This is an open letter to Prince William County citizens and the Board of County Supervisors (BOCS.) It concerns Chair Ann Wheeler appearing to put politics and greater power for a BOCS “quorum” (typically, five of eight members) above public safety, good governance, and liberal democratic principles by:
- Holding a semi-public meeting on 31 March amid the Covid-19 pandemic and thus likely contributing to the spread of the virus (see see BOCS meeting agenda attached or at https://www.pwcgov.org/government/bocs/Pages/Meeting-Room.aspx ; also see https://thederecho.blogspot.com/2020/03/pwc-foregoes-public-health-concerns-in.html);
- Using the 31 March meeting, ostensibly focused on the pandemic, to propose granting any BOCS quorum that can be mustered sweeping “emergency” powers, following the Virginia governor’s emergency declaration, through four “procedural matters” on the attached BOCS agenda (see items 4A thru 4D — 4b, #14, for example) that would potentially give five BOCS supervisors power to make controversial budget and land use decisions with little or no transparency, opposition, or public comment and review, and possibly with a shortened, expedited approval process;
- Proposing suspending “public comment time” (i.e., “Citizens Time”) at all BOCS meetings until further notice and proposing to make this permanent even after the pandemic passes (see our colleagues Tammy Spinks and Bob Weir’s 27 March messages to the BOCS linked here .. https://pwcbg.org/2020/03/bocs-urged-to-ensure-banning-of-public-comment-does-not-become-permanent/ and here, respectively .. https://thederecho.blogspot.com/2020/03/a-warning-from-history.html , as well as the joint letter of four county civic associations here .. https://pwcbg.org/2020/03/civic-associations-holding-public-hearings-during-pandemic-with-greatly-reduced-public-participation-will-undermine-the-public-process/. )
- Undoubtedly using the second and third bulleted items above to stop growing momentum and pressure for the BOCS to pass a motion to reconsider the 10 March Devlin rezoning approval. (Chair Wheeler and the BOCS majority strongly — unquestioningly and thoughtlessly, in our view — supported the Devlin rezoning.) The motion to reconsider can only happen at this, the next BOCS meeting on 31 March. Please note that mounting pressure for the motion to reconsider the Devlin decision follows numerous irregularities and mistakes by the BOCS at the 10 March hearing. (See: https://pwcbg.org/2020/03/second-chance-for-5-new-bocs-members-deceived-by-developers-on-devlin2-pwcbg-suggests-tax-relief-for-local-employers-employees-facing-layoffs/ Also see our colleague Doug Widener’s 24 March message to the BOCS below.) We can see nothing in the four “procedural” emergency measures above that would prevent the BOCS quorum from passing the controversial Kline residential developer proposal or implementing controversial planned big real estate tax increases or approving harmful policies regarding the Rural Crescent — all without transparency and serious public comment and scrutiny.
We’ve noted recently that in an authoritarian system, the ruler knows what is best for his subjects, and they must serve him. On the other hand, in a democracy, the citizens know what is in their best interests, and elected representatives serve the citizens and their interests. We fear that Chair Wheeler may be inadvertently moving closer to the former and farther away from the latter, and is unaware that she may also be exhibiting too much of a need for control, too much intolerance of dissent.
We hope that our worst fears are not realized. Please give Chair Wheeler lots of feedback to help her see that we support her when she does well, supports ordinary citizens’ interests, is tolerant of dissent, listens to and learns from criticism, and supports our most fundamental democratic rights (including the three of the five core First Amendment rights that most directly apply here — petitioning the government, freedom of speech, and freedom of the press.) But when she does the opposite and shows elite indifference to ordinary citizens’ freedoms, needs, interests, and concerns, she will earn our relentless opposition.
ACTION FOR CITIZENS: If you have not already done so, please sign the online petition supporting the motion to reconsider the Devlin rezoning decision here and urge your friends to do the same: http://chng.it/57d9SJBQyf Please help get the word out via social media, email, etc. (Feel free to use an online link to this message at https://pwcbg.org/2020/03/chair-wheeler-holding-semi-public-31-mar-bocs-meeting-to-implement-greatly-increased-emergency-powers-suspension-of-public-comment/)
And let’s also urge the BOCS to “first do no harm” by keeping its actions during the pandemic to the bare minimum necessary, not using the pandemic as an excuse, in the absence of public scrutiny, to abuse power, as it has already done, though hopefully unintentionally, in its first major land use case, the 10 March Devlin rezoning. Please send that feedback to Chair Wheeler and the other BOCS members at BOCS@pwcgov.org and/or the cc addresses above.
Best wishes to all and stay safe,
Ralph & Kathy Stephenson
Prince William Citizens for Balanced Growth
Only in the bright light of public scrutiny can the common good be secured,
while in darkness and obscurity the interests of the powerful and affluent prevail.
[Note: Per Doug Widener and Citizens Alliance of Prince William (CAPW), the following “March 24, 2020 email is an unpolished, interim message to BOCS members to let them know” CAPW’s preliminary findings, “so far, of an unfinished in-depth review and analysis of the Devlin Road public hearing video” posted on the county’s website. A “final report will be written and published” by CAPW, but possibly not in time for the 31 March BOCS meeting. Italicization of passages below added by Prince William Citizens for Balanced Growth, PWCBG.]
