Mathews board in turmoil; Love resigns

Sherry Hamilton - Posted on Feb 20, 2019 - 02:14 PM

Photo: Marion C.

Marion C. "Pepper" Love Jr.

Turmoil continued last Thursday with the Mathews County Board of Supervisors as they met in closed session for the second time in as many weeks to discuss the county’s service agreement with County Attorney Daniel Stuck.

Although the meeting still ended with the termination of the agreement between Stuck and the county, the severance was markedly different, with Stuck drafting a resolution saying it was a mutual agreement that was in the best interest of both parties, and that he would stay on until April 30 at the board’s request so the county wouldn’t be without legal representation.

But Stuck’s resignation wasn’t the only one that occurred during the meeting. Supervisor Pepper Love was seen walking out during the closed session, and he said later that he had submitted his letter of resignation before leaving. The letter cited betrayal and a comment by staff that the board had “made Mathews a laughing stock.”

“For this I apologize to the county and to the people,” he said in the letter. “I have set a high standard for myself and how I serve the people of Mathews County. I also set high standards for the employees of Mathews County of having high moral character, being honest, and truthful. I feel I have been betrayed. I have always said that if I can’t help I would do nothing to hurt.”

Love said in a subsequent interview that the board of supervisors had become dysfunctional.

“It has major problems, and I don’t want to be a part of that,” he said. “I wish I could have done a better job for the people. I worked my heart out for them, but it just seemed like it wasn’t going to happen.”

Asked if he had any suggestions about a replacement for the position he had left, Love said he would like to see “a college-educated person” appointed to serve until the next election. He said it should either be a Mathews native who knows the community’s “ins and outs” or someone from outside the county “who knows nothing about the county relationships and can start on a clean slate.”

Edwina Casey, the board’s vice chairman, said she was surprised by Love’s resignation. “I didn’t want him to go,” she said. Casey also agreed that the board had become dysfunctional.

“Right now we’ve got a big problem,” she said. “Until we get somebody in there, anything that happens will probably be a two-to-two draw, and you can’t get anything done like that.”

She said she hoped that the board could come to an agreement on Love’s replacement.

“We’ve got to find somebody that really wants to do it and is dedicated to getting the job done,” she said. “We need somebody that’s willing to be an honest member of the board of supervisors.”

Immediate past chairman Charles Ingram said that the board “is in a complete turmoil.

“They’re not working together,” he said. “I hope we can come together so we’ll be able to do our work for the county instead of being a laughing stock. In all my time on the board, it’s never been like this.”

Supervisor Amy Dubois said she was “very sad and disappointed for Mathews to lose Love as a supervisor.” Both Dubois and Love were elected to the board for the first time in 2017. Dubois said she had tried to get Love to reconsider, “and I wish he still would.”

“The last couple of weeks, the board has lost sight of priorities we established for the year and, instead, is wasting time, losing staff, and causing risk and disruption,” she said.

Board chairman G.C. Morrow said he appreciated Love’s service to the county. “He’ll be missed,” he said.

Chairman’s statement

Before Thursday’s meeting began, Morrow made a statement that he had been advised by counsel that he should surrender the gavel and abstain from voting on anything in the meeting “because I am in objection to this meeting.” He said he believed the meeting, which had been called by Casey and Love, was “in direct violation of the Code of Virginia, 15.2 Section 1418.” Both Morrow and Ingram abstained from voting on the agenda and on the motion to go into closed session.

Asked to clarify the violation he had asserted, Morrow said during an interview Wednesday morning that the clerk of the board had not consulted with him on the agenda for the meeting, as required by the code section.

After the board returned from closed session during Thursday’s meeting, Dubois explained to those present that the board had held the meeting because members weren’t sure that the previous week’s meeting had been “in accordance with code.” That meeting, at which four board members voted to terminate Stuck’s agreement with the county, had been called on the same day it was held. Virginia law requires that boards give three days of notice for all meetings except special emergency meetings, which are generally held in anticipation of an impending weather event, etc.

Morrow said on Wednesday that he believed the meeting was an emergency at the time because of an email Stuck had sent to county staff. In that email, which was shared with Morrow, Stuck stated that he wanted staff to look over the attached draft floodplain ordinance before he proceeded to have it “reviewed by the state/FEMA folks.” He said further that he would not release it to the board until staff review was complete.

Morrow said that the verbiage in the email had made him fearful that Stuck would send the draft ordinance to FEMA without the board knowing about it.

