Thursday, August 17, 2006

Nelson official shocked at suspicion of eminent domain

Cultures clash in Nelson

By ALICIA PETSKA, The News Virginian, Wednesday, August 16, 2006

The biggest concern seemed to be that the government would invoke eminent domain to pursue the plan, taking property owners’ land by force to build these new developments. “I was so shocked people thought we would do that,” [supervisor Constance] Brennan said afterward.
NELLYSFORD - Two Nelson County supervisors faced a barrage of outrage and indignation during a three-our-long meeting in this small mountainside community Tuesday afternoon.

With about 50, mostly angry, landowners sitting across from them during a public input session, Supervisors Constance Brennan and Tommy Harvey struggled to maintain a constructive atmosphere in the room.

At one point, Brennan thanked a man for his comments, and he responded he didn’t want her thanks.

“Why don’t I know you?” the man, Walter Martin, asked Brennan, who represents his district. “… It’s up to you to let your constituents know what’s going on. When they don’t, you’ve failed at your job. And ma’am, you are terrible at it. Harvey’s not even any good at it.”

Martin, a 20-year Nellysford resident and president of the volunteer fire department - where Harvey is chief - went on to threaten to vote Brennan out of office. “Do it!” chimed in one man in the crowd.

As the county’s Nellysford representative, Brennan took the brunt of these and similar tirades, which she accepted with a silent stoicism. Other officials intervened, asking residents not to make the issue personal.

“The only thing we can do is learn from our mistakes,” said Harvey, a former Nellysford supervisor who, through redistricting, no longer represents the area. “To sit here fussing and arguing is not doing any good.”

At the center of the impassioned discussion was a controversial development plan drafted for Nellysford by the Thomas Jefferson Planning District Commission.

Designed in response to a series of open public meetings last fall, the plan envisions numerous changes to the sleepy Nellysford area, including a traffic roundabout, nature trails, a townhouse subdivision and commercial/office complex, and a sector reserved for community resources like a ball field, community center and library.

It’s a picturesque, bustling little village the planners have laid out. And the residents hate it.

“Can I make a suggestion?” asked Bonnie Hughes, who’s lived on 9 acres in Nellysford since 1954. “That we let Nellysford alone. Leave it like it is and let it develop itself.”

The room broke into applause for that statement.

The biggest concern seemed to be that the government would invoke eminent domain to pursue the plan, taking property owners’ land by force to build these new developments.

“I was so shocked people thought we would do that,” Brennan said afterward.

During the meeting, she told the audience she’s lived in Nelson County for 30 years and wasn’t here to change it. Officials stressed this was only a draft plan and nothing was set in stone, particularly if it was objectionable to the area’s residents.

Sore points included a lack of information given to the 30 or so landowners this plan would affect, as well as the fact $25,000 of the taxpayers’ money was spent on the design.

The bulk of the conversation Tuesday focused on the road changes proposed to encourage drivers to stop speeding through the community. The majority seemed to agree speeding was a problem, but strongly resisted the proposed road improvements, like medians and roundabouts, as a solution, saying people would just speed through them as well. Vocal attendees advocated a bigger law enforcement presence, but officials said that would cost too much.

“What we’ve got to do is take up the positions we can agree on and work from that,” Harvey said after the meeting. “And safety is a big thing we can all agree on. I don’t think anybody wants to see Nellysford turned into a city.”

Harvey has derided this community plan himself in the past, lamenting the board’s approval of the funding and saying they could have gotten a child to draw a better plan. Brennan said she was sorry they ever put drawings down on paper.

Other underlying tensions also seemed to be informing the discussion, with several residents saying this plan would only benefit Wintergreen developments, while destroying the area for those who do not live within that posh development’s confines.

One of the only people to speak up in favor of the plan was a Wintergreen resident. John Gurr, of the Stoney Creek at Wintergreen subdivision, tried to explain his position but was shouted down by others.

“He’s not a landowner! He’s not a landowner!” shouted well-known resident A.G. Small, who has large landholdings throughout the county, including his home in Nellysford.

“I am a landowner!” Gurr shouted back in a tone of disbelief.

But Stoney Creek, as far as these hecklers were concerned, wasn’t a part of Nellysford and certainly had no say in this development plan. Small, who’s also Harvey’s father-in-law, shouted for people to walk out if Gurr continued and several people stood up with him.

At the beginning of the outburst, Harvey made a subtle motion to Small, appearing to indicate he should stay quiet, but the supervisor’s attempt went unheeded.

Gurr, who has clashed with Small before as an active opponent of a controversial grinder operation Small helps run on his land, was silenced and left shortly after.

Small, 70, is a lifelong resident of the area. He declined to comment to a reporter later and insisted his name was Paul Jones.

One of those who stood up to walk out, Grady Wortham, also 70 and also a lifelong Nellysford resident, said the beef wasn’t with the Wintergreen residents.

“It’s got nothing to do with the people; they’re fine people,” he said. “It’s the developers and contractors. They’re trying to run over everything, including people.”

Wintergreen has been aggressively developing Nellysford for the past few years, clearing hundreds of acres annually to make way for new homes.

Both Harvey and Brennan were contrite about the intense criticism they received, agreeing they had erred by not making a bigger effort to speak with landowners.

Growing hostility over the issue prompted Tuesday’s meeting.
Officials remained in Nellysford all afternoon to answer questions from lingering residents or, upon request, walk through the area to discuss specific properties.

Several attendees said they felt better after hearing from the supervisors.

“I don’t think you’re going to see a lot of change,” Harvey said during an interview. “… They have to convince me how these other things are going to work and that they won’t affect landowners.”

Brennan noted that the much-hated road project didn’t even have VDOT funding yet. Funding takes years, sometimes decades to secure, even in the case of small projects.

“Absolutely nothing is going to happen for years,” said Brennan. “But I do think you’ll start to see added pressure as these other developments [now under construction] are finished. It may take a crisis before anything is done.”


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