One of the more controversial elements in Manassas Park’s “generous” settlement offer to Dave Ruttenberg, before he prevailed in court, was that the city would promise to give a buyer a conditional use permit. This is sort of a strange element in the agreement, given that the city council is required to evaluate all requests for conditional use permits fairly, and is not legally allowed to promise that a conditional use permit would be granted without seeing the supporting documentation for the request. It also seems to indicate that the city was improperly denying conditional use permit requests on a basis other than the requests themselves. This weekend I got a chance to talk to someone who could provide some additional information about this, and unsurprisingly it looks like the worst is happening.
This prospective buyer was contacted by Will Armstrong of the Planning and Zoning Commission soon after the buyer filed for an ABC license at the Rack N’ Roll location in February. Mr. Armstrong told this person that they’d need a conditional use permit, and have to show a security plan and a strategy for “keeping the drugs out”. A little taken aback by this unusual request, the buyer pressed Mr. Armstrong to explain just why this would be necessary, but Mr. Armstrong refused to explain, saying that the issue was in active litigation and he wasn’t at liberty to discuss it. Although Mr. Armstrong repeated that the city would be fair in it’s consideration of a request for a conditional use permit, he wouldn’t say whether the city would be open to the idea of having a pool hall at this location, and eventually referred the buyer to Mayor Frank Jones.
So here’s a city official who calls out of the blue, hints that there’s some major drug problem going on, and refuses to discuss it. How many buyers would give up and try to do something else after something this strange happened?
The buyer persisted and called Mayor Frank Jones. While Jones expressed a concern that he didn’t want the “problems” to effectively transfer over to the new ownership, he also refused to discuss what those problems might be and reinforced Mr. Armstrong’s opinion that a detailed plan to keep drug activity out of the business would be required before granting a conditional use permit. That permit would of course be fairly considered, he said. But this unusual requirement stood.
A little later, there’s a story that city attorney Dean Crowhurst told Mr. Ruttenberg’s attorney that “that woman will never get a permit”. There’s only one prospective buyer who was a woman at the time. She hadn’t yet filed the paperwork for a conditional use permit. But our prospective buyer in this story wasn’t going to get it regardless, it would appear.
This sort of puts this settlement offer into perspective. While not openly violating the city code by failing to consider a prospective business owner’s permits, injecting a fair amount of innuendo that the location is a drug hotspot can easily chase away prospective buyers. Even if someone wasn’t scared off, there’s at least some evidence to suggest that the council wouldn’t give fair consideration to the permit request. I’m sure everyone involved can come up with rational-sounding reasons why they’d approve or disapprove a request as a cover for their real motivations, and explain how in only a few instances prospective buyers of a business would be required to complete extra paperwork that other buys of other businesses would not. The actual circumstances here would make such excuses look a little thin, though.
Why might this all be important, other than it’s just plain wrong to harass a business owner this way? Because Dave Ruttenberg needs to sell that business in order to finance his legal challenge against the city. They know how tough his financial situation is. If they can starve him of funds through regulatory malfeasance, he might not be able to continue his challenge. That is unless a public interest legal organization decides to take up this case, which may well happen.
There are about five stories involving prospective buyers being chased away by the city because of this behavior. Now item one in the settlement offer makes a lot more sense.
UPDATE: The Agitator has more here.
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