Monday, February 15, 2010

Augusta County shuts down Rocket Boys ... 13

Part 13: Community reaction

Please see background in previous posts:
-Part 1 (October Sky), 2 (Who is VAST?), 3 (What is agri-tourism?), 4 (Francis Chester), 5 (Launch location -- Croft Field), 6 (How it began ... anonymous complaint), 7 ("It's only a formality"), 8 (VAST prepares for BZA meeting), 9 (VAST presents case to BZA meeting), 10 (VAST denied Special Use Permit), 11 (Augusta County denies BZA hearing tapes), and 12 (The legal case begins).

The Rocket Boys aka Valley Aerospace Team (VAST) have been shut down in rural western Augusta County, Virginia, since the summer of 2009.

An anonymous complaint that was lodged with the county but never with the rocket club or land owner began a series of events that, although described as "only a formality" by the county, concluded with the Board of Zoning Appeals (BZA) denying a Special Use Permit (SUP) for the Rocket Boys to continue their family-friendly, educational activity.

The county has touted agri-tourism and even state Delegate Steve Landes had an agri-tourism bill pass in this year's Virginia General Assembly. However, agri-tourism in the form of rocketry apparently is not acceptable for Augusta County.

The only local attorney to take the case was Francis Chester (others reportedly were afraid of repercussions from the county ... Mr. Chester was sanctioned in December in the real estate assessment case representing 10,600 citizens pro bono against the county so perhaps other attorneys feared that would happen to them). He filed suit against the BZA and the case is currently pending before Judge Victor Ludwig of the Augusta County Circuit Court.

After the first installment of this Rocket Boys series, I received an email from an Augusta County citizen with some very interesting questions:
Glad to see the rocket club getting some air-time on your BLOG!!! Here's my question, why do you need a permit to persue a non-profit hobby on private property?

If I invite you over to target shoot, do I need a special use permit for a shooting range?!?!? If I have friends over for a weiner roast, do I need a special use permit for outdoor cooking? If a person who has horses invites friends over to ride, do they need a special use permit to operate a stable?
Then there were comments left on the blog. One was puzzled about the county's position in closing down local young people:
I simply don't understand the county's rationale for not letting them continue to lauch the rockets.
Another commenter said:
Back when the land next to us was undeveloped, my son and I shot off rockets right at home. It's actually a pretty safe activity. I don't see the problem, especially given the situation these people have.
There have been calls from folks in the community as well as "water cooler" conversation in groups throughout the SWAC area who do not understand how 500 acres of land could not be enough for an activity like rocket launching, and speculations about those who wield more influence with the Government Center than the everyday citizen.

I contacted Chuck Neff, President of the Valley Aerospace Team, who volunteers with the Rocket Boys to ask for a comment about what has been a frustrating episode in civics, politics, and government. Mr. Neff responded:
"I don't deny that the Board of Zoning Appeals has a difficult task to perform. I do feel, however, that they should be held accountable for their decisions and be expected to perform their duties in a consistent manner.

"This denial was not just a failure of the BZA. The County staff tasked with researching land uses and making recommendations to the Board also failed. How could they raise issues about public safety, noise, and traffic when they knew nothing about our events or the hobby itself?

"We submitted lots of evidence on the excellent safety history of our hobby yet it was not reflected in their report. We held one event (with the Zoning Administrators permission) after the submission of our application(and before the public hearing) in which any of the staff or BZA members could've attended and witnessed first-hand what goes on. Did anyone bother to check us out? Nope!

"We presented the same information about our activities directly to the Board during the public meeting. Why was it again ignored?

"The area where our launch activities occured (Swoope) has one of the lowest population densities in the County. If our activities are not appropriate there, where would be? We do not alter the land whatsoever nor do we affect the current land use. It's still a pasture. Why didn't they table the request as they had done with other requests at previous hearings in order to gather more data or to witness events first-hand?

"I think the answers are obvious. The Board of Zoning Appeals has become accustomed to no one questioning their decisions. They've been forcing their will upon all who have become before them for many years now. VAST refuses to be one of their victims and in the end, I'm confident that justice will prevail and rockets will again soar in the sky over Swoope, the jewel of Augusta County."
"Justice will prevail...."

When a decision has been made by Judge Ludwig, it will be reported here. Until then, the skies are quiet over the rolling hills in the isolated farmland of western Augusta County, and a group of young boys are not allowed to participate in a hobby they love. The Rocket Boys have been silenced.


Unknown said...


Thank you so much for following our "story" and sharing it with your readers. Keep up the great work!

Chuck Neff
Valley AeroSpace Team - President

Lynn R. Mitchell said...

Chuck, the denial of a Special Use Permit to VAST has actually caused more questions than I think the county realizes.

I have been asked if county residents will need to obtain permits for any activity they choose to do on their property. After all, VAST's rocket launchings were taking place on private property (500 acres!) with permission of the owner.

In other words, who decides what activity can take place on private property? Is Big Government ("Big Brother") infringing more and more on the rights of private citizens?

I wish you the best as you deal with a county government that has lost the respect of many in the public.

JackKennedy said...

It there a Rocket Boys Legal Fund? I would like to learn more about this case and file a "Friend of the Court" brief. What is the style of the case so I may request a copy of the Circuit Court file from the court's clerk. Amazing!

Lynn R. Mitchell said...

Mr. Kennedy, you may want to contact the attorney for this case, Francis Chester, at Law Office of Francis Chester-Cestari, PC, 3581 Churchville Avenue, Churchville, VA 24421; phone (540) 337-7270. He can fill you in on what is happening.