Some city residents still fighting SA ‘dormitory’

Published 10:25 am Wednesday, August 29, 2018

A group of Franklin residents remain opposed to Southampton Academy’s plan to use  a residential property on Meadow Lane as housing for its international students.

The matter had previously come to the attention of the Franklin City Council in June when Dr. Dan Peak, who serves as chairman of the city’s Planning Commission, referred to the proposed use of the property as a “dormitory” and said that in his opinion, he did not believe that the city’s R-O One-Family Residence District zoning ordinance, which specifies only single-family homes be present, would permit such a use.

Over the past two months, residents of Meadow Lane have filed a total of three applications to the city’s Department of Community Development requesting that the matter go before the city’s Board of Zoning Appeals, all three of which have been denied by Community Development Director Donald Goodwin. Goodwin’s stated reason for denial on each of the applications has been that the “city fails to recognize any evidence in your application that substantiates you as an aggrieved party as intended by Section 15.2-2311(A) of the Code of Virginia.”

This section of code governs planning, subdivision of land and zoning in cities and towns. It states, “An appeal to the board may be taken by any person aggrieved or by any officer, department, board or bureau of the locality affected by any decision of the zoning administrator or from any order, requirement, decision or determination made by any other administrative officer.”

According to City Attorney H. Taylor Williams IV, the definition of what legally constitutes an “aggrieved party” stems from the 1986 case of Virginia Beach Beautification Commission v. Board of Zoning Appeals of the City of Virginia Beach, et al. In that case, the court ruled that “in order for a petition to be ‘aggrieved,’ it must affirmatively appear that such person had some direct interest in the subject matter of the proceeding that he seeks to attack … Thus, it is not sufficient that the sole interest of the petitioner is to advance some perceived public right or to redress some anticipated public injury when the only wrong he has suffered is in common with other persons similarly situated. The word ‘aggrieved’ in a statute contemplates a substantial grievance and means a denial of some personal property right, legal or equitable, or imposition of burden or obligation upon the petitioner different from that suffered by the public generally.”

When the matter had come up in June, the city had accepted the school’s argument that since it had full legal guardianship of every student who would reside in the house, the property was still being operated as a single family residence as required by the zoning ordinance. Speaking to The Tidewater News in June, the director of SA’s international program, Arwen Councill, and Headmaster Scott Wasdin explained that the school is designated “in loco parentis” during the time the students are in the United States. During this time, SA hires “parents” to reside with its international students in their residences. These individuals cook for the students and have family meals together just like a biological family, they said, denying that the property was a “dormitory” in the sense that the term would be used at the college level. 

However, SA’s website states the following: “Southampton Academy is located in the small, beautiful, safe, and quiet community of Courtland, Virginia. International students reside in one of our two International Dorm Houses or with host families. The two dorm houses are walking distance from a local fitness center, where they can swim, use the exercise equipment, play tennis, play basketball, play racquetball, or take yoga classes.”

The two houses are both located in the city of Franklin.

“We have full guardianship for their time in the U.S. at our school; as part of that authority we have the authority to name people [as guardians],” Councill said. “The guardians are Mr. Wasdin, myself and resident parents.”

Ben Powell, one of the Meadow Lane residents to apply for a Board of Zoning Appeals hearing, said he questioned that reasoning. Powell added that he believed that SA’s use of the Meadow Lane property as student housing might lower the value of his home.

“I talked to several attorneys,” Powell said. “Legal guardianship has to be assigned by a court.”

While on the subject of attorneys, he added that he had retained the services of Fred Taylor, with the Suffolk-based firm Bush-Taylor.

When asked if this meant a pending lawsuit, Powell said that he didn’t feel there was any need for litigation at this time. His retention of an attorney, he said, was for the purposes of drafting a second application to the city for a hearing. Once filed, this will be the fourth such formal request the city has received on this matter.

Wasdin, responding to concerns regarding records of guardianship, said that the enrollment contracts SA uses for all of its international students are very specific about guardianship.

“We’re not doing anything revolutionary; there are thousands of schools across North America that have guardianship,” Wasdin said. “Both properties [in Franklin] are well within the zoning ordinance. We don’t have an exorbitant amount of kids at one house. It’s fairly balanced based on gender. The girls have one house and some of our gentlemen reside in another property, and we continue to balance out our host families as well.”

According to Wasdin, this school year, SA has around 25 international students already on campus, with a few more still in transit. The school began the semester on Aug. 15.