The Fairfax County Board of Supervisors delayed action Monday on a controversial Reston zoning issue after two members were accused of a conflict of interest in the case.
The commonwealth's attorney's office ruled later the same day, however, that a Fairfax architectural firm's campaign contributions to board chairman John F. Herrity and member Martha V. Pennino did not create a conflict of interest under state law.
The accusations came to the supervisors in a letter from a disgruntled Reston resident, Peter Messina, who opposes a proposed restaurant and bar that would be built across the street from his neighborhood in southern Reston.
"This is the first time in 10 years on the board that anyone has put a conflict of interest charge in writing against me," said Herrity.
Campaign finance records show that Davis and Carter Inc., the architects for the proposed restaurant on Sunrise Valley Road, contributed $400 to Herrity and $300 to Pennino during their 1979 campaigns for reelection to the board.
"A vote by you would not constitute a violation of the Virginia conflict of interest laws," Commonwealth's Attorney Robert F. Horan Jr. said in hurriedly drafted letters to Herrity and Pennino Monday afternoon, a few hours after the supervisors requested the ruling.
State law and county policies require supervisors to make public disclosure of campaign contributions from parties involved in zoning issues, but they do not prohibit supervisors from voting on the issues.
The charges, however, prompted Herrity to urge the board to readvertise the case and reopen hearings on the project.
"We certainly can't readvertise and go through the whole hearing process because one citizen wants to paint the wall black," Pennino argued. "That's a way of bugging out when we have a controversial hearing that you Herrity don't want to be involved in."
Board members told the developers and residents who had come to the supervisors' meeting to participate in the final debate on the proposed restaurant that they expected Horan's ruling to require several days of work. When the ruling came back within a few hours, the citizens interested in the case had left, and the board rescheduled the hearing for 2:30 p.m. next Monday.
The zoning controversy involved a 260-seat restaurant and 80-seat lounge that California-based developer Lee Sammis has proposed building next to twin six-story office buildings which he wants to build on a now-vacant lot on Sunrise Valley Road.
Sammis has asked the supervisors to amend the zoning code to allow construction of the restaurant and bar separate from the office buildings. Current regulations would require the restaurant to be within the office complex.
Residents who live in the affluent neighborhood across the road from the site say the proposed restaurant is too large and the proposed bar hours are too long. They say the late-night traffic would disturb the tranquility of the neighborhood and the potential of drunk drivers on the road in the area could threaten the safety of children walking along the boulevard.