Albemarle County Board of Supervisors
reluctantly voted to reverse a Planning Commission denial of a preliminary site plan at their meeting on June 4, 2008. At issue was a proposal to divide a two acre parcel into two lots on Deer Path Road in the Bellair neighborhood. The plan was approved by the County staff site review committee , but adjacent property owners appealed the ruling to the planning commission because of concerns, in part, over the septic system that would be implemented. This part of Bellair has public water but not sewer.
Some neighbors also expressed the view that the lot owner, Lane Bonner, was “gaming the system” by dividing his property into lots and then submitting site plans for them individually, so that the changes he was making to the property would never be examined as a whole by the Commission. In February, the Commission approved creation of two other lots for Bonner in Bellair.
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Additional questions were raised by citizens opposed to the plan about the fact that the Commission was relying at least in part on the opinion of William Craun of the Virginia Department of Health, who said that the engineering plans depicting the placement of septic drain fields were accurate. The possibility of a conflict of interest was raised because the engineer who created the plans is his nephew, Michael Craun. Jeffrey T. McDaniel, Environmental Health Manager for the Thomas Jefferson district, addressed these concerns in a letter to the Board of Supervisors, laying out the steps the Health Department has taken to avoid these conflicts of interest.
The Planning Commission discussed these concerns in April, but the only ordinance violation they found was a failure to include a drawing of a proposed driveway easement in the plat presented. A plat consists of a map, drawn to scale, showing the divisions of a piece of land. As a result, the Commission voted unanimously to deny the preliminary site plan.
The applicant appealed the Planning Commission decision to the Board of Supervisors on the grounds that the basis for denial was in error because driveways do not have to be shown on a preliminary plat and the lot can be accessed without an easement on an adjoining parcel. County staff advised the Board that the proposed plan now met all ordinance requirements, and as such the Board was legally required to vote in favor of approval.
Supervisor Sally Thomas (Samuel Miller) said that she had “a lot of questions…brought about by residents and neighbors who have been delving into the septic tank issue.” She asked County Attorney Larry Davis about what authority the Board had to act.
“Are we allowed to hear anything about the septic differences…and have an explanation of that?” Thomas asked. Davis replied that the Board was free to seek additional information about the site plan if desired, but “unless the board finds something that it is not in compliance with , you are obligated to approve it.”
Thomas expressed her distaste for the situation the Board found itself in, saying “I always hate it when this is the trap we fall into because the public expects us to have an ability to apply some judgment … so I apologize to everyone involved in this because I think they’ve been misled…by our system, to think that we have some grounds for judgment here when in fact we don’t.”
Davis pointed out that “the fact that we don’t have judgment on this matter is a matter of state law, not a matter of county ordinance.” That ended discussion, and the Board voted 6-0 to approve the preliminary site plan.