BZA, town clash over no meeting

Published 7:14 pm Tuesday, January 29, 2019

By Diana McFarland

Managing editor

The chairman of the Smithfield Board of Zoning Appeals wanted to have a meeting. There wasn’t a zoning case to be heard, but Chairman Christopher Gwaltney wanted to get some organizational business out of the way, such as electing new officers. 

Town staff said no and in the end, the BZA was ushered out of the building. 

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The conflict between Gwaltney and town staff began when he sent out a notice to BZA members on Dec. 20 for a called meeting. Smithfield Planning Technician Joseph Reish replied with a notice of his own, stating that the meeting was cancelled due to a lack of business. {mprestriction ids=”1,2,3,4,5,6″}

It is not uncommon for BZA, Planning Commission and Board of Historic and Architectural Review meetings to be cancelled due to lack of business. 

Newly hired town Planning and Zoning Administrator John Settle warned in an email that if the BZA were to meet, town staff would not be present, they would not be paid and any action would not be recognized. 

Gwaltney forged ahead anyway, calling on the other four members to meet Jan. 15, 7:30 p.m. at The Smithfield Center. 

“We will meet unless they threaten to arrest us for trespassing,” wrote Gwaltney in an email.

Three of the five members, including Gwaltney, arrived at The Smithfield Center and waited in the hall for the Board of Historic and Architectural Review to complete its business. 

The BZA typically meets following BHAR — when there is business to be heard.

Gwaltney presented his case, unofficially and in the hallway, as to why they should be allowed to have a meeting. 

Meetings need to be called by the chairman, failing that, it is called by the vice chairman, said Gwaltney. Without a vice chairman, who would call the meeting in my absence, Gwaltney asked rhetorically. (Vice Chairman Clem Batten died last year, leaving that position vacant.)

Meetings are also only called when there is a case to be heard, and last year, the BZA did not meet at all.  

Gwaltney had prepared an agenda with some other items on it, including an appreciation of Batten for his service and to draft an annual report that is required in the town ordinance.

Batten was replaced by Greg Brown, who was new to the Board and went to sit in on the BHAR meeting instead of waiting in the hall with the other BZA members, not knowing how the process typically unfolded. 

Gwaltney said the five BZA members are each paid $25 a meeting. 

That was one of the reasons provided by Town Manager Brian Thrower for not allowing the meeting. 

“Having the BZA or any other board or commission meet when there is no business to conduct is an imprudent use of town resources, staff and board member time, and money,” said Thrower in an email.     

Thrower said a new vice chairman could be elected at the next meeting that is held when there is business to be heard. 

When town staff exited the room where the BHAR meeting had been held, they told the BZA members that the building needed to be locked up and it was time to go. 

And so they went. 

The Board continued its meeting for Feb. 19. Same place. Same time.


What is the Board of Zoning Appeals?


The Board of Zoning Appeals hears cases concerning variances to local ordinances, special exceptions, zoning map interpretations and appeals to decisions by the planning and zoning administrator. 

The five members are recommended by the Town Council but are appointed by the Isle of Wight County Circuit Court and serve a five-year term. 

The Smithfield BZA meets the third Tuesday of the month, 7:30 p.m. at The Smithfield Center when there is a case or business to consider, according to the town website.  {/mprestriction}