St. James vs. St. Thomas More

There goes the neighborhood, and it looks like it’s due, if not to the hand of God, at least an arm of the Catholic church.

John Stone, a resident of the St. James neighborhood, situated next door to St. Thomas More Church, petitioned Town Council Monday night for help. He said that when council approved the special use permit for St. Thomas More’s massive addition, a condition of the permit was that St. Thomas More leave a 35-foot green buffer zone between the St. James neighborhood and traffic. But now that construction is under way, the 35-foot buffer has been reduced to 5 feet. All the trees have been clear cut and replaced by a 9-foot-high embankment.

St. James neighbors notified town staff of the SUP violation and met with planning department staff on four occasions to remedy the problem, Stone said, to no avail. So the St. James neighbors asked that the town order construction stopped on the St. Thomas More addition until a solution is worked out.

The problem seems to be that a 30-foot OWASA easement was not mentioned in the SUP. St. Thomas More went on the assumption that the buffer includes the OWASA easement; neighbors believe that the buffer starts at the edge of the easement. Because OWASA has rights to the easement, St. Thomas More can’t landscape it or demand that it be preserved as a buffer. Planning director J.B. Culpepper was called to the mike to shed some light on the situation. “We are not aware of any violation,” she said with a chipper smile.

Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt shrugged off the petition with an our-hands-are-tied dismissal. Other council members weren’t quite so sanguine.

Council member Sally Greene expressed surprise that Culpepper was not aware of the situation as council members had been getting e-mails about the problem for weeks, she said. Culpepper backpedaled a bit and conceded that she had been “working with the church on some plantings.”

Council member Matt Czajkowski asked whether the map that accompanied the planning board recommendation showed the easement as part of the buffer. “I don’t have that information,” Culpepper chirped, “but I’ll be happy to bring back a report to council.”

Council member Laurin Easthom, perhaps sensing that the report would be as oblique as Culpepper’s answers, specified that the report state what the planning staff believed about the relation of the buffer to the easement when staff presented the SUP request to council. Council member Jim Ward worried about the timeliness of a report while construction continued. Culpepper offered to e-mail her report to council; the dismissive smile never left her face.

Council member Ed Harrison bypassed Culpepper completely and asked town manager Roger Stancil when, exactly, staff would report back to council. “As soon as we can,” Stancil said. Harrison noted, “But this has to come back to a business meeting,” and Stancil grudgingly acknowledged it would.

So it looks like the St. James residents, who followed the rules and put their faith in the system, may lose this fight. The church and its bulldozers will win. Evidently it helps to have God, and Roger Stancil, on your side.
– Nancy Oates

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  1. Bob

     /  May 13, 2010

    Nancy, let me make three observations.

    First, I really doubt God has anything to do with this situation. One reading is that both parties had a different understanding of the buffer, and each acted/reacted consistent with their understanding. The good folks at St. James have a right to be upset. If the St. Thomas More construction folks screwed up, they need to fix the situation now. In this regard, Matt Czajkowski seems to have asked the right question (yet again!). Once we know what the map looks like, it should be reasonably straightforward to address the problem.

    Second, for reasons that are completely unclear to me, planning department staff around southern Orange County seem to have a serious attitude problem with respect to residents and apparently elected officials. I don’t know where this comes from, but my hunch is that if our police and fire department folks acted like this, heads would roll. To say the least, this kind of thing has no place in local government. We don’t work for them; they work for us. In this case, it doesn’t seem far-fetched that the planning staff didn’t really address the buffer issue appropriately. Time might tell, if the Council actually follows up on this as they should.

    Third, once again, you have brought to light important aspects of how the town is running that would not be known by anyone reading the local papers carefully. Thank you for doing this. I wonder if the local papers will ever discover how the reporting business really works.

  2. WJ

     /  May 13, 2010

    For what its worth, just want to say Bob’s reply and your post were excellent and very informative.

    Don’t understand your snide reference to God in the last sentence and how that helps you communicate your message?? It doesn’t offend, just sort of grates. Oh well, its your blog.

  3. Geoff Green

     /  May 13, 2010

    I’m looking at the resolution approving the SUP (available here although note that it’s the suggested resolution, not necessarily word-for-word what was enacted), and don’t see anything about a 35-feet buffer. Maybe a 30-feet buffer was changed to 35-feet? Unfortunately this project was approved before the Town put site plan maps on their website as a matter of course, but I found this non-final one from about a month before the project was approved, and don’t see any mention of an OWASA easement or a 35-feet buffer.

    I assume the buffer is by those houses on the left side of the plan? I’m not quite sure how you could double the size of the buffer without making some significant changes to the driveway.

  4. Nancy Oates

     /  May 14, 2010

    Geoff — Thanks for including the links. It looks like there is plenty of room for misinterpretation on the buffer, plantings and realigning Carmichael Street. Maybe town attorney Ralph Karpinos should conduct a brown-bag lunch seminar about writing SUP specifications so that there is no room for misinterpretation.

    And, WJ, having watched baseball players cross themselves when they step into the batters box and point skyward when they reach base safely and football teams kneeling in prayer before the start of a game, I know that grating feeling. I’m embarrassed to be guilty of causing it myself.

  5. WJ

     /  May 14, 2010

    Mr. Green; great links. Like you, I could not find any mention of a 35-foot buffer in what you posted, just 30 feet and 20 feet buffers. I am not good enough at reading plans to figure out which buffer would apply to the folks at St. James.

    This is a very interesting specific situation in local government. Thank you Ms. Oates for bringing it to your readers attention, and I certainly hope you keep us up to date.