By Stefanie Jackson – Cheriton town council members unanimously decided June 26 to take matters into their own hands concerning stormwater drainage issues, but the decision didn’t get the unanimous approval of residents.
“It is a massive conflict of interest that you’re voting on any of this,” citizen Nancy Brauer informed the council Wednesday night.
She was referring to the council’s decision to start the first phase of its drainage project on the private property of Cheriton United Methodist Church, though some council members are involved in that church, including Councilman Robert “Bo” Lewis, its head of trustees.
The Virginia Department of Transportation does not have the required easements to perform maintenance on all town ditches, so the council voted Wednesday night to seek permanent easements for two drainage areas that need repair or maintenance.
To obtain the easements, the town will need signed permission from the property owners, or, in the case of the church, the head of trustees – Lewis.
The first area is Phase 1A, where a drain pipe leads from Sunnyside Road to Wilson Road, cutting across the Cheriton United Methodist Church lot.
The second area is Phase 1B, which runs behind Pine View Road, leading from Sunnyside Road to Huntington Road.
Mayor Larry LeMond defended the council’s decision to remove the drain pipe from the church’s property and dig a ditch there instead.
He said the town attorney had been consulted, and it is not illegal for Lewis to vote for the project at the church even though he belongs to the congregation. Lewis may choose whether or not he recuses himself, LeMond said.
Councilman Matthew Yancy asked Brauer if she could accept that answer.
“Based on what I’ve been told here, I believe he is not doing anything illegal,” she said of Lewis.
“I think it is outrageously unethical. But unethical and illegal are two different things,” Brauer said.
Cheriton United Methodist Church originally had a drainage ditch on its property. The ditch was deemed a safety hazard, and the town spent $12,000 in 2003 or 2004 to install a drain pipe and fill in the ditch.
But the drainage issues persisted, and it was believed that tree roots were to blame or sections of the drain pipe had separated, LeMond wrote in a letter to Brauer last year.
The town will spend $3,500 to remove the drain pipe and reopen the ditch.
Former councilman Wesley Travis objected to the council deciding to seek permanent easements on private property without soliciting public input.
He likened the easements to “eminent domain.”
“You come in my mama’s backyard without her knowing about it … My mom will pull a gun on you,” Travis said.
Councilwoman Norma Spencer said no property owner is obligated to grant an easement, and the purpose of the easement is simply to allow the town to clean out the ditches (or hire a contractor to do the work).
“This town’s been talking about ditches for years and years and years, about the drainage,” LeMond said. “This council is trying to do something about the drainage, OK? And we’re trying to do it right.”
Yancy believed citizens’ objections were due to a “lack of understanding.”
Brauer suggested the council could avoid misunderstandings in the future by using the town website to keep citizens informed, “so it’s not just, ‘Well, if you don’t come to the meeting, you’re out of luck.’”
Phases 1A and 1B are just the beginning of Cheriton’s drainage project. If the town is successful obtaining the first two easements, more phases will follow.
Travis reminded the council that the town has an existing easement in the area between Huntington Road and Bayside Road, which would “solve half your problem right there.”
Town officials are searching for the legal documentation of the easement.