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Stafford Board of Zoning Appeals defers decision on Crucible

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A development company is challenging whether an anti-terrorism training center in Stafford has been out of compliance with Stafford County code for a number of years.

Westlake Development LLC owns land adjacent to Crucible, an anti-terrorism training center that has been operating off U.S. 17 for more than 13 years. The county has approved a preliminary plan by Westlake that could bring up to 701 single-family homes on parcels adjacent to Crucible.

Westlake’s questions about Crucible arose when the center asked the county for a conditional-use permit to expand its campus, which currently includes five buildings and five firing ranges.

A decision by the Board of Supervisors on the conditional-use permit was stalled in January when Westlake asked the Stafford zoning administrator to determine whether outdoor weapons training, outdoor explosive detonations and outdoor vehicle defense training are allowed at Crucible.

The zoning administrator said that the outdoor shooting range was permitted, but the use of explosives outdoors and outdoor defense driving weren’t in compliance with the zoning ordinance. Lawyers for Crucible said they didn’t appeal any of the decisions on the outdoor explosives and the outdoor defense driving by the zoning administrator because Crucible wasn’t planning to do those things at its site in Stafford.

Westlake appealed the administrator’s decision that the shooting range was a permitted use to the Stafford Board of Zoning Appeals. The zoning administrator said that since a certificate of approval for a shooting range has been approved since 1999, and the most recent certificate wasn’t appealed within the 60-day time period, then the range was permissible.

On Tuesday, the Board of Zoning Appeals deferred a decision until its September meeting. And even though it wasn’t the subject of the public hearing, the board also requested that several complaints from at least five residents about the noise and potential water contamination from lead from Crucible be put into the record.

Michael Coughlin, the attorney representing Westlake, argued that the county’s approval of the outdoor firing range at Crucible for over 10 years had been violating the zoning ordinance. The light industrial zoning of Crucible’s property required all uses on that property to be in enclosed buildings.

“What appears to have been ignored or overlooked is the zoning ordinance that requires these uses to be in enclosed buildings,” Coughlin said. “Therefore, these shooting ranges haven’t … been permitted ever.”

Coughlin said that the zoning ordinance had been in effect before Crucible owned the property, suggesting that Crucible’s outdoor firing range wasn’t a vested right, which would have made it immune to changes in the zoning law.

But lawyers representing Crucible argued that the outdoor shooting range had become a vested right.

“All we have to demonstrate is that the permits were issued … and we have relied on those permits since that time,” said John Walk, the attorney with Hirschler Fleischer representing Crucible.

Crucible’s outdoor firing range had piggybacked off a firing range that the land’s previous owner had on the property, Walk said. That previous owners’ firing range predated the zoning ordinance that required indoor uses. That could have been why the previous zoning administrator signed off on Crucible’s operations, Walk said.

Crucible’s lawyers also pointed to a 2010 zoning verification that said that the training facility had become nonconforming to Stafford code, but that the use may continue. The county produces a zoning verification to detail the history of the property.

Crucible’s and Westlake’s lawyers disagreed over whether that 2010 zoning verification was sufficient enough of a document from the county to make the firing range a vested right.

The Board of Zoning Appeals decisions can be appealed to Stafford Circuit Court.

The Board of Zoning Appeals will take up the issue again in September.

Vanessa Remmers: 540/735-1975


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