. “People didn’t move to Rappahannock to see these kinds of signs.”
Members of the Planning Commission grew testy with each other as the evening approached 10:30 pm.
County Administrator Garrey Curry suggested that the F&R Association present a formal application for the county to consider.
Special permit applications
With little or no debate, the planners voted unanimously to move five special use applications for family apartments, tourist homes, and a B&B forward to the Board of Zoning Appeals for final consideration.
- Jason and Pam Anderson applied to build a 1200-square foot, 3-bedroom, 2-bath family apartment on their 10-acre property in Amissville to house Pam Anderson’s mother.
- James Foster and Bonadele Ellis applied to construct a 1200-square foot, one bedroom, 2-bath family apartment for their children, grandchildren, and in-laws to use when they visit. The dwelling will be built on the Foster/Ellis 9-acre property in Huntly.
- Joseph and Jacqueline Meuse applied to use their 3-bedroom, 1-bath home in Washington as a tourist home.
- Kimberly Hawkins applied for a tourist home permit for her home in Washington.
- David Albee applied to use a guest house on his Sperryville property as an occasional B&B.
An unedited video of the PLanning Commission’s 7:30 p.m. session on Wednesday, February 21 can be found online at rappnews.com/video, or on the newspaper’s YouTube channel at youtube.com/RappNewsPlus. The meeting agenda and related documents are online at boarddocs.com/va/corva/Board.nsf/Public.