High court rules in favor of Wilton project

The Virginia Supreme Court said neighbors had no standing to sue Roanoke over the development.

By Mason Adams, The Roanoke Times – April 19, 2008

The Virginia Supreme Court ruled Friday that Roanoke city officials did not violate state law when they allowed regulatory variations for the upscale Wilton in South Roanoke subdivision.

The court also ruled that a group of neighbors who took the city to court over the development did not have legal standing to do so.

The ruling is considered a sweeping victory for the city and removes the last legal hurdle for the Wilton project, which since 2004 has fueled a neighborhood dispute.

“It was gratifying the court agreed with our argument 100 percent,” Roanoke City Attorney Bill Hackworth said.

Alexander Boone, president of Boone Homes, said he was “pleased” with the ruling.

“Now that we’ve received the court’s decision, we’re going to get together next week and decide how to proceed,” Boone said. “But the court’s decision is a green light to continue with the development of Wilton.”

The case started in 2006 when 16 residents of the affluent Peakwood Drive neighborhood, which adjoins the planned subdivision near U.S. 220 South, sued the city and one of the region’s pre-eminent developers, Len Boone.

Much of the dispute had centered on the route of the Peakwood Drive South Roanoke access road into the Wilton subdivision and its homes, to be valued at $500,000 and up.

The Peakwood residents say the access road into Wilton would ruin their long-established, cozy neighborhood because of increased traffic and safety concerns that would follow.

Their lawsuit alleged that city officials were so enamored of the potential tax revenue from the Wilton project that they broke their own planning regulations in an effort to move the project forward. The accusations stem from 2004, when then-planning director Brian Townsend, acting as an agent of the planning department, granted Boone several variations from the city’s subdivision ordinance, including a steeper 16 percent grade on the access road, narrow streets, extra-long cul-de-sac streets and long street blocks.

In October 2006, Roanoke Circuit Court Judge Charlie Dorsey ruled Townsend did have the authority to make those decisions on the city’s behalf.

The Supreme Court agreed.

The Peakwood Drive neighbors had also argued the city’s guidelines for Townsend weren’t specific enough. The Supreme Court, however, ruled the guidelines were “good enough,” said Virginia Beach lawyer and legal expert Steven Emmert, who analyzes state Supreme Court decisions.

“That’s a major win for local governments,” Emmert said. “It means local bodies won’t have to micromanage day-to-day land-use decisions when they can entrust that to a local government official.”

Perhaps more importantly from a statewide standpoint, the Supreme Court also ruled that the neighbors technically had no standing to bring the action.

The ruling, Emmert said, now precludes neighbors from suing one another over a locality’s land-use laws — a possibility he said could turn into a “nightmare.”

“If you can imagine, think of the last neighborhood dispute you heard about that turned ugly,” Emmert said. “Imagine that dispute going thermonuclear because one neighbor measures the other’s garage from the property line and says it’s nine feet when government requires 10 feet. If you allow private parties to enforce that, you’re opening up a tremendous can of worms.”

Although the ruling went entirely the city’s way, Dorsey’s decision was technically “affirmed in part, reversed in part, vacated in part [and] dismissed in part.” Emmert wrote on his Web site that “I’ve never seen so many different taglines in a single case before.”

In a news release, developer Boone wrote that the Wilton case was “symbolic of a perspective and mind-set that, through the efforts of a very vocal yet small minority, is pervasive in our community.”

He wrote that projects such as the Wilton subdivision, Keagy Village, the Norfolk Southern intermodal facility and Carilion Clinic “all face undue criticism, backlash and negativity.”

” ‘Not in My Backyard’ is an attitude we face regularly when it comes to any development in the Roanoke Valley, be it residential, commercial or industrial,” Boone wrote.

Richard Cranwell, an attorney for the plaintiffs in the case, could not be reached for comment Friday.