Planners table rezoning of East River Boat Yard

by Sherry Hamilton - Posted on Jan 16, 2019 - 03:18 PM

The Mathews County Planning Commission on Tuesday night unanimously tabled a decision on rezoning the East River Boat Yard from residential waterfront to business waterfront, a request that has been made by the Mathews County Board of Supervisors.

The decision came after the two boards held a joint public hearing, during which adjacent property owners and neighbors of the Mill Lane Road property expressed skepticism about the viability of an aquaculture project proposed for the site and its potential impact on their neighborhood.

Mathews County Planning and Zoning Director Thomas Jenkins made the case that the East River Boat Yard, a one-acre site that currently has an 1,800-square-foot building, a small boat ramp and dock, and a deteriorating bulkhead, was a commercial site long before it was sold to Mathews County in 2004.

He said the boat yard had most recently housed a marina with fuel sales and marine electronic services and that it continues to be used by commercial and residential boaters for access to the East River. The resource protection area almost completely covers the site, most of which has been developed, said Jenkins, and it’s entirely within the 100-year flood plain.

In their application for the rezoning, supervisors included proffers that would exclude certain uses normally allowed in the waterfront business district, from campgrounds to grain storage and drop-off recycling. However, it would leave the site open for by-right development for other uses, such as single-family dwellings and data poles.

Jenkins said that the Mathews County Comprehensive Plan states that the site is suited for aquaculture, and that he thought that itshould have been zoned business from the inception of zoning.

Jenkins said the one-acre designation for the site could have changed since the last survey.

“We’re not seeing a case of spot zoning in here, are we?” asked Planning Commission Chair Beth Davis. Jenkins said the comprehensive plan targets the site for rezoning.

Supervisor Amy Dubois said that the proposal for an aquaculture facility at the site, which was made by Billy Hooper of Williams Wharf Oyster Company, had given the board of supervisors the opportunity to consider the rezoning. She said the county had been considering possible public access uses there since 2014, and had decided to issue a request for proposals from others as well as Hooper. During the process, she said, the board discovered that the property was zoned residential.

During public comment period, James Warren of Mill Lane Road said that numerous county residents use the boat yard for public access, including watermen who offload their catch there. He said the facility was “a misguided attempt at commercialization.”

Adjacent property owner Eric Engler said he felt there had not been enough information about the proposed project for him to decide whether he’s for or against the proposed rezoning. He said he would like to see how Hooper would develop the site, when there’s so little land there. Finally, he said he had purchased his property understanding that the boat yard would be for recreational use. He asked for more time to consider the proposal.

Other speakers expressed similar opposition.

After the public hearing was closed and the board of supervisors adjourned, Jenkins told the planning commission that all of the issues raised about the site could be part of a lease agreement and that, if approved, Hooper’s use would be non-exclusive.

Davis said she felt that she was not “getting the whole picture” of what was going on with the proposal. She said that Hooper had submitted an application for a conditional use permit to use his property on Williams Wharf Road for his business, “and now the East River Boat Yard is being rezoned.”

“Let’s be honest,” she said. “It looks like a back-door deal. While the concept makes sense...It looks like there’s talk behind closed doors.”

Davis also pointed out that the last survey was 10 years ago, and that the site needs a new survey.

Commission member Tim Hill told Hooper that he wasn’t sure the county would be doing him a favor by voting yes “on that lousy piece of property.” He said he would like to find Hooper “a place in the county to do business where you’ll prosper.” He said the county should get rid of the property.

Asked if the board had not been in favor of Hooper’s proposal for an aquaculture business on his own property, supevisors’ chair G.C. Morrow, who serves as liaison to the planning commission, said “we weren’t comfortable with his proposal, and we thought this would be a better use.”

“I’m not against aquaculture,” said Davis, “but the way this was brought about disappoints me.”

Davis instructed Jenkins to have a survey done of the property, to check with VDOT and the health department about utilities there, and to check with the county attorney on whether the proposal would be considered spot zoning.

The commission has 70 days to make a decision on the request.