The United States Postal Service is planning to open a post office at the far end of Rt. 222 in the Village of Weems on a residential lot, in a residential zone, and claims Lancaster County’s consent isn’t necessary.
The board of supervisors decided it’s better to get rolled over than to take the decision sitting down, and they plan to push back.
The new post office
According to the USPS plans, the proposed post office would be housed in a structure that county leaders likened to a mobile trailer without wheels, and it won’t have any running water.
It’ll be located on James Lane, “which is the narrowest in the county” and requires on-coming traffic to pull over to allow passage, noted William Barnhart, a Weems resident who came before the board to express his concerns.
With widths ranging from 12 to 14 feet, the street which children play in, isn’t suitable for mail trucks, he argued. The situation raises safety concerns for people and their pets. It would place tire tracks in people yards. It may involve a hefty expense to remove trees, and in some cases, homeowners may lose some of their property and need to relocate drain fields.
He said the post office will service over 800 households and 1785 people in the 22576 area code. All of the county’s other post offices are centrally located, but this one will be in “the most remote location possible in the entire district.”
It’ll be accessible 24/7 but will only be staffed for four hours in the morning, making it more inconvenient for working people. Barnhart was also concerned about postal workers using the chemical toilet that the USPS plans to install and returning to their duties of handling mail without washing their hands.
Robert Westbrook, supervisor for the 5th district, called the project a “heartburn” and described the USPS approach as “arrogant.”
“In my opinion a post office is a business… There’s a process that should have been gone through that was completely ignored. What we have is residential property with a house on it… and what they’re proposing is they’re going to put a business in one half,” said Westbrook. “[If it were] anybody else, the county would require advance notice, You’d probably have restrictions. You’d have to sub-divide the property. And business is not allowed in R-1, except home-based business. [But this is] none of that.”
And “I don’t want to get mail from someone who’s used a chemical toilet and hasn’t washed their hands,” he added.
Jack Larson, supervisor for district 1, said it’s not the only post office in Lancaster designed that way. Another example is Mollusk, he said. “But it’s not a good situation. And to just come in here and do that without putting the local government on notice is just wrong, said Larson. “None of the safeguards that we have are being observed and they don’t care at all.”
The question of authority
Several years ago there was a post office in the village but it closed down and the building was demolished. In 2017, the USPS came before the board and announced that they would be looking for another location, but that was the last county leaders heard on the matter, until August when Josh Delane, an engineer from Timmons Group reached out to Brian Barnes, director of planning and land use about the current plans.
Seemingly aware that this project was destined to run into problems, Delane wanted to discuss whether a site plan pre-application meeting would “indeed be the first step for this project given the existing zoning of the subject parcel and the proposed use.”
Barnes responded, saying the proposed site was zoned R-1 residential and said a post office is not a permitted use.
If the land, which is reportedly about one acre, was subdivided, it may be possible to get the postal plot rezoned as C-2 commercial, allowing a post office there. But doing so in a residential area may be very difficult and the expense may not be worth it, Barnes forewarned.
Later that month, Delane replied telling Barnes the firm “suspected zoning would be an issue from the start,” and informed him that Timmons had passed the county’s response along to their USPS contact.
In October, Delane wrote back, this time with a message from USPS saying it doesn’t have to comply with local zoning.
Barnes said he wasn’t buying that the USPS could just come drop a commercial building with a commercial entrance in the middle of residential neighborhood. He asked for a congressional federal regulation, a court ruling or something along those lines to back up the USPS claim.
“I do not want to get in a situation where we waste taxpayer money for the same result, if this has already been decided somewhere in the Commonwealth,” Barnes wrote.
At the board meeting Thursday night, Barnes explained that Delane had indeed forwarded a list of cases where USPS was exempted from local regulations, but he was still wary because none of the rulings were in Virginia.
Board chairman Jason Bellows questioned how it was even possible that the USPS could come in and do whatever it wants. In James City County vs Dominion, James City County won the rights to have zoning locally controlled, he noted.
James Cromwell, Lancaster County’s attorney, weighed in.
“So [this project] violates the subdivision ordinance. It violates the zoning ordinance. It probably violates VDOT regulations. And it probably violates health and safety regulations related to water and sewer,” but the USPS still appears to have authority to do it, he explained.
Cromwell called the supervisors’ attention to the The Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act and said that initially, even he thought the act pertained to buildings the U.S. government owned or buildings that were constructed and rented to the USPS. But in reality the act doesn’t make any differentiation. It grants the USPS broad authority in cases of buildings that are “constructed or altered by post office.”
However, there is a process that’s supposed to be followed. The act calls on the USPS to consult with local officials, submit its plans to local governments upon request, and allow inspection of the building during construction. And local governments are supposed to be afforded the opportunity to make recommendations.
But in the end, the postal service is only required to “give due consideration to any such recommendations.” And “there are numerous cases in federal court that have said zoning codes are not applicable, building codes are not applicable [to the USPS]” he added.
Cromwell said he believed the County has grounds to make a complaint to the post office arguing that the act is not being followed in this case. “Now, whether they’re going to do anything about it is another question,” he said.
Lancaster’s next moves
Less than a week before the board meeting, USPS made a formal submittal of its plans, Barnes told the supervisors. He said normally, at this stage, he would be taking steps to work the case through the process, such as, reviewing the details for zoning and submitting some of the plans to VDOT. But he said he was concerned with validating [the request] by even beginning the process, since the USPS claimed the county doesn’t have jurisdiction in the matter.
The board determined the greatest risk was doing nothing.
“Can’t you just disapprove the site plan?” asked Larson.
“I will do whatever you guys command me to do. But it may not have any force and effect,” said Barnes.
“Apply whatever pressure you can because this is not a good look,” said Bellows.
“If the site plan does not meet the zoning ordinances and subdivision ordinances and it doesn’t meet the sediment control ordinances, we need to tell them that. And we need to tell Rob Wittman that. And we need to tell anybody that will listen… I suggest we treat this just as a normal submission and you deny anything you can deny,” said Westbrook.
If they roll over us, they roll over us. But, that’s what it is: they roll over us, he added.
Cromwell jumped in to clarify that ultimately Barnes intends to review the plans and make findings that would be made for any other property. Barnes confirmed that’s how he plans to handle it.