An aerial view of the Rush River Commons site.

Mayor: Expansion necessary for full water system access; project in keeping with Comp Plan

Town of Washington Mayor Fred Catlin sent a letter to the Rappahannock County Board of Supervisors last week asking that the body discuss at its December meeting expanding the town’s corporate limit so that Rush River Commons’ entire lot, which straddles the town and county lines, could be brought under Washington’s jurisdiction.

Catlin, in the letter, also asked that the Board of Supervisors and Washington Town Council convene in January for a joint public hearing since both bodies need to independently approve changes then receive the OK from a circuit court judge for the boundary adjustment to go into effect. 

The town has appeared amenable to Rush River Commons property owner Chuck Akre’s boundary change request, having publicly discussed the move. But it has not taken a final vote on the matter. The path toward approval with the Board of Supervisors is much less certain.

“The Town and the County have worked amicably together in the past on boundary line adjustments that have benefitted all parties. We have worked together in the past on other projects too … in each case of past cooperation, the citizens of both the Town and the County have won,” Catlin said in his letter. “I hope we can work together again on the BLA [boundary line adjustment] to everyone’s advantage.”

Catlin’s request was met with mixed reception from members of the Board of Supervisors, with some arguing that discussions on the boundary change should be held off until January since the body is lame duck, with Stonewall-Hawthorne Supervisor Chris Parrish set to retire and Supervisor-elect Van Carney expected to be sworn in early next year in his place.

Hampton Supervisor Keir Whitson, who represents the area where Akre’s roughly four acre property is located, said in an email to members of the body that he doesn’t believe deliberations should take place until the new year. Parrish, whose final meeting as a member of the body is in December, disagreed, according to an email obtained by the Rappahannock News.

“Procrastination is the thief of time,” Parrish wrote. “I see no reason to delay the discussions of the benefits or ramifications of a boundary adjustment.”

Wakefield Supervisor Chair Debbie Donehey in an interview said that Carney should be involved in discussions before the county moves forward with a vote on the boundary adjustment.

“I honestly don’t believe there’s a panic [that] we must do this in December … We’ve got a new board member coming in — I think it really does make sense to wait,” she said

Smith declined in an email on Monday to say whether the body should move forward with including the item on its December agenda. “There have already been requests for adding it (Mr. Parrish) and against adding it (Mr. Whitson) anything else would just be piling on,” she said.

Jackson Supervisor Ron Frazier said that the Board of Supervisors shouldn’t discuss the boundary adjustment until the town approves a detailed plan for what the change will look like.

Catlin makes his case

The first phase of Rush River Commons, expected to be Washinton’s first mixed-use development, was approved by the Town Council in September following a monthslong review to include affordable housing, a cafe and a new location for the Rappahannock County Food Pantry. But Akre and the developer want to expand it further. 

“It’s easier with one master, rather than two,” Akre previously said of developing within the town’s boundaries. He noted that his team hopes to break ground on the development’s first phase as soon as early 2022.

According to Catlin’s letter, Akre wishes to complete the boundary line adjustment process as soon as possible to “improve” the entire property at once to gain “economy of scale as well as meet the needs of the community sooner.”

It’s not certain what would be constructed on the remainder of the lot should a boundary change be approved, but Akre has proposed a community center and potentially space for the Rappahannock County Public Library to relocate should officials with the organization choose to move.

Akre and his team at Black Kettle LLC, at the recommendation of Catlin, requested in August that the town and county consider making the boundary change so they could gain access to Washington’s water and sewer lines for the remainder of land they hope to develop. A boundary change is key to water and sewer access, and the town has refused to expand its wastewater system beyond its corporate limit.

Because of the vast wetlands on the property, Akre would be unable to develop Rush River Commons as “extensively as he invisions” without a sewer hook-up, according to Catlin’s letter.

