“It seems to me that it was a residence that became a watch house in order to circumvent zoning. Whether we have a real definition of a watch house, ‘that it shall not obstruct navigation nor injure the private rights of another person’, I think this comes close to injuring their private rights. I’d like to make a motion that Melissa Kellam’s decision was in error.” – Board of Zoning Appeals Vice Chairperson Douglas Coburn after hearing evidence presented at the previous hearing over the Salt Grove oyster watch house application.
At the April 4th regular meeting, Doug Coburn made the same motion, however once again it did not receive a second from any other member of the board, and the motion died.
“The hard part of this is that there is no clear definition for a watch house,” Board Member Bonnie Nottingham said.
Chairperson Henderson responded, “I think they’ve tried in several places to give as much of a definition as they can…I think it’s been pretty well cleaned up. This is about whether Melissa made the right decision with the information she had, going back to the code of Virginia. With that information did she in fact make the right decision? It’s my opinion that she did, and at this time I’d like to make a motion to approve what she did.”
Chairperson Susan Hernderson made a motion to accept the county zoning administrator’s decision to approve the structure as a shellfish grounds watch house. The motion passed 3 to 1, denying Thornton Tayloe’s appeal. Coburn voted nay.
The approval, according to the board was based on a series of contingent factors, which once combined, was enough to legitimize the structure as a watch house:
1. The County’s ordinance provides for a use for a watch house for shellfish grounds, less than 500 square feet (2016 Northampton County Zoning Ordinance, Appendix A). As a note, it does not provide a specific definition for a watch house.
2. The structure would be occupied by a caretaker (as defined by the 2016 Northampton County Zoning Ordinance, Appendix D, §154.065, p. 61).
3. By way of a definition of a dwelling (from the 2016 Northampton County Zoning Code Ordinance, Appendix D, § 154.001, p. 16), could be permitted as “a single unit providing complete independent living facilities for one family, including permanent provisions for living, sleeping, eating, cooking and sanitation, provided that the unit shall have no more than one kitchen.”
After the vote, conversation and debate continued:
Cobun: A watch house is about a useful as brakeman on a train right now.
Zoning Administrator Kellam: Are we okay with it?
Coburn: Do you mind me asking you what Eyre said to you on the way out?
Kellam: Something about he’s going to apply for another watch house.
Coburn: You know, this is a dangerous question, it really is. Now anybody that has a piece of crap on the water can call it a watch house, and now just go through the steps to get it as a residence.
Kellam: Not a residence…that’s what the ordinance says about a caretaker.
Coburn: Who’s going to watch that?
Kellam: I can only go by what’s in the ordinance. If the board has concerns about it, you can note that to the planning commission to make changes in the ordinance. That’s what this board is all about…get to the planning commission to address what things are not working for the community.
Coburn: I mean but the definition…of a watch house is an unimproved structure. Oh my god, that’s an unimproved structure all right. (Reading) An unimproved structure attached to a dock or pier traditionally used a guard’s shelter, to protect shellfish beds. May contain electric service and sanitation facilities. And not intended for temporary or private occupancy. Pretty ambiguous what unimproved is, but that was not unimproved.
Opinion: As Melissa Kellam noted, the Salt Grove saga has exposed some flaws in the 2016 zoning. While Mr. Baldwin calling this structure a watch house may be a stretch, there is still the question of why he had to go to these lengths to be able to access and use the property. The zoning should be flexible enough to work with places like the structures at Salt Grove. Certainly, adaptive reuse and the historical restoration of a working waterfront should be what the county is aiming for in the long run.
Now that the appeal process is over, the two parties are going to have to find a way get along and make this work. Residents may have to get used to the fact that groups are going to be out there, however a little communication and a heads up before events take place might help the situation. And does a caretaker really need to be living out there?
In this case, it appears the county could have done more to mediate the situation before it decompensated into the current state it finds itself in. A more flexible zoning may have allowed for the uses Mr. Baldwin is interested in, as well as allowing the county to put in place the kind of restrictions that would have protected the neighbor’s quality of life.
Lessons learned, we hope.