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Failure to achieve liftoff

County scrubs club’s plans, but new countdown could be underway

Peter Vieth//December 20, 2010

Failure to achieve liftoff

County scrubs club’s plans, but new countdown could be underway

Peter Vieth//December 20, 2010

Augusta, we have a problem.

A group of budding rocket scientists has been grounded after losing a land use battle with neighbors and local government officials over a launch site in Augusta County.

Last month a court-appointed commissioner turned thumbs down on the junior rocket scientists’ bid for continued rocket launches. But there is renewed hope for a resolution to the clash through a new permit application.

The conflict between the rocketeers and the county government attracted national attention within the rocketry community. Hobbyists say government opposition to rocket club activities is rare. In fact, many officials have praised and encouraged model rocketry as a wholesome and educational activity for young people. Supporters say the hobbyists were welcomed with open arms in other Virginia localities.

But the Augusta County group, the Valley Aerospace Team, or VAST, has had some trouble igniting support among boosters. The club was founded in 2005 by Chuck Neff, a mechanical designer. He and about 40 other rocket enthusiasts mentored young people learning the craft and helped them compete in organized events.

Some of the young rocketeers were members of a high school club that competed in regional and national events where rockets carry eggs as payloads. At competition, the goal is to shoot the egg-bearing rocket as high as possible and then, with a parachute, return the egg back to earth, unbroken.

In 2008, the group began launching rockets in weekend events at a 483-acre site near the rural Swoope community west of Staunton. Videos on the club’s website show rockets as tall as NBA players blasting skyward with a loud, rushing “whoosh,” lifting off from what appears to be a deserted meadow. The camera follows the rockets as they slowly parachute back to earth, landing softly on a nearby hillside.

The group’s lawyer, Francis Chester, said the place was almost ideal – nearly flat land surrounded by forest. “We never heard one complaint out of anybody,” Neff said.

Nevertheless, after about a year of uneventful monthly rocket launches at the site, the landowners received a letter from the county zoning administrator saying rocketry was not permitted in an area zoned for agriculture, Neff said.

County planners told club members the solution was a special use permit. The club could apply, put on their case at a public hearing, and the board of zoning appeals would vote. “It was presented to us that this was just a formality that we needed to do,” Neff said.

But more surprises were in store for the rocket club. Just before the 2009 BZA hearing, the county planning staff came out with a recommendation to deny permission for rocket launches.

“Staff was made aware of the rocket activity after receiving complaints about rocket launches, rockets landing on neighboring properties, and club members trespassing on private property to retrieve their equipment,” the staff wrote.

The staff report noted the rockets have no guidance systems and some were as large as 14 feet tall.

“Staff shares the Planning Commission’s concern regarding public safety when rockets of this size are landing on neighboring properties,” the report said.

Neff said the group felt blindsided. They had not heard of any such complaints, nor had the planning staff requested any information about the club’s activities.

Neff believes the staff was listening to citizens protesting, “Not in my back yard!”

“I think they received a few calls from people with NIMBY attitudes,” Neff said. He suspects a few opponents spread misinformation about the rocket launches. “We’ve since been told by some people who were opposed to us that they were misled.”

The club fired back with a nine-page response, emphasizing the safety of the rocket hobby. “[T]he large size of some hobby rockets can be surprising … and is likely responsible for the Staff’s misconceptions that there is associated un-managed risk involved. However as the approximately 50-year history of organized rocketry bears out, such reactions are a product of misplaced fear, and have no basis in fact or history,” the club wrote. “VAST is putting its future existence in the hands of the Board and asks that they consider the hobby’s long-standing safety record and the site-specific facts to be the overriding decisive factor in regards to the question of public safety.”

While the club presented its case at the board hearing, the opponents also showed up in force.

Nearby resident Jeanie Hoffman presented a petition in opposition with 100 names, according to a report in The (Waynesboro) News Virginian. “This does not fit Swoope,” she told the board. Hoffman said her horse “became unglued” at the sound of the rockets, the paper reported. Another resident said his livestock was startled by the launches.

