Photos of wedding receptions in a restored dairy barn “cathedral” at the Estate at White Hall Vineyard in King George County are nothing short of breathtaking, and brides rave that the beautiful environment is topped only by the friendliness of the owners.
Problem is, county officials say Joel and Bethany Cassell don’t have the proper permit to hold weddings. Neighbors have complained about noise and traffic on the rural road, and officials with King George’s Community Development Office have issued notices of violation, asking the Cassells to cease and desist.
The Cassells, however, maintain they were told in 2016 that they didn’t need a special exception. An appeal filed to the county’s Board of Zoning Appeals by their lawyer, zoning law specialist Clark Leming of Stafford County, says the previous director of the county’s Community Development office informed the owners that periodic weddings at vineyards and wineries are “agritourism activities.”
These are “exempt under state law and are not regulated under the county’s zoning ordinance,” according to the appeal.
Neither Leming nor the Cassells were present at Tuesday’s King George Board of Supervisors meeting when Heather Hall, the county’s zoning administrator, reported on her department’s interaction with the Cassells. She said the owners ignored the first notice of violation, sent in July 2018, then agreed to meet the next month after a second notice was sent.
Hall said Joel Cassell told county officials he understood he didn’t need a special exception. Hall said Cassell then told officials he’d stop holding weddings and apply for the necessary paperwork.
“Estate at White Hall continued to hold wedding events the remainder of 2018 and all of 2019, even after being advised numerous times that it was not permitted,” Hall said.
Board of Supervisors Chairman Jeff Bueche couldn’t contain his indignation upon hearing that.
“That’s bull[expletive],” Bueche said, and fellow Supervisor Richard Granger suggested he watch his language. Audience members chuckled.
Bueche continued, echoing sentiments later expressed by every other board member. “What good are a bunch of regulations on the books if we’re not going to enforce them?”
As is always the case when local governments face potential litigation, County Attorney Eric Gregory advised caution. He told board members that zoning issues regarding the growing farm winery industry have become “a controversy.” He said he understood the staff and supervisors’ frustration as King George works with the owners—outside a courtroom—to reach a resolution.
Beyond that, Gregory was “hesitant to offer any further commentary because of the sensitive nature of the case.” He suggested the board members discuss the issue behind closed doors at its next meeting, Aug. 20.
Board members agreed.
‘PEACE WE HAD’
Justin Grimes, a service electrician, lives across the road from White Hall, a 40-acre property with a brick estate house, turn-of-the-century dairy barn and 1850s stable chapel, as well as a new wine tasting room, according to White Hall’s Facebook page.
Grimes told The Free Lance–Star he started complaining to county officials two years ago because the estate, which is accessible from Lambs Creek Church Road, off State Route 3, is in a residential neighborhood not designed to handle the traffic from weddings.
“It’s a pain, to put it lightly,” he said. “We got drunk people leaving all hours of the night, headlights shining in my house. We’ve lost what bit of peace we had.”
Grimes told the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday that others have complained, and residents in the rural area off White Hall Road “can’t enjoy a peaceful weekend.”
Grimes has had problems with the Cassells and their company. One incident led to Bethany Cassell filing a disorderly conduct complaint against him on June 15. Grimes said he was “doing some shooting,” which is allowed, and White Hall owners complained it was disrupting a wedding. A hearing is scheduled Sept. 18 in King George General District Court.
Joel Cassell, a disabled veteran and special agent who works for the government, said he and his wife have offered their estate, for free, for local groups raising money for fire and rescue departments, childhood diseases and the United Way. The couple has invested heavily in the property and hosted weddings “in an effort to defray the costs of the vineyard and winery operation,” according to the appeal.
“We’re not the bad guys the county depicts us as,” Joel Cassell wrote in an email. “You can look at our reviews from couples who got married here and see how we treat people.”
The Cassells applied for a special exception in November, but didn’t pay their application fees in full until five months later, Hall told the supervisors. She said county staff has been working with them to complete the application, and a third revision was made June 19.
She asked the board to forward the case to the Planning Commission, for it to hold a public hearing and make a recommendation to the supervisors, or to have the supervisors have a hearing, then make a decision.
In the midst of the application process, Hall’s office sent another notice of violation, on April 12, to the Cassells, and sought $1,100 in civil penalties. That’s when Leming filed the appeal with the BZA, asking it to reverse the violation notice.
The third notice of violation and the Cassells’ appeal to the BZA were not mentioned at Tuesday’s meeting. Neither was the Cassells’ claim that a previous county official had deemed weddings at White Hall “agritourism activities.”
Gregory, the county’s attorney, told supervisors “there were flaws with our notices of violation.” County staff recently told White Hall owners they would suspend the enforcement actions “until they get in compliance to avoid legal action.”
Leming said he hopes the King George board approves a special exception for weddings at White Hall.
“Otherwise, the courts will have to figure out whether this is something the county even has a right to regulate,” he added.