———- Forwarded message ———
From: Doug Widener <email@example.com>
Date: Tue, Mar 24, 2020 at 3:04 PM
Subject: Update on Reconsideration of Devlin Road Decision
To: Andrea Bailey <firstname.lastname@example.org>, Ann Wheeler <email@example.com>, Candland, Pete <firstname.lastname@example.org>, Kenny Boddye <email@example.com>, Lawson, Jeanine M. <firstname.lastname@example.org>, Margaret Franklin <email@example.com>, Yesli Vega <firstname.lastname@example.org>, Victor Angry <email@example.com>
Prince William Board of County Supervisors:
Since my email message with an attached letter to you on March 15, regarding the need for a reconsideration of the new board’s decision on March 10 to approve the Devlin Road project, research continues, including a second-by-second analysis of the video recording of the public hearing. Findings, so far, significantly add to the reasons why a reconsideration appears to be necessary. Unfortunately, many of those reasons do not reflect well, to say the least, on individual members of the board who voted to approve Devlin Road. Here’s an overview of some of the reasons identified, so far:
- School overcrowding, the most important issue that should have been considered during the hearing, was largely ignored. A reconsideration is the new board’s opportunity to correct that big mistake. Count how few minutes of the hearing were devoted to schools. Was the fact that the School Board stated in writing that it was opposed to approval of Devlin Road even mentioned? Why wasn’t someone there from the school division to answer any school-related questions? Are you aware of how your attention was distracted from the fact that the 13th high school will be overcrowded in five years (and 10 years) according to the School Division/School Board Development Impact Statement (DIS)? Was that fact even mentioned during the hearing? Are you aware of how you were misled about the 14th high school? It’s not even mentioned in the DIS, since it’s not been funded and it’s location, which is highly controversial, has not been finally determined. If it’s built in eastern county, it will not significantly help overcrowding in western county. Did you read the document I sent you on March 8, regarding just one example of how the school division’s CIP projections do not work to address overcrowding?
- Widespread false statements during the hearing by new board members who mistakenly believed that Supervisor Lawson could continue to work with the developer after the board approved Devlin Road. No one seemed interested in the correct explanation by Supervisors Lawson and Candland as to why that is not possible. The new board members’ reliance on that false belief was a big mistake that can be corrected with a reconsideration.
- New board members appear to have allowed themselves to be misled by the applicant’s use of words such as “intends” and “assumes” with regard to issues such as the construction timeline and house prices. Another big mistake that can be corrected with a reconsideration.
- Misunderstanding by new board members about how the land planning process actually works (e.g., “kicking the can [Devlin Road] down the road”, unfairly “inheriting” projects, etc.)
- No mention of any consideration of the Devlin Road project in relation to the potential negative impact of the huge, already BOCS-approved housing inventory “pipeline” on school overcrowding and traffic congestion.
- Failure of new board members to recognize the need to have the current Planning Commission review this case, as was recommended to them, since the last review was by the former Planning Commission in 2018, and the concerns of the Brentsville District’s Commissioner from that review have not been adequately addressed.
- No recognition of the precedent-setting impact that approval of the Devlin Road project will have on DAPS overall (and the Kline Property proposal by Stanley Martin, in particular).
- New board members appear to have either been misled or followed false beliefs or assumptions with regard to the Comprehensive Plan, Zoning Ordinance, density, house types, lot sizes, proffers after the 2019 VA Code changes, the saving of mature trees, the ineffectiveness of stormwater management (even when done in accordance with local and state standards), etc.
- Huge discrepancy between what new board members actually said at this hearing — and at other public hearings — about the need to have infrastructure in place before development, etc., and how those members voted on Devlin Road.
With regard to the issue of “project denial would mean a winnable lawsuit”, please read the material in my letter of March 15 regarding that, and consider this short description of the Fairly Debatable Rule: https://definitions.uslegal.com/f/fairly-debatable-rule/. Ask the County Attorney for case law examples that prove her theory regarding a lawsuit in this matter. What do the supervisors who voted to deny Devlin Road know about this issue that you don’t?
Many of the reasons that justify a reconsideration are understandable “rookie mistakes” by new board members with little or no development-related experience or background knowledge, other than what they’ve been told by lobbyists for the building industry and Chamber of Commerce, Planning Office staff focused on job protection, certain members of the previous Planning Commission who never met a proposed development they didn’t want to approve, the ever-present “Land Lawyers” in this and most other land use cases over the last four years and a County Attorney too fearful to put anything in writing. The influence of these biased information sources on new board members + Devlin Road being the first major land use case considered by the new board members + A vote to approve Devlin Road that didn’t take place until well after midnight during a board meeting that began at 2:00 PM + The appearance that all but one new board member intentionally ignored the advice of the two experienced board members during the hearing, apparently for politically partisan reasons = What looks like a recipe for “Devlin Road disaster”, cooked up by new board members from eastern county and served to western county supervisors and residents on March 10.
The negative impacts of the Devlin Road approval — unless formally reconsidered (but not necessarily changed) — will be far-reaching and long-term for both countywide residents and the new board members. Considering all this, why would a competent new board member who intends to serve the best interests of all county residents not take the opportunity for Reconsideration to review the Devlin Road proposal again and determine — in light of facts, not reliance on misleading statements, misinformation and unfounded assumptions/beliefs — whether or not the project should be approved? Reconsideration is available for a reason. The Devlin Road approval is the perfect illustration of that reason.
Citizens — especially those who worked tirelessly to help elect new board members they thought would focus on fixing school and traffic problems, not making them worse with more new home development — deserve to be made fully aware of this situation and the opportunity the new board members have to correct it, no later than the next meeting of the board. Once this analysis is completed and published, this overview may be looked upon as only “the tip of the Devlin Road iceberg”.
Doug Widener Citizens Alliance of Prince William (“Putting Children and Families First”)