CHESTERTOWN — As Minary’s Dream Alliance moves closer and closer to finalizing its planned purchase of the Chestertown American Legion building, a neighborhood group is taking its concerns about traffic and activities to the Kent County Board of Zoning Appeals.
The Board of Zoning Appeals will hold a hearing at 7 p.m. Monday, July 19 on issues raised starting at least last fall by nearby residents Thomas Voshell, Gerry Docksteader, Karen Kemp-Docksteader and the Chesmar Community Association.
The hearing is open to the public and will be held in the County Commissioners Hearing Room in the R. Clayton Mitchell Jr. Government Center, 400 High St., Chestertown. It will be livestreamed through the county’s website or members of the public can join a conference call.
Located on American Legion Drive, the transfer of ownership from the Frank M. Jarman American Legion Post 36 to Minary’s Dream Alliance has been in the works for some time now.
Minary’s Dream Alliance is a community organization founded last year by Paul Tue and Doncella Wilson. It offers family and youth programs, including an effort that has been operating out of the Legion building to deliver food to vulnerable seniors.
“We’re frustrated. But we also understand that anything worth having is worth fighting for and working for, and we plan on doing that. We’re grateful for all the support that we have. We only want to do good things for our young people and our families that are often unaccounted for in our county and we’ll continue to fight the good fight,” Tue said Wednesday, July 14.
Voshell and Chesmar Community Association are the listed applicants for the hearing.
“Applicants allege that, to the extent the American Legion was ever a nonconforming property, its nonconforming status has been abandoned,” Voshell and the Chesmar Community Association state in their application for a Board of Zoning Appeals hearing. “The property owner bears the burden of demonstrating that any use of the property within the Critical Area, that is not permitted in Critical Residential, (1) is legally nonconforming and that (2) the use has not been abandoned for more than one year.”
The process leading up to the hearing appears to have begun last year, according to the nearly 40-page packet of documentation the Kent County Department of Planning, Housing and Zoning has prepared for the July 19 hearing.
In a letter dated Oct. 23 to the planning office and the Kent County Health Department, Kemp-Docksteader wrote that the Legion “is no longer operating as a community/veterans’ organization” and that the property, which was on the market at the time, had “been poorly maintained.”
“Even though the property is listed for sale, use of the building has been ‘rented’ to at least two, possibly three, 3rd party non-profit organizations (NPOs). One of the groups, Food for the Elderly, is using the kitchen to prepare meals, on Thursdays, and distributing them through a process of vans, cars, and trucks driving around the Legion loading from the front door,” Kemp-Docksteader wrote.
“Is this not a blatant violation of zoning? Wouldn’t the property at least have to be brought up to code and meet zoning requirements to be rented since these are 3rd party activities?” she asked in her letter that was copied to the Chesmar Estates Neighborhood Group.
On Nov. 18, County Director of Planning, Housing and Zoning William Mackey offered a followup, stating that the health department had responded to her inquiry and noted that were “no violations identified on the subject property.”
“I’m writing to follow-up on your inquiry regarding whether the use is permitted on the subject property,” Mackey wrote. “It’s my understanding from your correspondence, dated October 23, 2020, that the use of the property has not lapsed. Please note that the use need not be performed by a specific entity, such as the American Legion.”
Mackey wrote that “the typical use” of the Legion property included “aspects like education for families, community services, and youth services including camping” plus “a variety of offerings for veterans, as well as disaster relief assistance.”
“Any purchaser(s) of the property will be able to continue providing these kinds of services described above. If a particular service were considered to be different in kind, there is a process for formal review included in the zoning code,” Mackey wrote.
Responding to Mackey in a letter dated Nov. 23, Kemp-Docksteader wrote about what she described as increased traffic at the Legion building. The letter states that it included a photo taken from Saturday, Nov. 21 of the traffic when Mission Gratitude held a Thanksgiving turkey giveaway, sponsored in part by Minary’s Dream Alliance.
“Since the occupants moved into the Legion property this summer, the traffic volume has steadily grown and I have been told it will increase. This is not the historic use of this property, nor the intent of the original exemption permitting a club/private civic organization hosting meetings and community oriented events on a very limited basis,” she wrote.
“Please advise as to whom we should contact regarding this increasingly concerning situation. Do we have to wait until the property is sold and the situation gets worse?” Kemp-Docksteader continued.
Local attorney Daniel Saunders of the MacLeod Law Group wrote to Mackey on behalf of Voshell, Docksteader and the Chesmar Community Association, on May 25 raising questions of nonconforming use status and the Legion property, arguing that such status provides protections for property owners.
“First it protects property owners that are using their property legally, at the time a zoning ordinance is enacted and the change in law suddenly makes existing use of a property unlawful. Second it protects neighboring property owners by ensuring that nonconforming properties eventually become conforming once legal nonconforming uses are abandoned,” Saunders wrote.
“The County must consider this foundation of the law and whether a decision to grant nonconforming status will, in fact, harm property values of immediately adjacent property owners, especially if nonconforming uses are permitted to expand beyond those uses that were permitted by the American Legion when the property became nonconforming,” he continued.
Google Maps shows the Mallard Drive addresses listed for Voshell and the Docksteaders are both 0.3 miles from the Legion building and do not appear to be directly adjacent to the property.
Saunders argued that in this case, a property that has been historically used for Legion meetings and events “cannot be used for any other non-residential uses.”
“The Department is not aware that the building was abandoned at any time. In my letter, dated November 18, 2020, I explained the package of uses that have been conducted by the American Legion and which any purchaser may continue. If new purchasers planned for new uses in the future, there are processes for formal review included in the zoning code,” Mackey wrote in response to Saunders.
Mackey wrote that in a letter last November to Saunders’ clients “the determination has already been made by the Land Use Ordinance.” He said an application could be made to the Board of Zoning Appeals if Saunders’ clients want “to appeal my determination that the Land Use Ordinance has already addressed the matter.”
Chestertown attorney Stephen Z. Meehan, representing Frank M. Jarman Post 36 American Legion, has filed a motion to dismiss the application arguing that Mackey’s “determination decision was not ripe for appeal.”
“In order for Mr. Mackey’s decision to be an effective final determination subject to appeal, he would first have had to provide the public notice of determination. Until that was complete, there was no final decision to appeal from,” Meehan wrote.
“The Board of Zoning Appeals should dismiss this application and remand the matter to Mr. Mackey to properly comply with the zoning ordinance. The public notice is essential because it provides the public with notice of the determination and an opportunity to appeal to this board,” he continued.
The Social Action Committee for Racial Justice is calling for community members to attend the July 19 hearing in support of Minary’s Dream Alliance (MDA) and its plans to purchase the Legion property.
“MDA has widespread support in our community from many institutions and individuals. Over $600,000 has been raised in 3 months to purchase the property,” the Social Action Committee said in an email.
The agenda, attendance information and meeting packet for the July 19 Board of Zoning Appeals hearing can be found at www.kent county.com/committees/zoningapp.
To learn more about Minary’s Dream Alliance, visit minarysdreamalliance.org.