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Why Halifax needs a planner / May 12, 2016

Dear Viewpoint:

With regards to Planning and Zoning in Halifax County, as well as how the County Administrator Jim Halasz handled a recent matter (April 19, 2016) which involved an unnecessary and redundant Conditional Use Permit (CUP) application by my brother, Charlie Hightower, I am led to believe that Halifax County residents and tax payers are under-served by not having someone knowledgeable in the area of Planning and Zoning. Before writing this article I read several articles in the News & Record to more fully grasp the logistics of it being all right to not have a planning & zoning office, which, in my opinion, would have negated the merry-go-round of confusion we encountered.

To elaborate, on 4/4/16, an article entitled “Interim Halifax County zoning officer sought” stated, “Halifax County Administrator Jim Halasz is seeking to fill a void in the planning and zoning office by tapping an employee of the Building Inspector’s office for an interim position.” In short, it seems Robbie Love, the County’s former planner, reported alleged harassment in the workplace and was put on administrative leave, only to then be fired by Halasz some three months later (give or take). Politics was afoot, protective orders were issued to R. Love by a judge for alleged threats and Halasz was vindicated for firing R. Love, albeit R. Love has filed a complaint with Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, or EEOC. In my opinion, our unnecessary cat-n-mouse meeting was directly related to the confusion inside the County Administrator’s office.

Well, after this fiasco in the County Administrator’s office, Halasz is still at the helm and seemingly is steering and driving the ship ashore. Since he ousted R. Love, he “proposes to do away with the job of planner,” however, his claims are that “the idea was driven by a desire to ‘benefit the taxpayers of the county and get the biggest bang for the buck.” He then is quoted as saying that “the county has gone without a planner for the past year with no apparent harm,” …that “any problems that have arisen during that time have been minor.” He said, “There are always concerns and complaints. If someone gets turned down at any level, there are complaints,” adding “Halifax may be able to get by without a county planner because there aren’t that many projects that come up that require a full-fledged planning and zoning office.”

So, I was told that my brother had filed for a new Conditional Use Permit. The problem was that his old Conditional Use Permit, issued in 2010, had not expired. Another problem was that the County Administrator’s office was entertaining the new permit, expressing that the old permit had expired. So, my brother’s business has to do with extraction of water from a well site on his property. The County Administrator’s office insisted the Conditional Use Permit to extract the water could not be granted until an issue with the access road was resolved.

The road issue was resolved in 2010 when the original Conditional Use Permit was granted by the Board of Supervisors. The road issue was considered a private land-owner matter, but previously resolved nonetheless. In 2010, “Chairman [William] Fitzgerald closed the Public Hearing for public comment. He noted this property was in his district and he supported approving the Conditional Use Permit for the operation. He noted he has received a report from VDOT on the easement. He stated that in his view, the easement disagreement is not a reason to deny a potential business locating in the county,” as reported in the Regular Meeting minutes, dated June 21, 2010.

This Conditional Use Permit was granted with and subject to the thirteen (13) conditions recommended by the Planning Commission, which were incorporated by reference into the permit. Both the Planning Commission and the Board of Supervisors voted unanimously in favor of the Conditional Use Permit. In 2010 the County Administrator was George Nester.

I flew from New York for each and every meeting back in 2010. I found both the Planning Commission and the Board of Supervisors to be professional and fair, willing to do what was best for the County and what was best for the extraction of water permit. Robbie Love, then in charge of Planning and Zoning, walked with us through the process, assisting my brother throughout the process and speaking to me when I had questions, as I was involved in the project as well. Mr. Love, in my opinion, went above and beyond to help us, offering us to contact resources such as the local Industrial Development Authority, (IDA), The Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD), and Community Action Agency and their Credit Union as possible sources of revenue. Mr. Love gave us the “Potential Conditions” to carefully review. As a Zoning Administrator, his help was tremendous and his efforts showed he cared, and for that we were appreciative.

