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Conflict questions raised in city

Fredericksburg Planning Commissioner Ed Whelan said City Attorney Kathleen Dooley called him on Friday and told him he should step down.

“She said there is a conflict of interests and I should resign,” he said. But Whelan hadn’t decided whether he would heed her advice.

Dooley’s advice came after it was learned that a company Whelan manages had purchased the Embrey Power Station earlier this week.

As a planning commissioner, Whelan had urged the rezoning of the land in the Mill District. Whelan did not disclose that he was affiliated with the company buying the power plant.

Earlier this week, two City Council members publicly questioned Whelan’s conduct during a meeting without naming him.

Councilman Fred Howe said he was concerned about a “potential for conflict of interests.”

Mayor Mary Katherine Greenlaw then suggested the matter be dropped until they received additional information from Planning Director Chuck Johnston.

Since December, Whelan has led an effort to get properties in the Mill District in the Princess Anne Corridor rezoned.

He manages the Inn at the Olde Silk Mill, which is in that district, and this week city officials learned that his extended family just bought another property in that area.

Whelan said on Friday that he is the manager for Dreamland, the limited liability company that purchased the former Virginia Electric and Power Co.’s Embrey Power Station property last week, but he is not an owner.

However, he never made a formal declaration during Planning Commission meetings over the past few months that he was involved in negotiations for the property, city officials said.

On Dec. 11, when he initiated the rezoning suggestion, he publicly declared that he had a stake in the Inn at Olde Silk Mill operation.

He signed a “conflicts of interest act declaration” as required by Virginia law and stated at the Planning Commission’s meeting that evening that he felt he could “participate in the transaction fairly, objectively and in the public interest.”

He stated the nature of his interest as: “I provide business/hotel management services to property within the district (Inn at Olde Silk Mill).”

He didn’t do that for the Embrey Power Station property, though he said on Friday that he had been involved in that purchase for “no more than 60 days.”

The inn is located in the 170o block of Princess Anne Street. The Embrey Power Station is located nearby on almost 4 acres along the Rappahannock River near the intersection of Caroline and Ford streets.

On Friday, Whelan said he made comments about the plant property at commission meetings without providing specifics.

“I said there were two properties under contract, willing to sell,” he said.

Whelan said he consulted City Attorney Dooley before initiating the rezoning suggestion in December so he would know how to proceed. He said he also consulted the city’s commonwealth’s attorney.

“I don’t think I did anything wrong,” he initially told The Free Lance–Star on Friday, but then said, “It doesn’t look good.

“It’s not the letter of the law, but it looks bad with the power plant,” he said. “I don’t think I should resign and I’ll make a statement to explain it” at the next commission meeting.

State law says that a public official “may participate in the transaction if he is a member of a business, profession, occupation, or group of three or more persons the members of which are affected by the transaction” if he complies with the declaration requirements.

More than three property owners are impacted by the proposed rezoning, according to a memo prepared by Johnston.

Rezonings are often requested by developers seeking adjustments to meet their project’s needs. However, the Planning Commission can initiate the process.

If it does, that removes the city’s ability to seek proffers or specific restrictions on a development.

Two rezoning options were discussed for the Mill District and Whelan had repeatedly weighed in on both options, Johnston said.

Whelan said Friday that he was trying to work in the best interest of the city by trying to create a zoning in the Mill District that might spur development.

Council members said they don’t disagree with the idea of rezoning that area but didn’t like what they were hearing about how it had moved forward.

“If it’s brought up by a member and it’s project-specific, that doesn’t pass the smell test,” Councilman Brad Ellis said at Tuesday’s meeting.

Councilwoman Bea Paolucci initially defended Whelan, but after learning about his involvement in the Embrey Power Station property distanced herself.

She said in an email to council members on Thursday that she spoke to Whelan months ago about the rezoning but “he never mentioned he was in discussion to purchase the power plant.”

On Tuesday, Howe suggested the rezoning should be considered as part of the full review currently underway of the city’s Comprehensive Plan and asked Johnston to tell the Planning Commission to put the matter on hold.

The Mill District rezoning is on the agenda for Wednesday’s Planning Commission.

In his memo to the commission, Johnston recommends tabling the issue and recommends that Whelan declare whether he has a conflict of interests and, if so, refrain from any discussion and vote.

Whelan said Friday afternoon that he hadn’t decided what he will do.

“I’ve offered to resign but I don’t think I did anything wrong,” he said. “I’m going to do whatever is best for the city.”

Pamela Gould: 540/735-1972