Will county land be seized to accommodate mental health facility?

Greene County supervisors rezoned the 1.04 acres that hold this building in the middle of a residential area to accommodate Region Ten

By Susan Gibbs

The agent for the applicant says it’s a 7,000-square foot building; county planners say it comes in at 5,000 square feet.

The agent says parking needs are met; a neighbor says they are not. The Virginia Department of Transportation says the entrance to the property is suitable, but does not address the road, which is private and will require the establishment of a private-public partnership that all adjoining property owners oppose. Traffic counts are incomplete. The attorney for the buyer says setbacks should be no problem but an adjoining property owner says they are. The county attorney says it might be spot zoning, or it might not be spot zoning, but no matter.

By a vote of 3-2 the Greene County Board of Supervisors gave its nod to a rezoning that will allow the Region Ten Community Services Board’s Greene Counseling Center to move from its current 1,838-square foot space at 24 Rectory Lane in Stanardsville to the larger facility outside of town at 72 Lambs Lane — after the county’s planning director said all issues could probably be fixed.

The vote, which took place at the Board’s regularly-scheduled meeting Tuesday, January 22, is, according to Greene County Planning Director Bart Svoboda, the first of a long list of steps that must be taken to bring the property to conformity – one of which may require the acquisition of more land even though no adjacent property owners have any intention of selling.

Allow me to explain.

The property in question, which at the time of this posting is deeded to Main Street Land Company, LLC, sits in the heart of a 17-acre family residential plot.

A member of that family, Wendell Lamb, called attention to the plot’s history during the public hearing portion of the January 22 meeting. He said that the property in question had been his mother’s home place, that his father had purchased the property and that he had eventually purchased it from his father. He then set aside two of the 17 acres for each of his four children, and he and his siblings divided up the rest.

“It’s always been a family plot,” he said. “We can’t change our family plot.  My children, my grandchildren, right on down the line; we planned that for our generations, for our family … we’d like to maintain it as a family plot.”

Residents of this quiet Stanardsville neighborhood are not happy about Region Ten settling down in their midst

He said that he had applied for a special use permit for a fitness facility and started the Bar Bell Club on family land in the early 1980s “because we were lifting weights … we enjoyed that and it went very well with the residential area that we had.” He further explained that he had kept the facility – known as the Bar Bell Club — until 1998, when he sold it to William Thacker.

Last year Thacker allowed the Feeding Greene Food Pantry to operate charitable activities out of the building, and then, also last year, the building was sold at auction to Main Street Land.

The special use permit that allows for a fitness facility follows the land, but conversion to professional office space requires a rezoning to B-1 business – which permits not just professional offices at the location, but, in addition to many other things: day care and child care facilities; permits for temporary events; and, via special use permits, emergency care and indoor recreational facilities. Region Ten has already agreed to allow the food pantry to continue its operations out of the building.

All adjoining property owners, who are members of the Lamb family, are opposed not only to the rezoning, but to the idea of selling their land.

The setbacks alone pose a problem for Wendell’s nephew, Eric Lamb. Eric told supervisors during the January 22 public hearing that the side yard of his adjoining residential property is 25 feet from the building Region Ten plans to convert, and that this measurement, along with several other factors, does not conform to county ordinance.

“In article 8-4-1 of your zoning ordinance it says that the minimum side and rear yards adjoining or adjacent to a residential, agriculture or conservation district shall be 45 feet … so this fails to meet (that) requirement,” Eric said. “And on the back side it is … closer than 45 feet to the residential (rental) … so this fails to meet those requirements.”

How to fix that problem?

“One (way) is to get a variance that would have to go before the (Board of Zoning Appeals) and meet the qualifying criteria under the code; to acquire more land, to extend the line out to make sure it would meet, or remove that portion of the building until it did meet,” Svoboda told supervisors at the January 22 meeting.

But if the adjoining property owners don’t want to sell, how can more land be acquired unless via eminent domain – Virginia’s constitutional right to seize private property for public use?

And, the possibility that land could be seized to make room for Region Ten’s requirements is not the only thing that is disturbing about this rezone.

Paperwork has been sloppy since at least September 19, 2012 when Cooper Planning of Charlottesville, agent for the applicant, sent a letter of request to the Greene County Planning Staff, consisting of County Planning Director Bart Svoboda and County Planner Stephanie Golon, stating that existing structures on the property were a “7,000-square foot building and a small residential rental.” In the packet of information presented to supervisors and available to the public online at the time of this posting, Svoboda and Golon claim the main building measures 5,500 square feet.

But during the public hearing portion of the January 22 meeting Eric Lamb said the actual footprint of the structure is 4,240 square feet – dimensions which fail to meet the current zoning ordinance.

The Feeding Greene Food Pantry has already taken up residence on Lambs Lane. At press time, Planning Director Bart Svoboda said he was investigating its legitimacy.

He referred to the rezoning as spot zoning, which is defined as the rezoning of a parcel of land where all surrounding parcels are zoned for a different use, in particular where rezoning creates a use that is incompatible with surrounding land uses.