The year 2010 thirteen (13) conditions were all met. Nothing cited in those conditions necessitated the 2010 permit to have expired. The only reference of any type of potential expiration or revocation was in the thirteenth condition, which reads, “Failure of Permittee to fully conform with all terms and conditions of this Permit may result in revocation of the Conditional Use Permit.” To my understanding and knowledge brought to bear, in order for a permit to be revoked, my brother must first have received a letter revoking this permit by Certified Mail/Return Receipt, with thirty (30) days to cure the cause of revocation. To date, no such letter was sent him. This letter could only come from the Board of Supervisors. In essence, his 2010 permit is still active and in good standing.

Well, on February 24, 2016, David W. Day, Jr., GIS/IT Coordinator at the Halifax County Planning Commission, advised my brother that he had to fill out a new Conditional Use Permit application because, as Mr. Day stated, the 2010 permit was expired. The application asked for the exact same extraction of water permit as the 2010 one did. Virginia Bottling Co. filed another application, as requested. On March 4, 2016, David Day, Jr. sent my brother, Virginia Bottling Co., a letter referencing the Conditional Use Permit application with potential conditions. The thirteen (13) conditions granted and approved with the C.U.P. application in 2010 were the exact same conditions used as a basis for this 2016 application permit. As a matter of fact, a letter was sent to Virginia Bottling Co. from David W. Day, Jr. (2016) mirroring the letter sent by Robert M. Love back in 2010. In 2010 the application alone cost $300, and in 2016, the application’s cost was $500. These costs do not include certified mail/return receipt costs, time and mileage costs, preparation costs.

How I became involved for the first time in the 2016 application process was when my brother called me and asked me to be present. Well, the Planning Commission, under the new Administration, that is, Jim Halasz, had decided that the old application was expired and that in order to get the new application processed and granted, the road access issue had to first be resolved. Here we go again, and herein lies another wrinkle, one that could potentially cause the non-issuance of the 2016 C.U.P. permit. As it turned out, our cousin whose land was adjoined to the land in which the water was to be extracted from, was sent notice of the upcoming meeting via a certified letter/return receipt requested, as mandated by the Planning Commission. In response to this letter sent to David Dixon of Washington, D.C., Mr. Dixon cited the exact primary reasons he cited in 2010 as a basis for the Planning Commission to not grant the Conditional Use Permit this second time around.

And so I left New York on Monday at 11:00 p.m. and arrived in Virginia 7:30 a.m. on Tuesday, April 19, 2016. I was given a copy of the News & Record to read and read the article in its entirety, entitled Cool Reception for Proposal to Outsource Duties of Planning Office. I was surprised to learn that Robbie Love was no longer an employee at the Planning Commission office as I found him cordial and someone who bent over backwards to help clients. He was knowledgeable about what was required, a good person. Basically, the article stated that Mr. Halasz did not intend to hire a county planner to replace Robbie Love, but simultaneously states that the county is in need of having a county planner, or an outside agency to handle complex matters. Come to find out, David Day has left the Planning Commission’s office mid-April. It seems there is a lot of finger-pointing and blame to go around as to why county business is being delayed, considered minor when it is possibly major, and the like.

After reading the April 18, 2016 extensive article, written by Tom McLaughlin, published in the News & Record, I gathered paperwork, some of which I obtained when I visited the Planning Commission’s office that very morning (4/19/16). I decided to write a statement which I would read at the 7:00 p.m. scheduled meeting.

While I was at the Planning Commission office, Detrick Easley was kind enough to place a call to David Dixon to see if we could work out a road access, which, according to him, was the purpose of the meeting, and was holding us back from receiving this new Conditional Use Permit. Well, the conversation did not resolve the issue. As tired as I was it was important for me to attend this meeting prepared, and so I went home to prepare what I would say. The meeting was attended by myself and two of my brothers in the audience alone. The panel was in place, representatives of whom I did not know which district they represented. I outlined my position as stated, namely, that Virginia Bottling already had a permit that was not expired, therefore the necessity of the meeting to support a new application was unnecessary, capricious and arbitrary. To my knowledge and understanding, which was based in truth, the road access issue had nothing to do with the C.U.P. because the C.U.P. was strictly for extraction of water from the ground.

