Rap­pa­han­nock County 101

A brief over­view (and a prom­ise of more course­work) on lo­cal zon­ing, plan­ning and build­ing

Rappahannock News - - FRONT PAGE - By Roger Pianta­dosi Rap­pa­han­nock News staff

You will have no­ticed a lot of talk of late about how con­fused, or con­fus­ing, the work­ings of lo­cal gov­ern­ment may be, es­pe­cially in light of (or in light of out-of-town me­dia cov­er­age of) such high-pro­file de­bates as the zon­ing and at­ti­tude is­sues the own­ers of Cooter’s in the Coun­try say helped them de­cide to close down their mu­seum, gift shop and cafe in Sper­ryville at the end of Oc­to­ber.

Rap­pa­han­nock County Ad­min­is­tra­tor Deb­bie Keyser has cer­tainly no­ticed it,

and though she would not say the plans are def­i­nite, men­tioned to a reporter this week that she and other county gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials have dis­cussed propos­ing a se­ries of cour­ses to Rapp U., the new adult ed­u­ca­tion and work­force train­ing or­ga­ni­za­tion about to open class­rooms at the old Sper­ryville Em­po­rium.

The sub­ject of the cour­ses, Keyser said, would essen­tially be Rap­pa­han­nock 101 — how the var­i­ous parts of the lo­cal gov­ern­ment work, or are meant to work; and how to use them, or at least un­der­stand them.

This fol­low­ing brief primer was con­ceived with the same ed­u­ca­tional pur­pose — though its fo­cus is on zon­ing, plan­ning and build­ing, while Keyser’s pos­si­ble ed­u­ca­tional project, she said, would in­volve all facets of lo­cal gov­ern­ment in­clud­ing trea­sury, tax col­lec­tion and as­sess­ments, courts, elec­tions, so­cial ser­vices, the sher­iff and com­mon­wealth’s at­tor­ney, build­ing, zon­ing, plan­ning, the board of su­per­vi­sors and the vol­un­teer fire and res­cue sys­tem.


The first thing to know about build­ing in Rap­pa­han­nock County is that you are build­ing, more per­ti­nently, in Vir­ginia — and the rel­e­vant Vir­ginia state laws, gov­ern­ing build­ing-code stan­dards, fire pre­ven­tion, soil and ero­sion con­trol and health depart­ment re­quire­ments — will de­cide how many hoops are re­quired on your par­tic­u­lar course. Lo­cal build­ing, stormwa­ter main­te­nance and health in­spec­tors are charged with mak­ing sure you jump through them.

The first stop most will make is at the county ad­min­is­tra­tor’s of­fice; Keyser, like her county-ad­min­is­tra­tor pre­de­ces­sor John McCarthy, also dou­bles as the county’s zon­ing ad­min­is­tra­tor. This is where you learn whether your prop­erty is zoned to al­low what you want to do, and where your ap­pli­ca­tion pre­sum­ably ends in a zon­ing per­mit (which is nec­es­sary be­fore you can re­ceive a build­ing per­mit).

The zon­ing per­mit ap­pli­ca­tion also trig­gers an in­spec­tion of the prop­erty by the county health depart­ment, who’ll de­cide if the soil, water ta­ble and to­pog­ra­phy can sup­port the con­struc­tion, how large the sep­tic drain field ought to be and where it should be placed, along with the well.


Most ju­ris­dic­tions in Vir­ginia have a com­pre­hen­sive plan — it’s a doc­u­ment that isn’t an or­di­nance, or law, but is the over­ar­ch­ing “mis­sion state­ment” that guides the cre­ation and main­te­nance of lo­cal zon­ing laws.

Rap­pa­han­nock’s fa­mously re­stric­tive, 25-acre-min­i­mum lot size zon­ing code ac­tu­ally has thou­sands more spe­cific re­stric­tions than the one al­most ev­ery­one knows, and which dis­tin­guishes the county from most in Vir­ginia. If your plans don’t fit into the larger plan — the zon­ing code — then you will be told, most likely by the zon­ing ad­min­is­tra­tor, that you need one or more of the fol­low­ing: a spe­cial-use per­mit, a spe­cial-ex­cep­tion per­mit or a zon­ing variance.

This will send you be­fore at least one board, and more likely two — the last of which will make a fi­nal de­ci­sion.


At this point, the dif­fer­ence be­tween spe­cialuse and spe­cial-ex­cep­tion per­mits varies by the zone you’re in — in some zones, a pro­posed un­per­mit­ted use re­quires a spe­cial-use per­mit, in others it re­quires a spe­cial-ex­cep­tion per­mit. (The zon­ing code is on­line at rap­pa­han­nock­coun­tyva.gov, and the ta­ble of such dis­tinc­tions takes up many pages. This is one rea­son why a lawyer is of­ten in­volved.)

In gen­eral, both spe­cial-use and spe­cial-ex­cep­tion per­mits start with a hear­ing at the plan­ning com­mis­sion, five of whose seven mem­bers are ap­pointed by the su­per­vi­sors in each elec­toral dis­trict (the other two be­ing the ap­pointed rep­re­sen­ta­tives of both the board of su­per­vi­sors and the board of zon­ing ap­peals).

The plan­ning com­mis­sion hears the case and makes a rec­om­men­da­tion to the next panel. The com­mis­sion plays a purely ad­vi­sory role in the process.

Spe­cial-use per­mits, which may come rec­om­mended for ap­proval or not by the plan­ning com­mis­sion, are heard sep­a­rately and de­cided by the board of zon­ing ap­peals, a quasi-ju­di­cial board whose mem­bers are ap­pointed by the cir­cuit court.

Spe­cial-ex­cep­tion per­mits are heard and de­cided by the board of su­per­vi­sors, whose five mem­bers are elected for four-year terms (and whose terms are stag­gered, two be­ing elected in one cy­cle, three in the next).

Zon­ing variance re­quests — al­most al­ways re­lated to a project not meet­ing the set­back re­quire­ments (the dis­tance from a struc­ture to the prop­erty line) of the par­tic­u­lar zone it’s in — are heard and de­cided only by the board of zon­ing ap­peals.

All three pan­els hold pub­lic hear­ings as part of the process, al­most al­ways in the evening and al­most al­ways at the county court­house.

De­ci­sions by the su­per­vi­sors and the zon­ing ap­peals board are fi­nal — but can be ap­pealed to the cir­cuit court or be­yond.

The sys­tem works sim­i­larly within the other in­de­pen­dent ju­ris­dic­tion in­side Rap­pa­han­nock County’s bor­ders — the town of Wash­ing­ton, which also shares cer­tain re­sources, such as health and build­ing in­spec­tors and (un­til McCarthy re­tired in June) a part-time zon­ing ad­min­is­tra­tor.

There may be a quiz on this next week.

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