No matter which way you might be leaning on the proposed move of the Washington County courts to a former Kmart building in Abingdon, it’s clear that the town and the county should have worked together to iron out any issues they might have well before now.
Yes, there are good arguments for and against moving the courts from the historic Washington County Courthouse in downtown Abingdon. That’s why the county’s Board of Supervisors has decided to put the question to the voters in a referendum on Nov. 5.
But to some observers, it seems that the town of Abingdon is focused on thwarting attempts to let the people of Abingdon and Washington County decide the issue.
Abingdon, which arguably has a lot at stake in the debate, may be relying on arbitrary and somewhat obscure interpretation of state law and town ordinances to stop the move of the courts even should the voters approve the idea.
But it’s also easy to see why the town is doing that. From the town’s point of view, the county might seem to be pushing the idea of moving the courthouse against the town’s will, without any consideration as to what the people of Abingdon want, or what its zoning plans would support.
The Town Council and Town Manager Jimmy Morani contend that relocating court operations to the old Kmart just off Interstate 81’s Exit 17 would violate the current zoning ordinances.
That’s because the town has decided that the current B-2 General Business District zoning of that site would not permit a courthouse — even though that zoning does permit “public offices.”
Perhaps county officials should have communicated better with the town and found out whether the town would accept a courthouse on that site under the present zoning, or if not, agree to change the zoning to accommodate the courthouse.
Presumably, county officials looked at the zoning for the site before proposing the move and concluded that courts would easily qualify as public offices. But it sure would have made for less controversy if county officials had just asked first, to make sure the town and the county were on the same page.
Last week, the Town Council rejected the county government’s request that it consider amending the zoning to add “courthouse” as a permitted use in a B-2 General Business District.
The town manager and town attorney have also decided that letting citizens petition the town planning commission to amend the zoning ordinance violates state law, and that such a request should be denied — even though the town planning code allows for such requests.
Washington County Attorney Lucy Phillips spoke to the Town Council last week and also sent a five-page letter to members of the council and planning commission in defense of the rule in the town code that allows the public to request zoning text amendments, according to a story in the Bristol Herald Courier.
The town’s acting counsel, Cameron Bell, said in a Sept. 6 letter to Phillips that the rule violates state law, which allows only governing bodies to amend ordinances.
But “it is illogical to conclude that the acceptance of an application equals amendment of the zoning ordinance,” Phillips said in her letter. “The Town’s acceptance of an application brings a citizen’s request to the attention of the Commission and Council, which may initiate the process for amending of the zoning ordinance.”
Phillips also asked the Town Council: “Can any one of you really accept that it’s beyond the scope of the town’s authority to receive requests for changes in the town’s zoning law from its own citizens?”
She added that citizen involvement “is part of the bedrock of democracy.”
The key here, though, is that while citizens may petition for a change in the zoning, the planning commission or the Town Council doesn’t have to approve the request. And at this point, it doesn’t seem that the town would approve the change either way, so even entertaining a petition would seem to be a waste of time.
As for the November referendum, it might very well be that the voters decide — maybe even overwhelmingly — that they don’t want to move the courts to the Kmart building. And if that’s the way it goes, we should all be fine with that.
But if the vote goes the other way, it’s going to be hard for the town of Abingdon to justify hiding behind zoning ordinances to go against the will of the people — unless, perhaps, a strong majority of voters who live within the town limits reject the move.
At that point, one would have to consider whether it would be fair for the rest of the voters of Washington County to dictate what goes on within the town limits, especially on zoning and planning issues.
That’s why all of this should have been sorted out before the county commissioners called for the referendum.