I could not help but feel the burden of what was afoot. It should have been that the road access issue, having been contested by Mr. Dixon in 2010, was a done deal. It was granted in 2010. As a matter of fact, the then-County Attorney wrote a letter stating that Mr. Dixon’s concerns about a barn, a pump-house and the house that he continuously cited as the reason the road was not to be used, was found to be built too close to the road. And so, without Mr. Dixon’s presence at this night’s meeting, the three of us spoke and were heard. The ladies on the panel heard what I had to say and they asked great questions amongst themselves and were enlightened sufficiently. I applaud their ability to read between the lines and speak up in earnest.

They asked questions as to why the road access matter was being considered since it did not have anything to do with the extraction of water. There seemed to have been a vote on its way when Mr. Halasz interjected and Detrick Easley read a letter from the present County Attorney. He read it so fast that I was unable to catch its drift. However, the letter basically stated that the road access issue had to be resolved before the extraction of water permit could be granted. I am not sure how the attorney, Russell Slayton, came to this conclusion, or if he knew the road access was previously granted with the previous C.U.P application which was still in effect.

Mr. Halasz then stated to my brother, “The other C.U.P. expired,” and my brother, believing they knew what they were saying, consented, to my chagrin. Mr. Halasz then stated, “Let’s table this meeting,” and my brother, believing Mr. Halasz, agreed to table the meeting, again, to my discontent. I believed the matter should have gone to a vote and let the chips fall where they may. Action would have been taken to remedy the mistakes made at an appropriate time.

The following morning after this meeting, I visited the Planning Commission’s office to request documentation that would confirm that the 2010 Conditional Use Permit had expired. Detrick Easley said to me, “Well, that’s a good question. We will look for it and will call you sometime today with the answer.” I never heard back from Detrick; however, on April 27th he did call my brother to tell him that the Planning Commission would be refunding him back his $500 and that his 2010 permit was still good and the matter closed.

So, in closing, I speak on behalf of myself, Virginia Bottling Company, and my brother when I say that not having a County Planner, or even Robbie Love’s input on the matter, caused us money, time, and effort. Robbie’s presence would have alleviated all of what we had to go through in 2016 with the Planning Commission. I truly do not understand how he could be fired in the first place, especially if it was because he voiced his concerns about harassment in the office. However, for Mr. Halasz to now be of the position that a County Planner is not necessary because after he fired Mr. Love he took on a new position, is causing me logical concerns. If the position of County Planner is causing problems for applicants and businesses, would not the Planner position need filling with someone competent to handle day-to-day functions and duties in a most expedient fashion? Is not having a County Planner about saving the County money? But the result of this decision has caused, instead, confusion. If seeking an outside agency to do a portion of what needs to happen in the office cost $20,000, and Mr. Easley is getting $400 a month more for handling the position of Planner along with his other paid position, why the compromise? From the literature I read, it seems that Mr. Halasz is saying that paying $20,000 for a County Comprehensive report is cheaper than paying a Planner three times as much, so it comes out that, if an agency can be found to actually perform this work, the County will end up saving around $35,000. Not a bad salary for a new Planner to come on board.

In reading an article from the News & Record, dated April 7, 2016, it states “Other requests, such as conditional use permits, also are not especially complicated, Halasz said. He cited the example of a salvage yard that might want to establish operations in the county: ‘You look at the files and say, ‘Have we had any salvage yards in the last ten years?’ and you look that up. You want to be consistent with your interpretation. A lot of it is based on what we’ve done in the past in the same situation. ‘In many cases, [whether] you’re doing it for 10 years or doing [the planning and zoning job] for your first 10 days, you’re going to look it up,’ he said.”

My only question to the Halifax County Administrator is did you look up the prior permit before your office thought it wise to have us go through this whole lengthy and redundant process? Is saving the County money worth the hassle that its citizens and businesses endure?

Barbara Hightower

property owner and taxpayer

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