Four members of the Rappahannock County Board of Zoning Appeals (BZA) voted Aug. 29 to uphold Zoning Administrator Michelle Somers’ determination that the Welcome to Sperryville sign on the side of the Happy Camper Equipment Company is in violation of the county’s sign ordinance. BZA member Ron Makela abstained.
“I don’t have an issue with the sign [personally],” said Makela, “but our code says that what Robert [Archer] put up is a sign and it exceeds [size] specifications.”
BZA Secretary David Konick said he agreed with Makela.
“This meets our definition of a sign,” Konick said. “It has letters and words, it informs people of something, and is visible from adjacent properties or from the highway. There’s no ambiguity about it.”
BZA Vice Chair Jennifer Matthews expressed disappointment that more members of the board of supervisors, besides Piedmont supervisor Christine Smith, did not attend the hearing.
“We’ve got some archaic code levels,” Matthews said. “We need better direction.”
Ever since Archer, the owner of Happy Camper, painted the orange and white welcome message, the issue has become a touchpoint in the county. In all of the recent county meetings in which the sign has been on the agenda, many residents have been enthusiastic in their support, some even wearing T-shirts with the welcome message emblazoned on them.
This past week’s meeting was no exception. It was interrupted several times by laughter, applause and boos from the near-capacity crowd attending the meeting, prompting BZA chair Alex Sharp to threaten to clear the room.
The sign saga began earlier this year. After someone complained about the sign to the county, Somers issued a letter to Archer on April 17 informing him that he should have applied for a sign permit. In her letter, Somers quoted the relevant statutes from the county’s zoning ordinance defining sign and permit requirements. Somers’ letter said the sign, which takes up one side of Archer’s one-story Happy Camper building, is larger than the ordinance allows.
Somers told Archer that he could apply for a variance to the code, which he did in early May. He appeared at the May 23 BZA meeting only to be told that he should have appealed the violation letter, not asked for a variance.
In June, Archer withdrew his variance application and appealed Somers’ ruling.
Last week’s meeting began with a discussion of the rules of appeals hearings, including who from the public would be allowed to speak. On July 27, Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring wrote in an opinion letter to Rappahannock County Attorney Art Goff that “[T]he BZA must allow any affected person to participate in the hearing, and allow any aggrieved party to address the BZA for a specified amount of time. … An aggrieved person is one who owns or occupies nearby property and can demonstrate a particularized harm, or the imposition of a burden or obligation different from that suffered by the public generally.”
The AG’s letter was in regard to a past case before the BZA involving Harmony Manor on Clark Lane, but the BZA used it to guide its procedures in the Sperryville sign case.
“The AG’s opinion from a couple of years ago,” said Sharp, “was for a very similar case related to who has the right to speak and be heard at an appeal of the zoning administrator’s ruling. We’re considering [tonight] a very limited issue which is that the zoning administrator had rendered an opinion” that what was painted on the building was a sign and that it violated the county ordinance.
After discussion among the BZA members, Sharp said, “I’ll allow anyone with a grievance a fair share of time, [but] I’m going to limit it so [the meeting] doesn’t last all night and we aren’t repeating ourselves.”
The first to speak was Mike Brown, Archer’s attorney, who pointedly did not refer to the subject at hand as a sign, calling it instead a mural.
“It is my contention,” said Brown, “that this is a mural, a work of art. It is not a sign and is not intended as such.”
He cited a number of exceptions to the sign ordinance listed in the county code, even suggesting that the welcome sign could be considered a historical marker.
Archer told the BZA that his intent was not to evade the law and that in fact he has complied with whatever Somers requested.
“This exercise has been community building,” he said. “Countless people have expressed their support and there has been identifiable economic impact.”
Sharp opened the public comment with “I’m going to take the risk of opening this to the public. I don’t know if anyone here fits the ‘aggrieved’ part, but we’ll hear from adjoining or close neighbors [to the business] first.”
Twelve county residents spoke in support of Archer and the sign, including John MacPherson, owner of the Sperryville restaurant the Three Blacksmiths, and realtor and artist Martin Woodard.
“[As an artist] I think I understand art when I see it,” said Woodard. “This is definitely a work of art.”
“I see the sign every day,” said Sperryville resident Robin Day. He then admitted to making a “Freudian slip. I don’t see it as a sign. I see it as a mural.”
Sarah Hanes said, “I would be aggrieved if it was removed. . . . [Archer] has provided a community service. It’s not promoting his business, it’s promoting the community.”
Dabney Kirchman pointed out that proceeds from the T-shirts carrying the welcome message go to the Sperryville Rescue Squad, not to Archer’s business.
Sperryville photographer Ray Boc said he was unable to get a picture of the sign because “so many people were stopping and looking. It causes people coming down the road to stop and look at Sperryville.”
No member of the public spoke against Archer.
“Our mural supporters showed up in full force, expecting progressive action from the BZA,” Archer later told this newspaper. “Unfortunately and despite overwhelming positive community discourse and support over the past few months, that did not happen. I’ve taken the temperature on the situation and the community is now furious. Thankfully our BOS has listened and is now tackling the issue. We hope to have a mural ordinance in some form in the coming months.”
And then this criticism from Archer directed at BZA member Konick: “Despite Secretary Konick’s curious continued attempts to imprison, scandalize and otherwise vilify me, he fails to realize that his incoherent rambling petulance, feeble legal prowess and fruitless roadblocks only serve to strengthen my resolve while digging himself deeper into the hole of irrelevance. And since, at the hearing, he decided to bring up ‘hearsay’ in an effort to use it against me, I’ll bring up some of my own: whispers tell me Secretary Konick was one of two parties that originally complained about my mural to the zoning office.”
Cox Davis tourist home approved
The BZA voted to grant Susan Cox and Tyler Davis a special use permit for an “‘airbnb’ rental of a guest room” in their home on Water Street in Sperryville. Four members voted in favor; Konick abstained.
A couple of neighbors expressed concern about noise and traffic, but Barbara Adolfi, who ran a guest house on Water Street for many years said she never had any complaints from neighbors.
“People don’t come in and run raucous,” she said.
An unedited video of the Board of Zoning Appeals 7 p.m. session on Wednesday, Aug. 29 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.