In addition, Jeannette Lamb, Eric’s wife, informed supervisors during the same public hearing that Lambs Lane is “a privately-owned drive by which private citizens have contractually bound themselves to a road maintenance (agreement).

“Region Ten’s relocation … would create the necessity for a private public partnership which at present all adjoining and adjacent … property owners are opposed,” she said.

Neither the setback problems nor the road problems were mentioned in the analysis/effect of the document Svoboda and Golon prepared for supervisors.

And there’s the question of traffic counts: In making her presentation just prior to the public hearing, Jennifer Henkel, director of Region Ten’s Greene Counseling Center, told supervisors she had arrived at a traffic count by looking at a dry erase board (to see) when clients were coming and going.

“That’s how I got my statistics,” Henkel said. “I monitored this for a few weeks. When the doctor is in the house (on Tuesdays) we average about 9.8 consumers in and out per day. When we don’t have the doctor, we’re down about 7.6.” She did not, however, mention traffic created by the food pantry – and nor, apparently, did Svoboda and Golon when they constructed their report for supervisors.  The Svoboda/Golon report projects a weekday two-way traffic count of 11.01 trips per day, a Saturday traffic count of 2.37 trips per day, and a Sunday traffic count of .98 trips per day.

Moreover, even though the Feeding Greene Food Pantry posts its hours of operation on its Web site (10 am-12pm Tuesdays and Thursdays, and 4 pm-6 pm every third Wednesday) and Region Ten has given its permission for that operation to remain, traffic counts for food bank clients were not taken into consideration when Henkel produced her statistics.

In fact, according to the minutes of the November 15, 2012 meeting of the Greene County Planning Commission, when commissioners recommended that supervisors approve this rezoning request, Svoboda  “explained that there is no information on file regarding a food pantry at that  location.”

Not only did Svoboda apparently not correct the traffic count between that meeting and the January 22 meeting, but Larry Lamb, who attended the planning commission meeting, told supervisors on January 22 that all of the three (of five) commissioners present had admitted that they had not visited the site.

The road that leads to the rezoned facility is private, and residents are opposed to an agreement with Region Ten

Also according to the minutes of the November 15 meeting, Ashley Cooper of Cooper Planning, agent for the applicant, told commissioners that parking needs were met. While those minutes state that there were discussions, they do not record much content of those discussions – and so while they show that Eric Lamb “pointed out that … the lower parking lot is in question,” they do not record his remarks.

On January 22 Eric made parking issues clear to supervisors, explaining that some parking spaces counted by the planning department were on the right of way. He also pointed out that county ordinance (Article 16-8-7) states that for office buildings, offices of professionals, including medical and dental clinics and personal services establishments, at least one parking space shall be provided for each 200 square feet of floor area.

“In Region Ten’s presentation they say it’s a 7,000 square foot structure,” Eric said.  “If you take that and divide it by 200 you will need 35 spaces … (according to the footprint I took of) 4,240 square feet … you need 21 spaces. This property really only has 12 legal spaces.  As I stated, the right of way area is not a legal place to park, so that fails to meet the requirement.”

But setbacks and traffic and parking were not the only concerns addressed by residents during the January 22 public hearing.

As a resident of the area whose back yard is just one dwelling away from the Region Ten property, I spoke to supervisors of my concerns regarding deinstitutionalization – which could conceivably add to traffic in the area, as well as to the uses of the property.

I pointed out that by court order the state is closing its training centers for people with intellectual disabilities and, as a result, putting more than 1,000 clients into community-based programs that provide day care and group homes. The deadline for this deinstitutionalization, according to reports, has been set for 2021 so to give community service boards such as Region Ten time to expand programs (and plan for the treatment) of clients with a wider spectrum of needs, ranging from group homes to respite facilities and more.

Deinstitutionalization might explain why Region Ten needs to move from its current 1,838-square foot facility to one that is said to be at least about 3,000 square feet larger.

On its Web site, Region Ten states that it provides mental health, intellectual disability, crisis and substance services for adults and children.

During the public hearing portion of the January 22 meeting Eric’s wife, Jeannette Lamb, who homeschools her children, said, “As I informed the Planning Commission … according to its Web site, Region Ten seeks to serve individuals who have been ‘court-ordered’ to seek counseling for domestic violence issues … to expand its services to include individuals with post-traumatic stress disorders … (and) deviant and unlawful sexual behaviors, such as pedophilia, do fall into the category of psychiatric disorders, mental illness.”

Sue Fosher, whose children have play dates at Jeannette’s home, pointed out that while the property was being used as an athletic facility the owners could ask someone they considered unsafe to leave, but that would not be the case if Region Ten occupied the property.

Residents are concerned about individuals ordered by the court seeking services next door to a homeschooling site

She said: “To bring people into a neighborhood (with) post-traumatic stress disorders, sexual deviances, things like that, as parents you have to be concerned. (I take my children to play with Jeannette’s children but) I won’t do that if Region Ten is there.  Region Ten has a purpose in this community; it just doesn’t have a place in a residential neighborhood … Ask Region Ten to find a location in a business district … One child, getting hurt, can never, ever be backed up. Once it’s happened, it’s over.”

