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Is town code ‘the law,’ or simply ‘a guideline’?

by Tom Chillemi

The issue of how to enforce Urbanna’s zoning ordinance came up again at the Urbanna Town Council’s work session on Friday.

Resident Bob Calves renewed his claim that council is not enforcing the town code to protect Urbanna’s Historic District. Calves first complained about zoning violations in May, 2008 through a letter to Urbanna Town Administrator Lewis Filling.

Council received Calves’ complaint in July, 2008, but has remained split on what to do about a vacant building on Virginia Street that Calves said is unsightly; and the small signs, related to businesses, that have sprouted up. The town did respond to Calves allegations but found no issue with some of his complaints.

Calves ran unsuccessfully for town council in May, 2008.

A committee of three council members was formed to survey possible zoning violations, but disbanded soon after forming.

Council member Janet Smith had argued a few months ago at a council meeting that one duty of Urbanna’s Historic and Architectural Review Board (HARB) was to point out violations.

At Friday’s work session, Mayor Beatrice Taylor told council members and the small audience that it’s the town administrator’s job to enforce zoning. “HARB does not have the original jurisdiction to enforce the provision of the town codes,” said Taylor. “This job belongs to the zoning administrator, who will pass on to HARB any objections or things that he sees in town that are not right and then HARB will act.”

Filling’s decisions can be appealed to council, Taylor noted.

Zoning enforcement

Urbanna Town Attorney Andy Bury backed up Taylor’s statements. The duties of HARB do not include “policing authority,” said Bury. “It (the town code) refers to the (zoning) administrator who is the one, in my view, who is responsible for policing, not HARB.”

The (zoning) administrator decision can be appealed to HARB, and then to town council, and then to the circuit court, Bury added.

Smith asked Bury, “If the zoning administrator doesn’t find any violations, and there are violations, what is the remedy?”

Bury answered, “The zoning administrator is the officer who has the job to make those determinations, so if he doesn’t find them, then at least in my view, legally, there are no violations.”

Smith retorted, “Even if it says so in the code?”

Bury responded, “I guess it’s an interpretation issue, but it’s the zoning administrator who makes that decision. If he doesn’t find violations, then there are none.”

Filling left the meeting early without commenting on the enforcement issue.

Calves, who was in the audience, told council that Urbanna has two things that could attract people to town. One is an historic district, “which we are not enforcing the historic guidelines . . . we have an historic district that looks like trash.”

The other attraction, said Calves, is “waterfront access; we’re not enforcing that.

“You people as a town council and your predecessors have done absolutely nothing to address these problems,” he said forcefully.

Calves said historic district and waterfront access ordinances should be enforced or eliminated. Calves has regularly contended that town code section 17-4.7 for “Special Waterfront Mixed Use (B-2)” provides that “usable common open space of at least (20) percent of the project area shall be reserved for public use.”

Mayor Taylor said the town had a public marina for the public to use.

Calves told council, “You took an oath to enforce things and you are not doing it.”

Council members did not respond to Calves’ allegation.

Calves offered to make a list of violations in the historic district. 

“The last time somebody did that we had people threatening [law] suits,” said council member Lee Chewning. “Going along with a camera and a list in your hand is going to irritate people.”

Calves asked, “Is the town code law or not?”

“It’s a guideline,” said Mayor Taylor.

Calves repeated, “The town code is a guideline? The mayor said the town code is a guideline.”

Bury recommended council move on to the next subject.

Smith asked for clarification on handling zoning violations in the historic district, and asked if Filling’s decision can be appealed to the town council and circuit court.

Bury responded, “I believe that Lewis (Filling) is the one who makes the ultimate decision (on zoning violations). If he declines to agree with you, it goes nowhere. If he makes a decision that is a violation, then that is appealable.”

Taylor said, “In my opinion, violations are not what we should be looking for. We need to come together and do what we can to help this town.”

Mayor Taylor said the Urbanna Business Association was ready to disband, but now has new life, with Dr. Jim Robusto as the new president. “Let’s stop looking for wrong things and try to make some of these things right and this town more viable,” said Taylor.

“We have businesses closing and a lot going on,” said Taylor. “We need to help all we possibly can, and look for good things.”

Smith said business owners “are frustrated about the look of buildings in this town.”

Smith repeated a comment made at the Jan. 13 meeting of the Urbanna Business Association. Smith said that two people who wanted to invest in a commercial property looked at Urbanna and saw what it looked like, and “turned around and bought a business in Mathews.

“If you don’t have something that looks like it’s inviting, they’re not going to spend money (here) when they have options to spend it someplace else that looks inviting,” Smith said.

“One of the main things this town has to offer is its historical value,” said Smith. She added that plastic signs are not permitted under the historic guidelines.

Council will meet Monday, Jan. 26, at 7 p.m. in the town hall.

posted 01.21.2009

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