Beyond that, Morrow said that the draft ordinance did not carry out the desires of the board. While much of the ordinance will remain the same as when the original was passed in 2014, he said, he wanted specific changes that would protect residents who own historic structures. With that in mind, he asked that Stuck include specific verbiage in the body of the ordinance exempting historic structures from the provision regarding substantial improvement, which requires that any structure in the floodplain that needs renovations exceeding 50 percent of its value be elevated. He acknowledged that Stuck’s inclusion of such language in the definitions might create such an exemption, but maintained that it still wasn’t what the attorney had been requested to do.

“We need to make it clear and easy for people to understand,” said Morrow.

Morrow also objected to Stuck’s proposed inclusion of the floodplain ordinance in the zoning ordinance. He said that placing it under the zoning ordinance changes violations from “a fineable situation to a criminal situation.” Under the zoning ordinance, the county has “more teeth” when property owners aren’t compliant, said Morrow, while a stand-alone ordinance means that the county “is stuck with a less aggressive stance.”

While people should not be able to build in the floodplain unless they’re compliant, said Morrow, “you have to work with people who have existing structures in the floodplain.”

“I feel the county should try harder to work with landowners instead of just saying no,” he said.

Beyond that, Morrow said that the section of the ordinance dealing with permit application requirements needed to have the word “new” inserted in verbiage requiring that “All uses, activities, and development” in the floodplain “be undertaken only upon application for and issuance of a zoning permit” so that residents wouldn’t have to fear being required to make non-conforming structures that already in existence compliant with ordinance requirements.

Finally, Morrow said that if the floodplain ordinance is in the zoning ordinance, there’s no statute of limitations on compliance issues. He said that the Virginia Code is clear on “vested rights,” stating that if a property owner has paid taxes on a piece of property for 15 years, the locality can’t force them to tear it down for being nonconforming.

Morrow said he agrees that the zoning ordinance contains “a more streamlined process for a variance” than going through the Board of Building Appeals, but that the history of the floodplain ordinance over the past 40 years shows that “we haven’t had a big problem with it in the past.”

“Variances and the variance process cost the citizen and the county legal fees,” he said.

Finally, Morrow emphasized that he had tried to do what was right for the county.

Stuck’s response

Stuck said during an interview on Tuesday that he had made the changes to the ordinance that the supervisors had requested. Contrary to rumors that the draft ordinance, if adopted, would require that everyone in a floodplain elevate their home, Stuck said the document continues to follow the FEMA requirement that homes that sustain more than 50 percent of damage during a storm must be elevated when repaired.

“If you want to be in the National Flood Insurance Program, you have to meet the requirements of FEMA,” said Stuck. “You don’t have to be in the NFIP, but if you’re not, you won’t be able to get a loan because banks won’t loan money without flood insurance. That’s the purpose of the ordinance.”

Stuck said that the board had wanted an ordinance that met the minimum requirements for keeping the county in the NFIP and that would also address the problem with the Islander Motel and Restaurant, which would have to be elevated under the current ordinance if the owners were to undertake restoration and repairs. He said that a definition in the Federal Register about historic structures appears to allow the Islander to qualify for an exemption from the elevation requirement. He said he made changes in his draft document to reflect that. Those changes would apply to all historic buildings in the county, he said.

Stuck said that, following common practice for dealing with ordinance changes, “We were supposed to staff it, meet with the committee, have the board look at it, and then go to the regulators.”

“I don’t know why they don’t trust the staff to look at it first,” said Stuck. “That’s the way you handle ordinances so they don’t go to the committee in half-baked fashion. It’s a very logical process.”

Stuck said that he didn’t think committee members would comment on issues that were technical in nature, but that’s what staff members are trained to do.

If FEMA isn’t happy with the ordinance, said Stuck, the agency can put the county on probation and take away people’s ability to get flood insurance. He said there are things in the flood ordinance that are specifically designed for insurance purposes so that the federal government doesn’t have to pay any more insurance than required.

A stand-alone ordinance that’s contested would go through the county’s Board of Building Appeals, he said, and that board typically deals with such issues as the materials that need to be used for structures—for instance, whether a 2’x8’ piece of lumber is appropriate for a certain expanse. In contrast, the zoning ordinance has a process for dealing with land use issues such as floodplain management.

“It’s where the state clearly gives the locality authority to regulate it,” he said. “They asked me to draft what I would recommend, and that’s it.”

However, Stuck said if the board wanted to have it as a stand-alone ordinance, as Gloucester does, “we just change the numbers on the ordinance and change the minor modifications I made to reflect land use … Hopefully, there wouldn’t be very many appeals.”