Southwest Virginia Wildlife Center zoning battle draws to a close

The board of zoning appeals dismissed the case against the local nonprofit.

ROANOKE, Va. – One part of the zoning battle against the Southwest Virginia Wildlife Center came to a close on Wednesday night. 

The board of zoning appeals dismissed the case against the center on the grounds that the center's neighbors, who brought the case, did not have proper grounds to do so. The center gets to stay right where it's at, but will need to go through other hurdles to complete planned expansion.

About 175 people were in attendance for the decision, and the room where the meeting was held reached fire code capacity. Due to the large number of people in attendance, those who could not make it into the room filled the hallway outside of the meeting.

The board chairman said in his four decades on the board, he had never seen anything quite like what happened Wednesday night. At some points the room felt more like a courtroom as lawyers argued their sides rather than an appeal hearing. According to the board, this case did not fall under their jurisdiction because it is not a land use matter. 

It's all about taking care of what's holding you, or in this case, your wings, back, at the Southwest Virginia Wildlife Center of Roanoke. But it's hard for them to help when their own wings feel a little clipped.

"Having neighbors that moved in and now want to be concerned has been very concerning," Southwest Virginia Wildlife Center of Roanoke Executive Director Sabrina Garvin said. "We've been there, we've been doing this."

The center wants to expand, building a new place for birds to practice flying and spread their wings. Two neighbors however, stepped up to say not so fast, and then decided that they think the entire center shouldn't even be in it's current location. But Wednesday night the Roanoke County Attorney's Office pumped the brakes on that claim.

"The zoning administrator issued the determinations and when it is appealed we discussed whether it was an appropriate appeal and we consider it as we do in ever instance whether the person appealing has the right to do so," Roanoke County Senior Assistant Attorney Peter Lubeck said.

Lubeck argued the neighbors, the Seymours who own two properties, and the Creasys and Mavers who jointly own the third property, lack standing to bring the appeal because they are not impacted in a big enough way by the current zoning. Lubeck pointed out a lack of financial impact as well a lack of the wildlife center impeding the neighbors from enjoying any of their own personal property rights.

Attorneys for the neighbors argued that they were impacted directly, and in a big way, particularly because of all neighbors shared use of a private road. However, the county board of zoning appeals unanimously agreed with Lubeck and passed a motion to dismiss the appeal.

"We really got into a lot of discussion about land use policies which is really beyond our purview," Roanoke County board of zoning appeals Chairman Richard Jones said. "That's up to the board of supervisors and the planning commission to handle those types of issues."

The attorneys representing the neighbors and the neighbors themselves offered no comment after the decision was made. The center posted a message on Facebook about 24 hours before the meeting, publicly discussing the dispute for the first time, asking for community support. So many people answered that call that half of them were forced to wait in the hallway due to occupancy restrictions. And for many of them it was quite the schooling on zoning, a topic that usually flies under the radar.

"I don't care to learn much more about this, but I know we have many more hurdles to go through with the planning commission and the board of supervisors," Garvin said. "But hopefully it won't be as traumatic as tonight."

The center is moving forward with its plans to build the new bird aviary. That plan needs approval from the planning commission and the board of supervisors. Lubeck noted the neighbors are more than welcome to air their complains on the plan in those two forums. The planning commission public hearing is scheduled for Sept. 4th.

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