By Stefanie Jackson – The Northampton planning commission voted 3-1 Wednesday night to recommend the rejection of John and Linda Cleaveland’s special-use permit application to use their Wellington Neck property to host outdoor weddings.
The decision was made in spite of the argument made by the Cleavelands’ attorney, Carl Eason, that using the agricultural-rural business-zoned property as an event venue is “consistent with the spirit and intent of the comprehensive plan” of Northampton County.
Commissioner Glen Anders made the motion to recommend rejecting the application, seconded by Commissioner Sarah Morgan. Commissioner Andrew Follmer voted in favor of the motion and Commissioner Janet Sturgis abstained, leaving Chairman Dixon Leatherbury as the only vote opposing the motion.
When the Cleavelands first appeared before the planning commission in April, they were not prepared for what Spencer Murray, the chair- man of the Northampton board of supervisors, said “sounded more like an inquisition than it did a hearing.”
At that time, there were more neighbors who opposed the Cleavelands’ proposal than those who supported it. The neighbors believed the event venue would have a high impact on the quiet residential neighborhood.
There were many complaints about the amount of noise and traffic that would be generated by an event venue. There was even speculation that the Cleavelands may build a dock on Nassawadox Creek to draw boat traffic and allow guests to fly in and land on the their private airstrip.
Pat Boyer, a neighbor and friend of the Cleavelands, said Wednesday, “Let’s stop all the nonsense and get the facts straight.”
Since April, the Cleavelands have attempted to start with a clean slate. They submitted a new zoning application completed with the help of engineer John Salm, who also prepared the certified plat accompanying the application.
Regarding safety concerns over the long dirt driveway leading to the Cleaveland home, the couple had agreed to make any necessary road improvements, such as covering the road with gravel or shells, Eason said.
They also agreed to hire an off-duty police officer to conduct traffic control at each event, he added.
But the Cleavelands efforts appeared to be for naught when the opposition to the event venue remained unchanged and planning commissioners said they still felt as if their concerns about noise and road safety issues had not been addressed.
For example, not only was neighbor Evelyn Witick still opposed, but she brought a petition signed by about 30 other neighbors who oppose the event venue.
“We would like to keep it safe and we would like to keep it rural” in Wellington Neck, she said.
Follmer said the “divisiveness” between neighbors on the issue was “unfortunate.” He indicated that he had hoped the Cleavelands would have reached out to neighbors to work out their disagreements, but that had not happened.
Anders added the Cleavelands had not submitted a plan for noise control.
Eason had discussed two other recent instances in which the planning commission approved wedding venues, including the Elkington wedding venue in Eastville run by Elizabeth Dodd Russell, permitted in 2016, and Chelsea Hall in Machipongo, permitted in 2017.
Russell attended Wednesday’s public hearing and voiced her support for another wedding venue to enhance economic development in Northampton County.
Eason said Elkington and Chelsea Hall set a precedent for the Cleavelands, but others disagreed.
Follmer called the argument for establishing a precedent “weak” because not a single person opposed Russell when her application was approved three years ago.
Neither Linda Cleaveland nor John Cleaveland spoke during the public hearing.
The planning commission’s recommendation will be considered by county supervisors at their next regular meeting July 9. They are not obligated to follow the planning commission’s recommendation. They may choose to reject the zoning application as recommended or approve it with or without restrictions as they see fit.