The town argues that expanding sewer service out into county land opens “liability exposure issues … if there were a catastrophic event that occurred in the County portion,” according to Catlin’s letter. “There are jurisdictional limitations established as part of the initial bond agreement for the wastewater infrastructure that could be interpreted as preventing the Town from extending beyond its boundaries for normal usage.” 

The letter continues, “If the Town allowed a precedent for the sewer line to be extended beyond the Town boundary, the Town would be unable to control the use of adjoining properties that, under this new precedent, would get a sewer hook-up and whose industry might sap all (or even exceed) the wastewater capacity of the Town, to the detriment of its citizens. The impact of an over-stretched wastewater system could also affect the local County citizens who do not reside in the Town.”

The county not allowing the boundary adjustment would cause it to forgo between $15,000 and $20,000 annually in real estate tax revenue, according to an estimate from Catlin. Approving the change would be in accordance with the vision outlined in the county’s comprehensive plan to allow growth and development around the villages, and the county’s “scenic beauty” would be preserved, Catlin argued. The mayor also claimed that the county’s “restrictive zoning ordinances could be seen as legally restrictive and deemed void by a court of law” if officials don't allow growth to funnel into villages.

He cautioned that if the boundary adjustment were denied, Akre may sell the lot, opening the possibility for a large corporation, such as Sheetz or 7-Eleven, to develop on the commercially zoned property. Catlin noted that the town derives little potential benefit from the boundary change beyond initial fees associated with water and wastewater hook-up, and that it may even lose small amounts of money on annual administrative costs. The town would also forgo some of its wastewater capacity to Akre’s potential development, Catlin said.

“The Town is supporting the BLA because it benefits the entire community — the citizens of the County and the Town — who want to see the preservation of rural landscapes and any well contemplated development be funneded into the existing “villages,” including Washington, as called for in both entities’ Comprehensive Plans,” Catlin said. “The Town of Washington is interested in this development only as fellow citizens of the County who would benefit from the services and amenities provided therein.”

Supervisors’ questions linger

Most members of the Board of Supervisors have declined to take a public position on whether they would support the boundary line adjustment. Piedmont Supervisor Christine Smith declined on Monday to comment on how she might vote. Parrish also declined to say how he would vote, but said he sees potential long-term benefits the boundary change could provide for the county.

Whitson is the only member who has expressed support for the measure, but has routinely questioned why it’s necessary since the land in the county is already zoned commercial. He’s ensured Akre that the county would make the permitting process for his development as smooth as possible if the boundary change isn’t implemented, but the developer then would still lack water and sewer access without the town’s help.

Whitson said it’s still not clear to him why the town refuses to extend its sewer to include Akre’s property, and that the explanation outlined in Catlin’s letter is unsatisfactory. Donehey, in an interview, echoed a similar sentiment, saying Catlin’s reasoning was unclear and that she still has several questions for the town about its sewer system that need answered before she’s willing to take a stance. Both would like to see Town Attorney John Bennett speak before the Board of Supervisors about the sewer.

Frazier also wouldn’t say how he might vote since the town hasn’t proposed a detailed plan for the boundary change, noting that Catlin’s letter led him to believe that the mayor lacks understanding of the county’s zoning ordinance.

“[Catlin’s letter] outlines their position on the matter, but it doesn’t outline what an agreement would be, nor does it outline the parameters of any such agreement,” Frazier said. “It doesn’t even start to be an agreement.” The supervisor also said that he’s seen little public support for the boundary change, as yard signs in opposition to it have cropped up in corners of the county.

In an interview, Carney declined to take a position on the boundary change. “I am very eager to have the discussion and learn more about it,” he said.

Some in the community have claimed Carney has a conflict of interest concerning the boundary adjustment because he owns a business on Eldon Farms, which was purchased by Akre this past summer, and that he should recuse himself from any vote related to the matter.

“I have no conflict of interest with Chuck Akre. Our business has a lease that was written by the Lane family [who previously owned the property], and when [Akre] purchased Eldon, he purchased our lease,” Carney said. “I have not renegotiated with him, and other than that we have no real relationship.”


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