VERONA — The Augusta County Board of Zoning Appeals voted to table the decision to affirm, reverse or modify the decision by county Zoning Administrator Sandra Bunch to allow Flow Hydration to operate without a special use permit on the Seawright Springs facility located at 40 Seawright Road in Mount Sidney.
More than a dozen Mount Sidney residents addressed the board, along with Bunch and the legal representatives for Flow Hydration, Augusta County and The Friends of Seawright Springs — which is a loose collection of residents who have supported legal action against the new operation.
Bunch allowed Flow to use the springs to pump less than 100,000 gallons of water a day with less than 12 truck trips per day, based on a 1996 zoning letter, she reaffirmed when she addressed the board.
However, Mount Sidney residents contend that those levels of water withdrawal or truck traffic were never remotely reached by any company operating at the springs.
The property is zoned for general agriculture and does not require a special use permit to withdraw water from a property, Bunch said.
Bunch also mentioned other documents she used in her decision-making process, including a 2018 letter confirming retraction of water as a by-right use from the 1996 document and a 2009 zoning letter.
Michael Sharp, the legal representative for the Friends of Seawright Springs, asserted that extraction is not listed on the 1996 zoning letter.
The letter refers to a certificate, but the county admits that it cannot find the certificate, which is the basis for the vested right of Flow to extract water from the spring.
“We’re talking about a zoning certificate, that we don’t even have a copy of, that was referenced in a cover letter, that was issued to someone who never even owned the property and that’s what we’re relying on,” Sharp said.
The decision to sell the property to Flow was made in December 2018 and residents claimed they were not informed until April, when they heard about the project announced in a press release from the office of Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam.
Residents said they had reached out to county officials to find out what was going on at the springs, but the county could not inform them about the project based on procedures for grants from the state.
Flow received $250,000 grant from the state Oppornity Board and has promised to bring 51 jobs to the area. So far, the company has hired 28 employees, according to Hawthorne.
Sharp argued that though the residents did not appeal the decision within 30 days as the state requires, courts have previously ruled in favor of residents who could not have known about projects until after the 30 days had passed.
Hawthorne argued that the residents had no standing to challenge Flow because they do not count as an “aggrieved party,” a requirement for appealing a zoning decision in state law §15.2-2311.
Shaun Mooney, a member of the Friends of Seawright Springs, also presented evidence to the board about the lack of use of the springs, claiming that the restrictions allowed in the 1996 letter far exceed any operations that happened at the site in previous years.
“We’re not asking for Flow and their project to be discontinued,” Mooney said. “The request is for a reset— to go back through the process and to ensure that the concerns of the residents and people in the community have those things addressed.”
Mooney and other residents reiterated issues with the project, such as increased truck traffic and water loss during Flow’s withdrawal of water — a major concern for residents in a community that relies on well water.
Sharp agreed with Mooney, calling it “ludicrous,” that residents around the property are not aggrieved by the supposed increase in water withdrawal at the location.
Flow has a vested, in other words, unconditional, right in the property, Hawthorne said, citing documents Bunch spoke about earlier in the meeting. Sharp disagreed, arguing again that the specific terms in the 1996 letter do not include water extraction.
Hawthorne declined to comment following the meeting and the Daily News-Record was unable to get a comment from Sharp by press time.
Members of the board cannot discuss the appeal between more than two of each other at one time and have 90 days to address the issue.