Will the interminable Vineyard Square project continue – who’s in charge here?
By Valerie Cury
On July 15, following the recommendation of Purcellville Town Attorney Sally Hankins, Town Manager David Mekarski, hired an outside lawyer to make a vested rights determination regarding the Vineyard Square development. This was done without first speaking and meeting with the Town Council.
It had been previously understood that Hankins would meet with Council first to see what position the Council wanted her to take on the matter of whether the Vineyard Square project had expired on Feb. 16, 2021 – or whether due to the COVID-19 legislation passed by the General Assembly allowing for site plans that were active as of June 2020 (regardless of whether they expired after that) – to continue.
A finding that the developer had a vested right to commence the Vineyard Square project would mean that the project could continue despite the expiration. The legislation was passed to help projects that were in the process of being built, but due to COVID were put on hold.
At a Planning Commission meeting on Feb. 18, 2021, Hankins first informed the Planning Commission of the legislation, even though it took effect in September 2020. Hankins said, “There is a legal argument that allows the Town to take a different position that the remedial legislation does not have the effect of extending this particular site plan, and so I need to consult with Town Council, to understand what position they would like the Town to take.
“It won’t matter unless some kind of action is requested pursuant to the site plan by the property owner …” The owners/developers of Vineyard Square have asked the Town for its position, since they want to now proceed with a demolition permit.
Miami Beach-style in historic downtown
Vineyard Square is a Miami Beach-style project on 21st Street that calls for a six-story building with commercial, along with 40 apartments, right in historic downtown. It was approved over eight years ago under a different administration.
The project has sat dormant for over eight years, with minimal work initially done – specifically the tearing down of three small sheds. It was extended one time on April 6, 2015 by the former Planning Director who said the project had “commenced” and was “diligently pursued.” He wrote, “as long as diligent pursuit occurs,” the project would continue to be extended.
The owner/developers the Chapmans also want the Town, at taxpayers’ expense, to extend and widen O Street (which currently dead ends) from 21st Street to Hatcher Street. This would be a way for the project to dump the excessive traffic caused by the density of Vineyard Square onto Hatcher Street.
Even though Town management hired an outside attorney to make a vested rights determination on July 15, it wasn’t until July 23 that the Town Council was notified of this.
Milan objects to process … eight years of delay
At the July 27 Purcellville Town Council workshop, Council Member Stan Milan objected to Council going into a closed meeting to discuss the Vineyard Square project. “We have been talking about Vineyard Square for over a year. We have been misinformed, mislead … denied … many times on getting a decision, which is obvious to the most casual observer,” he said.
Said Milan, “We were presented with an email stating that they [staff] had contacted a lawyer to determine the outcome of the Vineyard Square project. On July 15, the contract was signed. On July 23, Council was notified of that determination contract.
“Eight days passed before the Council was notified. So my comment about delayed, slow response is valid.”
Milan said that a discussion on hiring outside counsel must have started before July 15. “If you send documents to someone on one day, you had to have discussed the process with them prior to engaging them in a contract.”
Town Council kept in the dark
He pointed out that the Town Attorney said she would get with the Town Council to determine the direction the Town should go, and that was not done. “If the Council had been notified prior …we wouldn’t have to go into a closed session.”
Milan took issue with the Town Attorney hiring “an outside attorney” who works for another town, “to determine issues for this town.”
Milan said he has asked for the documentation that was sent to the outside attorney, and to date has not received an answer. Milan concluded, “We are totally responsible for what happens to this town. That’s what I campaigned on, and that’s what I am doing.”
Council Member Chris Bertaut said he disagreed with “some of what’s going on with respect to the upcoming closed session.”
“Despite the stated reason for going into closed session, the entire process seems to lack fairness and transparency all around.
Referring to one of the reasons the Town gave for hiring an outside attorney being the possibility of litigation, Bertaut said, “Every issue before this Town Council could be potential subject of litigation.”
“There’s also been ample time to make a determination, and ample legal resources since our Town Attorney has ten years of experience in private practice on zoning and other related issues.”
Bertaut noted that just a “simple request for basic information about what was going on was met with silence, and that disturbs me greatly. All Council Member Milan was asking for was the name of the attorney consulted, and what sort of information was provided to that attorney in order for them to make a determination.”
Hankins responded with denials and read from a prepared list all the things she has been working on, some with help from outside hired law firms, for months. She said the Council did not make this a “top priority.”
In an email to the Town Manager, Mayor Kwasi Fraser echoed Bertaut’s concern, questioning why an outside attorney who works for another town was hired for this determination, and why wasn’t the Town Attorney able to make a determination.