The Washington Post

Prince William supervisors want court to settle dispute

Prince William County supervisors unanimously decided Tuesday that they want a Circuit Court judge to settle a dispute between a mobile home park owner, a court-appointed zoning appeals board and county officials.


Piles of debris from a flood damaged mobile home wait to be hauled away as demolition begins in the condemned portion of the Holly Acres Mobile Home Park that was flooded out by rain storms in Woodbridge in September. (John McDonnell/THE WASHINGTON POST)

In the wake of the storm, county officials decided that anything that sat in a federally defined floodway near Marusmco Creek had to be demolished and that nothing could be rebuilt there.

The Board of Zoning Appeals, a county panel appointed by a local Circuit Court, ruled that county officials had erred and said mobile homes could be rebuilt. But in the latest twist Tuesday, county officials told supervisors that failure to appeal that BZA decision could be perilous because the county could lose its place in a federal FEMA flood program.

Supervisors voted unanimously to appeal to the Circuit Court and ask it to issue an injunction against building in the mobile home park.

At the same time, supervisors asked county officials to try to work with Holly Acres before a courtroom battle. The decision would be appealed by Dec. 21, officials said, and Holly Acres’ attorneys would petition the court to join the case since the BZA ruling echoes the mobile home park’s position.

The BZA unanimously ruled late last month that county officials had erred: Board members said that state law overrode the county’s rules regarding the rights of a property owner to rebuild after a flood and that the county used the wrong guidelines to make the decision.

Several issues were at play for supervisors, as county officials described the consequences of being kicked out of the FEMA flood insurance program. Homeowners with flood insurance would be hit with a $50 charge and face an increase of 10 percent in premiums, and residents could have difficulty obtaining a mortgage without flood insurance, officials said.

But perhaps most severely, county officials said they were warned by the state that their ability to apply for FEMA disaster relief could be imperiled. Prince William County is applying for at least $200,000 in relief from the federal government for Tropical Storm Lee, and county officials said they worried it would not be able to apply for funds when a disaster was declared in the future.

“The costs of not appealing this are way too large,” Board Chairman Corey A. Stewart (R-At Large) said before the vote.

Henry Ridge, the Holly Acres owner, said he was “thrilled” a court would likely decide the issue because facts could be presented. He said county officials had misled supervisors — on federal and state flood regulations, among other issues. Ridge said he would like to negotiate with county officials but added that thus far there has been little progress.

Ridge said county officials had spent two weeks since the BZA decision trying “to protect the status quo” rather than delivering an impartial report to supervisors.

Holly Acres’ attorney Mark Moorstein said before the vote that he was incredulous about the county’s position. If Old Town Alexandria flooded, he said, the city would not be likely to try to clear residents out without compensation.

“The law is so clear on this thing,” said Moorstein, who has argued that if the county wants to take the land for safety reasons, it needs to condemn it and pay Ridge fair market value. “If you take somebody’s property, you pay for it.”

He said the case stands more than a good chance in court “unless you’ve got a judge … out of the former Soviet Union.”

A Circuit Court judge would need to set a court schedule after agreeing to hear the case, county officials said.

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