by Cheryl Chumley, Bull Run Observer

7 November 2008

“Prince William County’s top prosecutor said Thursday his office is going forth with an investigation into conflict-of-interest issues surrounding certain land-use committee members and their alleged ability to gain financially from their positions.

“Committee members, meanwhile, say those accusations are off-base.

“The issue began in May 2007, when the Board of County Supervisors appointed eight citizens to a Land Use Advisory Committee [LUAC] to update one chapter of the county’s Comprehensive Plan. State code requires county governments to review Comp Plans every five years and revise or update as needed.

“Two of these appointees were developers.

“In April 2008, the LUAC members brought forth Smart Growth recommendations — as they were commissioned to do at the outset — that involved the creation of Centers of Commerce and Centers of Community. Part of this ‘Smart Growth’ strategy was to target certain areas for high-density development.

“It was the chosen locations for these proposed density increases that became problematic.

“On the heels of citizen complaints, Board of Supervisors vice chair John Stirrup, R-Gainesville, asked county attorney Ross Horton last month to investigate whether the proposed land-use changes included properties owned by the two developers on the LUAC, whether they disclosed their interests in line with state law, and whether their potential to benefit financially from these recommendations violated conflict of interest rules.

“In a letter dated Oct. 15, Horton put the matter onto Paul Ebert, the Commonwealth’s Attorney, for investigation. A week and a-half later, Ebert said he still hadn’t decided whether to go forward with formal questioning.

“On Thursday, however, he stated otherwise.

” ‘I’m trying to determine what interest in those properties those people have and then decide whether the [conflict of interest] statute applies,’ he said, confirming that his office was investigating the issue.

Stirrup’s letter

“The timing of Ebert’s decision to investigate came around the same time frame as when Stirrup mailed his own letter to the Commonwealth Attorney requesting official action. But Stirrup also sent a copy of this letter to the Attorney General in Richmond. In it, Stirrup laid out several points that begged for investigation and reminded that ‘this is not the first time possible abuse of the Citizens Advisory Committee process has surfaced in Prince William County,’ the letter read.

“A similar scandal involving conflict of interest issues for committee appointees reared in 2000, Stirrup wrote, and Ebert’s subsequent investigation then found violations of the spirit, if not letter, of the law had occurred. This LUAC case is akin [to the 2000 conflict of interest allegations] in that ‘the basic disclosure, improper influence and participation issues seem to have close similarities,’ he wrote.

“Stirrup also explained in his letter his reasons for bringing the Attorney General’s office into the issue. Ebert, he wrote, has a ‘longstanding public association’ with the very same public official who appointed one developer to the LUAC.

” ‘Given that fact,’ Stirrup wrote, ‘it would seem prudent to suggest that engagement of an independent outside public prosecutor might serve to clear any public perceptions or misperceptions in this regard.’

“When asked about this letter and what finally led to his decision to pursue rather than drop the matter, Ebert said he had not heard from the Attorney General and that he chose to go forth with the investigation because it was his job.

” ‘That’s what I do,’ he said. ‘I investigate anybody. If somebody made a complaint alleging certain criminal complaints, I investigate it.’

“LUAC members, meanwhile, say the conflict of interest accusations have no legs.

“David Christiansen said he did not know the two developers personally on the committee prior to their appointments. But their experiences and knowledge proved valuable in the formation of land-use recommendations, especially those regarding the identification of commercial development areas, he said. Christiansen also said that from the outset, committee members were informed of the developers’ backgrounds.

” ‘It even came out they had some property [in the discussed areas],’ Christiansen said. ‘Everything was pretty much above board … and they didn’t have any direct influence. Obviously, they wanted certain things to happen to benefit them.’

Personal interest

“But all committee members took a personal interest in the outcomes of the LUAC, he said, and were even asked to state their individual goals in early meetings.

” ‘My agenda was preserving the Rural Crescent,’ Christiansen said. ‘And my feeling was that knowing there were developers on the committee just added something to discussions.’

“Fellow committee member Tom Kopko, meanwhile, said that ‘by and large, the committee acted unanimously,’ so the policy recommendations and accompanying maps that emerged for Planning Commission and supervisors review represented the views of eight, not two.

“Mark Granville-Smith, one of the developers on the committee, said he would be happy to discuss the issue with Ebert as the investigation progressed. But he also added that the entire committee process was open to the public, that the meetings were recorded, and that the recommendations that came forth not only followed Planning Commission and Board of Supervisor guidelines to create some Smart Growth strategies, but that were just that — recommendations. All Comp Plan changes are still subject to final board approval.

“Moreover, Granville-Smith said, the committee simply recommended overlay areas on the map. Each development proposal for these areas would still have to go through the normal Planning Commission and Boardof Supervisor process for approval, which includes public hearing, he said.

“The other developer on the committee, Charles Rector [of Weber-Rector, Inc.], did not return a telephone call for comment.

“Staff writer Cheryl Chumley can be reached at 703-670-1907.”