Club members, without counsel, tried to refute the concerns. Neff is especially adamant about the safety issue. “We follow a strict safety code that our national organizations have established for us,” Neff said. “This is the safest hobby there is. There has never been a death or serious injury as a result of an organized rocketry event.”

Despite the club’s arguments, the board voted 3-to-1 to deny the request for the special use permit.

Neff complained the board didn’t give the rocket club the same consideration it gave to other special use applicants. “We invited them to come to our last launch. Not one person from the staff came and not one person from the Board of Zoning Appeals came. Nobody,” Neff said. “It’s just a very arbitrary decision on their part.”

Neff also argued the board used the wrong standard in its findings.

Finding a lawyer to challenge the board’s decision, however, was difficult, Neff said. “None of them wanted to take on the county. They wouldn’t even look at it,” Neff said.

Finally, Neff spoke to Chester.

Chester told Neff he would help the rocket club challenge the decision. “He couldn’t stand that we were being treated the way we were,” Neff said.

The appeal of the denial went to Judge Victor V. Ludwig, who appointed Waynesboro attorney Timothy C. Carwile to review the record and conduct a hearing. As a commissioner, Carwile was to report to the court with findings of fact and conclusions of law.

Carwile’s six-page report, dated Nov. 29, recommended the judge affirm the denial of the special use permit for the rocket club.

Anyone who challenges a board of zoning appeals decision “faces a daunting burden of proof” under Virginia law, Carwile wrote. Under the state code, the decision is presumed to be correct. Overcoming that presumption means showing the board was in error on the law or that its decision was “plainly wrong” and in violation of the purpose and intent of the zoning ordinance.

Both sides offered substantial evidence at the hearing, Carwile found. The record, he said, was sufficient to support the BZA’s decision to deny the special use permit sought by the rocket club.

Nevertheless, Carwile took a few shots at the board’s meager record of its decision process. “[T]he BZA members’ comments and reasoning underlying its decision to deny VAST’s request, as reflected in the minutes, are brief in the extreme, to be charitable.” He noted in a footnote the BZA would be well-advised to consider making written findings in appropriate cases.

Publicity about VAST’s troubles began to provoke rumbles of support from other quarters. The club was welcomed at rocket launch events in Wise County and Highland County. Wise County Circuit Court Clerk J. Jack Kennedy Jr. took up their cause, bringing Neff and other Augusta County organizers to Wise County to help with rocket activities there.

Del. Terry G. Kilgore, R-Gate City, a supporter of the Wise County rocket club, said he called his colleague, Del. Benjamin L. Cline, R-Amherst, whose district includes part of Augusta County, to urge him to talk to local officials. “I told him we had some interest down here, and I hoped they could work something out,” Kilgore said.

A Dec. 13 meeting may have produced a plan to resolve the conflict. County attorney Patrick J. Morgan proposed the rocket club submit a new permit application. “It may be they could come up with a different way of presenting the application that might lead to a different outcome,” he said.

Neff described a change of heart by the county bureaucracy. “They more or less basically said the staff will support it this time and recommend approval by the board of zoning appeals,” Neff said.

Neff said media reports and the encouragement offered by Highland and Wise Counties may have led Augusta County officials to view the rocket club in a new light. “We’re seeing it as a positive step in the right direction,” he said.

After the meeting with the county’s attorney and zoning administrator, Chester said he hopes the club will be allowed to stage a rocket demonstration for the BZA to show the launch noise is minimal. “I just came away with a very positive feeling of cooperation,” Chester said.

Neff plans to file an application in time to be heard at the February BZA meeting. In the meantime, the two sides will ask the judge not to rule on the pending appeal. “Patrick and I have agreed to contact the judge. We’re putting our appeal on hold,” Chester said.

As Neff points out, even with county staff now taking a more favorable view of the rocket club, there is no guarantee of a favorable board decision. “We want to go out and speak with some of the people who opposed us the first time and give them a better idea of what we’re about,” he said.

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