‘There’s been a wrong here. There’s a pathway to right’
A group of residents of Ben Venue Road in Flint Hill long opposed to Williams Tree Service operating on the narrow historic byway finally got a hearing Jan. 23 before a county board. Only to find out that the board in question — the Board of Zoning Appeals — actually has limited authority to rule on appeals.
In 2007, the county’s Board of Supervisors approved a special exception permit for Williams as a “Contractor’s Offices, Shops and Materials Storage Yards.” Section 170-8 of the Rappahannock County zoning ordinance defines this use as, “Establishments for the construction and/or repair of buildings, roads and utility lines; installation and servicing of heating, cooling and electrical equipment; flooring; painting, plumbing, roofing and tiling; and/or excavating.”
However, the group of Ben Venue Road residents contended, the Williams operation consisting of piles of logs, cut firewood, and mulch does not conform to the definition of a contractor’s yard. In addition, the operation on the winding road, having expanded dramatically since 2007, has attracted double-trailer logging trucks, increased the noise level, and affected property values.
Throughout the hearing, the road’s residents assured the BZA they had no malice toward Greg Williams, the tree service owner, but that the business needed to be in a location zoned for industrial or commercial use.
The current complaint stemmed from the Board of Supervisors’ allegedly ignoring a condition of the permit to conduct a review every five years. The first five-year review occurred in 2012 and minutes of that meeting indicate that the next review would take place in 2017.
When no review took place despite numerous inquiries, Ben Venue Road resident Bob Mann wrote a letter, dated Oct. 14, 2018, to Rappahannock Zoning and Planning Administrator Michelle Somers citing a number of observed violations.
Mann explained that the tree service’s expanded operation meant regular deliveries of logs via two-trailer semis to Williams’ site, increasing traffic safety hazards on the road. The bucolic road is known for its narrow blind turns and lack of shoulder space for drivers to avoid oncoming large vehicles or even farm tractors.
Mann’s letter also described the growing piles of firewood and mulch as affecting the view shed. He wrote, too, there was evidence that the tree service operation was also depressing property values.
Somers responded with a letter dated Nov. 5 defending the 2007 permit and offering Ben Venue Road residents 30 days to appeal her determination.
The BZA at the January meeting intended to focus on Somers’ narrowly expressed ruling. But the residents, led by Bill Freitag and Patty Hardee, a writer for the Rappahannock News, used the opportunity to mount a wider ranging case centered on their charge that the permit was illegally issued in the first place and that Williams Tree Service has repeatedly violated the permit conditions. They claimed that Somers’ ruling did not address the larger issues, despite several formal complaints made to her office.
At the end of the three-hour hearing, the majority of the BZA members expressed sympathy with the road’s neighbors. Many said they felt the residents had made a case for reviewing, amending, or perhaps revoking the tree service permit. But in light of the BZA’s limited authority and the restricted scope of Somers’ ruling, they voted unanimously that there was not sufficient evidence to overturn the permit.
However, they also voted five to zero in favor of Chair Alex Sharp sending a letter to the BOS, recommending that body take action to revoke or amend the 2007 permit.
That said, the hearing began with a consideration of whether one of the members should recuse himself or be forced to recuse.
In a Jan. 15, 2019 letter to Somers and BZA Secretary David Konick, the Ben Venue neighbors’ attorney Gifford Hampshire requested that Konick recuse himself from the hearing because of negative personal comments he had made about Hardee to the entire BZA in his capacity as BZA Secretary.
In an Aug. 23 email, Konick wrote to the other BZA members, “I used to think Patty Hardee was just inexperienced and naive, but my opinion has changed. She is a mean spirited presstitute who has zero journalistic ethics in addition to being stupid, IMHO.”
After some discussion, Sharp said that the BZA could not force a member to recuse himself. Konick declined to step down for the hearing.
Somers then told the board that in her Sept. 28, 2018 letter to Williams Tree Service she cited the operation for violating setback requirements.
“As a condition of your permit,” she wrote, “all firewood and logs must be setback at least 25 feet from any property line or the edge of the road.” She gave the company 60 days to correct its violation.
County Attorney Art Goff followed up by saying that the 2007 permit had been duly noticed and a hearing held, per the county code. He then told the panel, “Williams has vested rights for his use whether or not what the Board did [in 2007] was right.”
Although the permit had been vigorously debated at the original hearing, Goff said, no one had formally appealed the permit in 2007 or in 2012. According to statute, formal appeals need to be made within 30 days of permit approval. Goff told the BZA the Ben Venue Road neighbors’ recourse was to appeal to the Circuit Court.
When asked later why he or other neighbors had not appealed the permit in 2007 or 2012, Freitag said, “I just trusted that our government officials knew what they were doing. I feel really stupid now.” Also, he said, he and others had spoken in opposition to the permit at the 2012 permit review hearing and had never been told that there was a mechanism for appeal.
Hampshire called up a number of Ben Venue Road residents to testify about what they had observed with the tree service over the years. First up were Hardee and Freitag, who as the named appellants had to show how they were “aggrieved parties” in order to prove they had standing — the right to appeal.
Next, the road’s residents Ann MacLean, Sandra Renzy, Susie MacNelly, Len and Lauren McGill, and Bob Mann testified as to increased noise levels, an increase in the number of employees above the permitted level, and increased truck traffic.
Lauren McGill told the BZA that she spends most of her day outdoors. She listed the noise from trucks beeping as they backed up, road noise from heavy truck deliveries, the almost constant sound of chainsaws and other equipment operations, and workers shouting at each other to be heard. She described instances in which employees worked after dark by the light of vehicle headlights.
MacLean and Renzy turned the BZA’s attention to a number of photos of the Williams operation in 2010, 2018, and 2019. The 2010 photos accompanied Williams’ application for a special exception permit to expand to the former E-Cow location at the intersection of Routes 211 and 729 and show that very little of Williams’ property was used for wood storage.
The later photos show a different story — the piles of logs, firewood, and mulch have grown in height, number, and size, extending along the entire road frontage of the property.
After the hearing, the BZA voted four to one (Konick abstained) affirming Hardee’s and Freitag’s standing. They then discussed the findings of the hearing.
“The BOS in 2007 didn’t go by the ordinance,” said Konick. “The permit wouldn’t have passed muster had it been appealed.” Now, he said, the BZA had only limited authority to tell the BOS, “You botched another one.”
Vice Chair Jennifer Matthews said, “There’s [been] a wrong here. There’s a pathway to right.”
Planning Commission representative Chris Bird said that now that conditions had been brought to the county’s attention, “the current use and conditions of the [WTS] permit should be verified and presented to the Board of Supervisors.”
The BZA’s attorney, Mike Lockaby agreed, saying that if there is a pattern of violations, the complaint should go to the BOS for their consideration.
Editor’s note: Patty Hardee, one of the Ben Venue residents mentioned in this story, is a writer for the Rappahannock News.
An unedited video of the meeting 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/