Stephanie Porter-Nichols | Smyth County News and Messenger
Neighbors say the two properties and the actions taking place there pose threats to their health, safety and general well-being. County leaders are asking the courts to intervene.
Last week, the Board of Supervisors heard from several people about plots of land in the camp community and another in Chilhowie. The supervisors held a public hearing on the possibility of declaring the two sites as public nuisances. Neighbors and former neighbors were unwavering in their opinion that the properties presented threats to others.
The Chilhowie site in question is located at 500 Riverside Road, once the site of a house that burned down.
Clegg Williams, the county’s zoning administrator, said at some point after the fire campers were moved out, but they have no electricity or sewage system.
For months, neighbors have complained of excessive and disturbing noise, litter, human faeces burned on open fires, people urinating and defecating in the open air, harassment and damage to property and to the environment.
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Tiffany Waddell said she lived next door to the property but moved because people staying there threatened her children and made offensive sexual gestures towards her mother.
A neighbour, Anne Marie Koger, who continues to live nearby, told supervisors the situation was “out of control”. She also talked about being threatened, taking a protective order, having a security system installed, and feeling unable to even sit on her own porch.
She told officials she saw some of the people who stayed on the property throw oil and tires into the river, which is an area populated by trout. However, she said, people cannot fish in the river because of the smell of burning excrement.
“No one should have to live in these conditions,” she said.
Supervisor Mike Sturgill, who represents the District of Chilhowie, told people he was sorry they had to endure these conditions, but the county would push to fix the issue.
The county began addressing the situation last spring through its zoning ordinance. On May 27, 2021, Williams wrote to Reva Presley, the owner of the land according to tax records, advising her that the county had received a complaint that someone was living in an RV on the property, which is in violation of the ordinance that says campers or recreational vehicles cannot be used as permanent residences.
This letter, which was sent to the address on his tax records, was returned in June as undeliverable.
On September 23, 2021, the county filed a lawsuit in Smyth County Circuit Court against Presley. The complaint cited the alleged violation of the zoning ordinance.
The complaint noted that the county received a report “that someone was living in the RV and using the bathroom in plain sight, washing clothes and taking baths in the river, as well as making noises loud all night.”
The complaint asked the court to order the defendants to remedy all violations and to impose fines and/or orders to the extent permitted.
The case was significantly slowed because Presley could not be found to serve the legal documents on him. Attempts to serve her began in late September 2021 and failed until Scot Farthing, the county attorney, hired a private contractor to find and serve her. This service took place on February 1, 2022.
After last week’s hearing, supervisors voted to declare the site a public nuisance.
Williams told those gathered that he and Farthing would work to have the matter brought to court, an order issued and the property cleaned up.
However, on Tuesday he said the cleanup might not happen as quickly as many people would like.
“There are a lot of variables that will determine the ultimate schedule,” Williams said. “In short, it will take several months. The process begins with Scot [Farthing] filing a motion with the Court requesting a hearing date. From there, there are generally two possible paths. If the owner comes forward and makes a convincing case, the Court has historically given them some time to bring the property into compliance. If they don’t show up or if they don’t clean up the property within the time the judge gave them, we usually ask for an order to abate the nuisance ourselves. If the judge grants our request, I have to solicit bids from several contractors to clean up the property. Once cleaned and depending on certain specifics, we will then file a lien on the property, or file for possession of the property.
Earlier, Williams had said, if cleanup costs and back taxes owed on the land exceeded its value, the land would be sold on the courthouse steps. If they don’t exceed the property values, the county will place a lien on it to recover its expenses.
Supervisors also said the property at 243 Quail Run in Sugar Grove was a public nuisance.
At a public hearing on Thursday, they heard from neighbors, who said the problems had been going on for years. They said more than 500 used tires lie on the ground and the water in them attracts rodents, mosquitoes and snakes. They also raised concerns that a nearby creek could be polluted and that nearby National Forest lands, including Hale Lake and Comers Rock, and Virginia Highlands Horse Trail are at risk. They expressed their fears of a fire starting in the tires.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), “tire fires often become major hazardous incidents affecting entire communities, frequently requiring neighborhood evacuations and lengthy fire suppression operations. These fires threaten air, soil and water pollution. The EPA, states, municipalities and private companies have spent millions of dollars cleaning up tire fires across the country. »
Although “the EPA does not consider scrap tires to be hazardous waste,” it notes that “if a tire fire occurs, tires will decompose into hazardous compounds including gases, heavy metals, and petroleum.”
Citing the Rubber Manufacturers Association, the EPA said an “average passenger car tire is estimated to produce over two gallons of oil when burned.”
Diane Grant, representing the Saddlebrook Farms Landowners Association, said she and others worked with Williams on neighboring land issues for about four years. Grant noted that Saddlebrook Farms includes 319 lots with 214 owners. One side of Saddlebrook is adjacent to the National Forest and County Wythe and Carmi Baptist Church are nearby. She described the 243 Quail Run property as a blight on the community.
In addition to Smyth officials, Grant said EPA and state DEQ officials visited. Although she appreciated these visits, she said: “It is time to act.
“Please help us eliminate this environmental threat before it gets worse,” she told supervisors.
Board Vice-Chair Lori Deel, who represents the region, apologized to Grant that it took so long to resolve the issue. Deel expressed frustration with the DEQ, saying the state environmental agency kept referring the issue to the county. Deel issued his own call to action.
Williams told supervisors her office tried to resolve the situation through the zoning ordinance, but was unable to find the owners – a husband, son and daughter, who likely had one. inherited several years ago when Cathy Vanover (Tuggle) Ray, the deeded owner, died. “We tried every possible way,” the zoning administrator said.
Prior to the public hearing, Farthing found an address for the late owner’s daughters and a notice of public hearing was sent to her. She responded earlier this year in writing, saying: ‘I haven’t had an association with this property for 21 years. I want nothing to do with this land. I completely wash my hands of it.
Her brother, Shade Ray, was on the property when authorities issued the notice of public hearing earlier this month. He attended the hearing and told authorities that the problems developed while he was in prison. He described himself as broke and without a driver’s license, but said he had already gotten rid of the scrap metal and was donating the tyres. He noted that it costs $7.50 per tire to dispose of at the transfer station.
According to the county’s website, it costs $2.50 to dispose of each tire under 16 inches; $7.50 for 17-24 inch tires; $13.25 for tires 25 inches or larger and $165 per ton for cut or chipped tires.
Ray told supervisors that if the county gave him time, he would have the grounds cleaned up.
Ray had been released from prison on February 8 after being arrested on a show cause order the day before. Ray is on probation following a prison sentence for grand larceny and statutory burglary.
After supervisors declared the site a public nuisance, Williams told Ray that if he needed to clean up the grounds, he had to do it quickly. In a Feb. 7 memo to County Administrator Shawn Utt, Williams recommended that Ray be given “30 days to completely remove the nuisance. If a plan is submitted and it is not removed within 30 days or no plan is filed, I suggest the property be declared a public nuisance and Scot [Farthing] be entitled to bring an action immediately.