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Del. Marie March, the entrepreneur, freshman lawmaker and Republican firebrand from Floyd County, for months has been engaged in a legal dispute with Pulaski County over alleged zoning violations relating to the Big Red Barn, an event venue that she acquired in June of last year to host agri-tourism affairs and political stump speeches. What began as a spat between March and local officials has since escalated rapidly toward litigation and allegations of threats.
More than a year after the purchase of the property for $400,000, March appears to continue to operate her business in violation of current zoning laws, County Administrator Jonathan Sweet said in a phone interview Wednesday. “To date, she has shown little willingness to cooperate,” he said.
March, however, sees herself as a victim of politically motivated bullying. “I have been appalled by the political games that are being played by the BOS (Board of Supervisors) and county administrator,” she wrote in an Aug. 5 letter to the editor of The Patriot, a conservative-leaning local newspaper.
“From day one, I have received threats, bullying and intimidation from Jonathan Sweet,” March wrote. “He just sent the newest threat from the county attorney and is attempting to make us apply for a special use permit to use our barn. This reminds me of the story I read a while back about a kid that wasn’t allowed to ride his dirt bike in his own yard. A blatant violation of his property rights.”
But county officials said that they still have no idea what kind of businesses March is running from the 10-acre property at 4241 Lee Highway, and they have received multiple complaints that various land uses violate several sections of the Pulaski County Unified Development Ordinance (UDO), which allows potential purchasers of property to know in advance the uses they may make of their own properties and anticipate the uses that may be made of neighboring properties.
“Mrs. March purchased it, she made some minor improvements and then she started advertising on Facebook and on other social media platforms. Then she begins to have some political functions there, which is fine. However, she has been running a full business operation out of it, and neighbors began to have concerns,” Sweet said. “We’re trying to ascertain what the actual uses are, but unfortunately because attorneys are involved, this has been dragging on.”
For example, Sweet said that there are safety concerns with ingress and egress at March’s property. “In fact, a zoning request had been denied to the previous owner because of a lack of commercial entrance. The neighbors and other citizens were sharing their concerns with us, and at the end of the day it’s our job to ensure public safety and welfare,” Sweet said. “And we have to make sure that there are proper exit signs, handicapped spaces and all those things, and we have to protect the interests of the neighbors to make sure their rights aren’t violated.”
Because March was initially unresponsive, Sweet went to pay her a visit at her property on March 15. He was accompanied by Scott Macdonald, a building official, and Markie Saunders, the interim UDO administrator.
“We did a walk-through of the site and provided any guidance needed, and we tried to ascertain what operations are going to take place there,” Sweet said. “We discovered that there was an auto body shop operating out of one of the ancillary buildings. This is after Marie said they are only holding political functions there,” he said. “Then we go online and we see that she is advertising weddings, birthday parties, happy hours and ‘anything your heart desires’ out of this facility.”
The website has since been scrubbed from any references to the businesses and services that the Big Red Barn offers, with the exception of its community worship center, and social media links have been disabled.
The county decided to not cite March for anything but asked her to submit her plans for the property so it could be determined if it was zoning compliant or not. “But she effectively just refused to oblige and over the course of the correspondence she somewhat denied that an auto body shop was operating there, she said that some fella was working on some vehicles. And that’s while all kinds of advertisements for her events were taking place.”
In order to operate a business in Pulaski County, every business owner must get a business license filed with the Commissioner of Revenue’s office and also file for a zoning permit that is required any time a property or existing building changes its use or occupancy, Ashlyn Shrewsbury, the county’s Community Development and Planning & Zoning Director, wrote in response to March’s letter in The Patriot. “This is not a tremendous ask, and the zoning permit costs only $25,” Shrewsbury wrote.
While the property has since received a business license, March has yet to file for a special use permit. In conjunction with the latter, a property owner must also state what types of business the property will be used for in order to ensure that the zoning of the property matches those uses.
Shrewsbury wrote that based on the types of businesses that the Big Red Barn itself has marketed its property, there are several requirements that must be met to operate a legal business. “For example, in order to operate as a wedding venue in an agricultural zoning district, which is conditional use, the property must be at least five acres; provide proof of adequate parking, ingress and egress from the Virginia Department of Transportation; and there must be restroom facilities available,” among other requirements.
In order to operate as an event center, a special use permit must be obtained from the Planning and Zoning Office for $150, which then goes before the county’s Planning Commission for approval. “All these types of uses have been marketed by the Big Red Barn owners and staff,” Shrewsbury wrote.
Sweet said in an email Thursday that while March has since been approved for a business license, she still does not have approval by way of a required special use permit, despite the holding of the various events that have been and are taking place at that location, such as large flea markets, all of which require a permit.
March also has failed to provide “a demonstration of VDOT’s approval for adequate ingress and egress for these larger special use permits required events,” Sweet said, adding that the only uses she is approved with the change of use are for agritourism and the worship center that is now operating at the venue on Sundays.
Two weeks after county officials toured the property, the Planning & Zoning department in an email asked March to submit her plans for her property, plus a signed farm structure affidavit needed because buildings and structures are exempt from the Virginia Uniform Statewide Building Code (USBC) if a structure is used for a specific purpose which is directly related to an operating farm.
Because March did not accommodate these requests, Sweet emailed her on April 14, reminding her that she continued to run an unlicensed business at her property and that the county remained committed to working with her in an attempt to “remedy building code, zoning and business licensure issues with your continued advertised operations of the facility.” Sweet also warned her that running an unlicensed business could “potentially be a Class II misdemeanor,” which carries a punishment of up to six months in jail and a fine of $1,000.
The corresponce escalated when March accused Sweet of threatening her with criminal charges. “Do you treat all new property owners with such treatment or is this merely a political attack?” she wrote, to which Sweet responded that the county has “bent over backwards” to assist her and has “looked the other way” after discovering an auto body shop operating on her premises.
Following several increasingly heated exchanges – all of which have been obtained by Cardinal News – Sweet handed the matter over to County Attorney Tim Kirtner, who on July 25 informed March and her company Big Bear Properties LLC of several zoning violations, allowing 30 days to address the latter or potentially face “legal enforcement.”
Ten days later, March published her letter to the editor in The Patriot. “I believe there are extremely dirty political games at play in Pulaski County,” she wrote. “If the BOS and the county administrator have enjoyed bullying me, I sincerely worry how they treat you as the taxpayer! Arrogance and corruption in government always comes from the top down!”
Later in August, an attorney for Big Bear Properties submitted a change in use application for their client, which Sweet sees as confirmation that March is aware that she was operating for five months in non-compliance.
“This should have been a long time ago. It’s almost like her attorney is admitting that they were wrong. They did minimally what they needed to do to appear to be complying with the zoning, but they left out a lot of the uses,” he said. “She thinks the laws don’t apply to her, and how dare anyone try to apply any kind of rule or structure to what she wants to do. Zoning is to protect you from your neighbor and your neighbor from you, it’s a two way street. We were just trying to find out what she was wanting to do there.”
Sweet said that during the entire time March has operated her businesses the county never hit her with any violation.
“The moral of this story is we were set up, the county was set up,” Sweet said. “She taunted us and refused to comply, refused what any normal business owner would do, disrespected her neighbors and finally we had to explain to her that there are consequences for not complying, and we did that very respectfully. And that’s what she was waiting on, she wanted to pretend to be a victim.”
March on Thursday did not respond to phone calls and texts.