While Henkel had introduced Region Ten’s services prior to the public hearing, telling supervisors that the Greene clinic’s “biggest” program is “therapeutic day treatment and that is our school-based program (and that) the next largest … is case management and then outpatient counseling and psychiatric services,” she hedged when Supervisor Davis Lamb asked about clients who were ordered by the court to seek help.

“Anybody who seeks our services does it voluntarily.” Henkel said. “The court may order them to have some sort of mental health or substance abuse assessment but I can’t call the sheriff’s office and have the deputy escort somebody. Anybody that comes to my office is voluntary. They may have that as part of their court requirement but nobody is forced to come so people come who are seeking help, they are seeking treatment to make a contract with me or with one of our other clinicians, to make changes in their lives, that they are appropriate for treatment in our clinic.”

When Davis Lamb asked if she know if any were second-time offenders, Henkel replied that she did not have access to such records.

She made no effort to address any concerns expressed by those in opposition to the rezoning. Nor did Lisa Robertson, a senior associate attorney with Greehan, Taves, Pandak & Stoner PLLC of Woodbridge, who spoke to supervisors about “why Region Ten believes that the proposed B-1 zoning classification is reasonable,” address those concerns – even though it would have been easy to do so, and, worse, easy for supervisors to ask that they do so.

The Code of Virginia § 15.2-2283.1 prohibits the treatment of sex offenders in residentially-zoned subdivisions. However, with this rezoning of a 1.04-acre plot, the law does, apparently, allow the treatment of sex offenders in offices surrounded by private residences.

Robertson simply argued that the requested rezone is consistent with the county’s comprehensive plan, that Region Ten is a known quantity that can exist compatibly with residential uses, that Region Ten’s proposed use would be less intensive traffic-wise than the Bar Bell Club had been, and that setback requirements for front and rear yards have been met. Regarding the side yard setback of 25 feet, she told supervisors, “If that had been a concern you probably would have dealt with at the time you approved the special use permit for the property years ago.”

Region Ten and other community services boards across the state will be expanding services to prepare for deinstitutionalization

County Attorney Ray Clarke advised supervisors, after the public hearing was closed and before they began their discussion, “What is before you is whether or not B-1 is an appropriate use here. I think most important legally … is spot zoning. It may be or it may not be. Spot zoning is a legal concept whereby a parcel of land is rezoned differently from the surrounding land and that rezone benefits solely that lot. The difference is whether you believe the rezone also benefits the community. If this rezone, for example, in your opinion, benefits the community, then it is not spot zoning.

“It’s proposed to you by your planning commission because it’s in the comprehensive plan in the growth area that this is an appropriate mixed use as the comprehensive plan anticipates for this area of Greene County,” Clarke continued. “And therefore is a benefit to the community as a whole in the long-term. The comprehensive plan, as is understood by the planning commission and the staff … that’s a decision that you make. But this is not spot zoning simply because it’s one parcel within others.”

Others who spoke during the public hearing portion of the January 22 meeting were: Donald Harper, who lives near the area in question and spoke against the rezone; Gloria Oliver, whose son is a client at Region Ten, who spoke for the rezone; Carroll Lawson, who spoke in the interests of the food pantry for the rezone; Vicki Strauss, a recent appointee to the county’s Region Ten Board of Directors, who spoke in favor of the rezone; and Stephanie Garrison, a Region Ten employee who also spoke in favor of the rezone.

Neither Board vice-chairman Davis Lamb nor Supervisor Buggs Peyton supported Region Ten’s request. Chairman Jim Frydl, and Supervisors David Cox and Eddie Deane did.

Peyton made a motion to deny the request that was seconded by Davis Lamb, but they were outvoted by Cox, Deane and Frydl.

Cox then made a motion to approve the request, seconded by Deane. Along with Cox and Deane, Frydl voted to approve, and the motion carried, 3-2.

It should be noted that on Region Ten’s Web site, the organization states among its objectives: the promotion of advocacy; the strengthening and expansion of community partnerships; the collaboration with community partnerships; the development of new partnerships; an increase in service capacity; a leveraging of resources through partnerships; an expansion of access to mainstream services and other community resources; and on its action plan – the development of “One Stop Shopping” for services.

That’s all well and good, but with so many other properties available not only closer to the Stanardsville government center, but in the Ruckersville commercial area, the implied threat of land seizure and/or a lawsuit (based on the presence of and remarks by an attorney representing the applicant), and possible treatment of sex or violent offenders smack dab in the middle of a residential neighborhood, rhetoric doesn’t do much for public relations.

In addition, the “If it doesn’t fit, if we want it, we’ll make it fit, no matter what you say” message supervisors might have unintentionally sent property owners with their approval of this rezoning is unlikely to sit well with voters.

Editor’s note: The Greene County Planning Department was contacted February 1 about the legal status of the food bank located at 75 Lambs Lane. Planning Director Bart Svoboda said it is “under investigation.”

Posted in: Editorials

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