With a “welcome back” greeting at the start of Amherst Town Council’s Nov. 13 meeting from Mayor Dwayne Tuggle, Councilwoman Janice Wheaton retook her seat with a friendly nod of thanks.
Four months earlier, she was expelled from her position on a 4-1 vote following a closed session. On Nov. 5 she was elected again to the post with 60% of the vote and was sworn into office prior to last week’s meeting.
Town officials previously said in a statement a few days after her removal they were not in a position to provide details on why the measure was taken, citing the closed session and council’s code of ethics. Emails among town officials in weeks and months leading up to her removal showed a number of tense exchanges involving Wheaton, including concerns of how she interacted with town staff, among others.
The town has said expelling a council member, a measure made possible in the town’s charter with concurrence of two-thirds of council’s approval, was given serious consideration and done properly and legally with the town’s best interests in mind. The charter doesn’t outline grounds for what triggers an expulsion.
Aside from the brief greeting between Tuggle and Wheaton last week, council made no further public remarks on her return. Wheaton said shortly after her Nov. 5 election she looks forward to once again representing town residents and she believes she and council will join for a goal of best serving the community.
Vice Mayor Rachel Carton said shortly after the meeting the voters decided and she looks to the town moving forward and council being productive.
Sharon Turner, an Amherst native and a manager at Hill Hardware in Amherst, had served the seat in an interim capacity since Aug. 7. The special election for the seat drew 258 write-in votes while Wheaton received 396 votes, according to the Virginia Department of Elections. Her term expires at the end of 2022.
Also during the meeting, council voted 4-1, with Councilman Ken Watts opposed, to set a public hearing for its Dec. 11 meeting on a request from a consultant for Dave McCormack, who is redeveloping the old Amherst Milling Co. into a new brewery and restaurant, to seek a conservation easement for the remainder of undeveloped sections of a nearby subdivision.
Town Manager Sara Carter told council McCormack’s company owns portions of the Mill Race subdivision that has not been developed and platted out. The consultant is working with McCormack to get a conservation easement for that area, which means if granted it would be protected from any future development.
“By state code, any time someone is looking to get a conservation easement that use has to be found in compliance with the [locality’s] comprehensive plan,” Carter said.
The land targeted for the potential easement is designated for residential development and and easement would not be in compliance with the town’s comprehensive plan for future growth, Carter said.
“We do know that there is already development infrastructure in that location. So it really does deserve a broader conversation about what is the intent of the comprehensive plan there, how does this fit, and the process to do that is to have a conservation plan amendment,” Carter told council.
The town planning commission will hold a public hearing on the amendment request on Dec. 4 and is expected to make a recommendation to council prior to its Dec. 11 hearing and review of the matter.
Carter said the potential conservation easement would be more than 76 acres. The town’s comprehensive plan is consistent with the existing zoning of residential and public water and sewer is available for the property, she said.
McCormack has said the new brewery and restaurant on Union Hill Road is expected to open in 2020. The town planning commission recently approved the final site plan for that project, which was the last regulatory action by the town as it moves toward completion.