- Last Updated on Wednesday, 01 April 2009 19:08
- Published on Wednesday, 01 April 2009 19:08
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The Westmoreland County Board of Zoning Appeals gathered for the 9 o’clock meeting this Monday morning but the session ended almost as soon as it began. On March 27 Joe Thompson’s lawyers withdrew the appeal whose consideration had been the purpose of that special meeting.
The county government maintained that it officially received the letter from the attorneys on Monday morning. On Monday afternoon the county’s Industrial Development Authority met with The O’Gara Group’s attorney, Senator Richard Stuart, and voted to extend the purchase contract’s closing date from April 1 to July 1, when O’Gara Group is also expected to close on its purchase of an adjacent tract.
It became understood on Monday that O’Gara Group had initially expected to close on its purchase of both the Chandler property and the county government’s industrial shell building and surrounding 25 acres on April 1.
According to Senator Stuart, O’Gara Group will pay car dealer Bryan Chandler $2.5 million for the 325-acre tract. Westmoreland County expects to receive $629,178 for its unoccupied industrial shell building and the last 25 acres of the park’s as yet undeveloped publicly owned land.
Westmoreland residents and most members of the county’s Industrial Development Authority knew nothing about the local government’s 18-month negotiations with O’Gara Group until a late night meeting on January 12, when the Authority approved an initial sales agreement.
Public opposition to the self-described security training facility’s intentions to locate in Westmoreland County was immediate. Two years earlier another corporation engaged in similar paramilitary training operations drew fire from local residents and subsequently withdrew its interest in a possible purchase of the industrial park and Chandler properties.
During 2007 a paramilitary-styled training establishment known as Crucible sustained a setback in Stafford County when questions were raised concerning the proposed facility’s ability to satisfy the local zoning’s definition of a school.
The question initially before the Westmoreland County Board of Zoning Appeals this Monday contained echoes of the years-old Stafford litigation whose outcome is still pending in the courts.
Westmoreland County’s local government is in possession of a twenty-some page opinion paper that carries a September 2008 date and is being attributed to the jurisdiction’s late Director of Planning, Gary Ziegler. The document maintains that the facility O’Gara Group hopes to establish is a school.
If the facility is in fact a school, O’Gara Group can locate on the unoccupied industrial shell building property and Chandler land without ever having to go through a public hearing process. Its intended operations would be a by-right use.
On Monday afternoon Senator Stuart revealed that O’Gara Group and the county government anticipated a Board of Zoning Appeals’ concurrence with the Ziegler opinion when that afternoon’s Industrial Development Authority session was scheduled for the purpose of gaining time to resolve a likely appeal of the Board of Zoning Appeals’ determination in the courts.
Some O’Gara project opponents previously expressed concern that the Board of Zoning Appeals proceeding would be no more than an exercise in futility because county officials knew which way the vote would go before the meeting was convened.
Another source close to The Journal maintained that a local Board of Zoning Appeals had no statutory authority to even entertain Joe Thompson’s question concerning the Ziegler opinion that O’Gara’s intended establishment is in fact a school.
The Thompson attorneys’ March 27 letter withdrawing the appeal keeps the central question open. The opinion document attributed to Ziegler is characterized as “only a generalized decision about land uses for schools and military forces.”
According to Thompson’s attorneys, the document attributed to Ziegler contains other defects that support the local government’s need to develop a more detailed rationale for maintaining the proposed facility’s characterization as a school that can be established on those properties by right.
Thompson’s appeal to the Board of Zoning Appeals, the March 27 letter additionally explained, was withdrawn at least in part because the county government could not provide the Board of Zoning Appeals with the documentation it needed to render a relevant decision. Its members would be asked instead to engage in futile speculation.
Thompson’s lawyers advised the local government of their intention to “seek a future decision from the zoning administrator based on the specifics of the O’Gara proposal.” The attorneys will ask the county government to provide them with a copy of the letter of compliance that the county promised to issue to O’Gara Group in the January 12 and March 30 purchase agreements.
Such a “letter of compliance” would provide O’Gara with the local government’s assurance that the land O’Gara purchased could in fact be used as the site of the intended tactical training facility.
Late on Monday afternoon County Attorney Tom Bondurant told The Journal and a Westmoreland County Citizens Association officer that there isn’t going to be any future opinion on the pending question concerning the proposed establishment’s ability to meet local ordinance’s definition of a school.
“Then we’ll have to pursue our legal options,” homeowner Joe Thompson said when apprised of Bondurant’s response still later on Monday afternoon.
Westmoreland Industrial Development Authority members Paul Tsompanas, Bryan Oliff, Dick Allison, Jimmy Latane and Rebecca Gillions attended the 3 o’clock meeting on Monday afternoon. All four men voted to extend the purchase contract. Rebecca Gillions declined to participate in the March 30 vote.
The English Building meeting room was packed during that session. Three uniformed Sheriff’s Office deputies were present and it was understood that most of the private citizens attending the session were unhappy about the O’Gara Group’s intentions to consummate the deal.
O’Gara Group’s Jim Noe had meet with local residents several weeks earlier. Citizens characterized Noe as a very personable young man but few if any of the 75-100 private citizens attending that highly cordial question and answer session went away convinced that O’Gara Group would be good for the people of Westmoreland.