Thursday, May 2, 2013

Citizens at work

Goochland County’s Board of Zoning appeals, a quasi-judicial entity that addresses land use issues, has been dormant for almost three years.

The Code of Goochland states that the purpose of the BZA is “To hear and decide appeals of administrative decisions made pursuant to the Zoning Ordinance; hear and decide upon applications for special permits and variances authorized by the Zoning Ordinance; and hear and decide applications for interpretation of the Zoning Map where there is uncertainty as to the location of a zoning district boundary.”

An appeal filed recently by neighbors of the Mary Mother of the Church Abbey on River Road over the approval of the plan of development will be heard by the BZA on May 13 at 3 p.m. in the board meeting room.

An organizational meeting of the BZA, currently comprised of Dr. Richard Carchman, District 1; Chris Williams, District 2; Dr. Harriet “Dee” Phillips, District 3; and the newest member, Yasmine Hamad, District 4 was held on April 29.

The District 5 seat has been for more than a year. The last time a bitterly contentious matter—the Orapax sporting clays course—was before the BZA, a tie vote upheld the county position. Although there were five BZA members at that time, the vote on the matter occurred in 2007, when one was out of town on a previously scheduled trip. This gave the appearance that the county manipulated the proceedings to ensure its desired outcome.

The supervisors are aware of the vacancy, according to County Attorney Norman Sales, who attended the meeting. He explained that the Board is shifting to at-large appointments to boards and commissions to increase the pool of eligible candidates.

Although Goochland customarily filled these bodies by District, there is no legal requirement to do so. The supervisors want to appoint alternate BZA members to ensure full representation at all hearings. An ordinance to make this possible is in the works. As the current board came into office knowing it faced several contentious land use matters, this vacancy is doubly troubling.

Members of the BZA are recommended by the Board of Supervisors and appointed by the Circuit Court. As all of the judges in the 16th Judicial Circuit must approve the appointments, there is no time to seat a new member before the next BZA hearing on May 13.

Carchman raised concerns about the “optics” of a BZA hearing a case with no member from the District directly affected.

Also present at the April 29 meeting was Maynard Sipe a Charlottesville attorney retained by the county to represent the BZA in its current case. As the county has taken the position that the applicants have no standing and the BZA no jurisdiction over the matter, impartial counsel will help ensure that the BZA make an impartial ruling on the legal merits of the issue.

The relocation of Benedictine College Preparatory School (BCP) from its current facility on Shepherd Street in Richmond to the River Road site has been bitterly contested by neighboring property owners and some alumni for several years. In December, 2011, the previous board of supervisors voted to grant a conditional use permit to allow the move. Opponents filed suit against the CUP in Goochland Circuit Court, which was dismissed by Judge Timothy K. Sanner as premature.

In the interim, BCP and the County have wrangled over road access and other issues, which slowed the move of the school to Goochland. Late last year, BCP purchased additional property to comply with road issues.
At the  May 13 hearing, the BZA will take up the issues of its jurisdiction over the appeal and the standing of the applicants to make the appeal in the first place. Should the issue go forward, a subsequent hearing on the facts in the case is tentatively scheduled for June 17.

The BZA tweaked its by-laws to include precise deadlines for submission of briefs and exhibits.  It also clarified that the “clock” to appeal a decision starts when the vote is taken.

As the BZA is a quasi-judicial body, its hearings are more akin to court cases than public hearings. Only specific witnesses may speak and give testimony under oath. These are serious proceedings.

The BZA, which has the power to control its own processes and procedures, reserved the right to defer a vote after a hearing to permit members time to digest the information presented and confer with counsel before making a decision. This will help to ensure that rulings are based on applicable laws in an impartial manner independent of the county.

Shenanigans in the 2007 BZA Orapax hearings had fearful implications for every landowner in Goochland. If BZA rulings are not fair and impartial, none of us is safe from the predations of local government.



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