The Commonwealth Iconoclast

A site dedicated to covering issues relevant to the Commonwealth of Virginia, and nation at large, plus other interesting things too, as I see fit...

Monday, December 12, 2005

The Dunn Deal: A Family Affair?

Over the past several months, I have been following a developing story down in Prince Edward County, Virginia involving real estate deals, zoning, townhouse developments, and planning commission controversies. You may recall that there have been several articles posted on this matter in past weeks.

This story has some history but I will pick up the story line this past August when a Culpepper, Virginia developer known as Dunn Brothers Development, LLC unveiled a new proposal to develop 270 townhouses on the edge of the Town of Farmville on land previously owned by Prince Edward County. The 74 acre site for the proposed project is subject to county zoning regulations. If and when the project is fully developed, it would have a total value of somewhere in the range of $40 to $54 million.

For the project to proceed, however, the developer must obtain approval of a zoning conditional use permit from Prince Edward County. This is not a simple process. Public hearings are required. Approval is not automatically presumed. (Note: Dunn Brothers Development purchased the 74 acres before the CUP was approved by the County's Board of Supervisors)

Since August, the townhouse proposal has been subject of considerable controversy and citizen opposition. The nature of that controversy has been widely reported in local media including the Farmville Herald and the Crewe-Burkeville Journal. I am not going to go into the details here as they would distract from the point that I am about to make.

This past week, the Prince Edward County Planning Commission held a second public hearing on the Dunn Brothers Development request for the conditional use permit and recommended for the second time approval of the project. The first Planning Commission public hearing on the project was held three months ago (September 7th) and also resulted in a vote recommending approval of the project.

During this most recent public hearing on December 7th, a citizen came to the podium to ask a question regarding the minutes of the September 7th Planning Commission public hearing. I will come back to this citizen question in a moment, but first let me fill in some background on the September 7th public hearing.

Minutes from the September 7th public hearing reported that there were two persons in attendance who both had the same surname – Coleman. One was Mr. Sam Coleman, Vice Chairman of the Prince Edward County Planning Commission and the other was Mr. Chip Coleman who was one of the consultants representing Dunn Brothers Development LLC and their townhouse proposal.

The minutes of that meeting report that “Rob Maxey and Chip Coleman with Maxey-Hines and Associates were representatives for Dunn Brothers Development, LLC.” Mr. Chip Coleman made part of the presentation supporting the request for the zoning conditional use permit.

Those minutes also report that after the discussion of the project “…Mr. [Sam] Coleman motioned to recommend to the Prince Edward County Board of Supervisors approval of the request of Dunn Brothers Development, LLC to construct a 270-unit town home development…” The minutes also report that Vice Chairman Sam Coleman voted in favor of the motion that he had made along with four other members of the Planning Commission who were present at the public hearing.

The Farmville Herald news coverage of the public hearing appeared in the September 9th edition. The article entitled “Townhouses Win Vote” was a long and detailed article and contained statements from numerous individuals who spoke during the hearing.

While several people were reported to have spoken during the September 7th public hearing, the most frequently quoted person in the news report was Planning Commission Vice Chairman Sam Coleman. Vice Chairman Coleman’s statements were consistently supportive of the project. When potential problem issues were introduced by others, Vice Chairman Coleman offered comments to allay those concerns. Traffic concerns, for example, were minimized when Vice Chairman Coleman pointed to Harrisonburg, Blacksburg and Charlottesville and stated that ‘All these places have got streets that weren’t made for the traffic that they’ve developed over the years. They are living with it.”

From the records, Planning Commission Vice Chairman Sam Coleman was arguably the leading champion on the Planning Commission in favor of the Dunn Brothers Development zoning request.
He was the most quoted advocate in favor of the project. He made the September 7th motion to recommend the approval of the project. He voted in favor of project approval – twice on both September 7th and December 7th.

This brings us finally back to the citizen with the question.

The question was addressed to Planning Commission Vice Chairman Sam Coleman. The question sought to learn if there was any family relationship between Planning Commission Vice Chairman Sam Coleman and agent for Dunn Brothers Development Mr. Chip Coleman.

The answer to the citizen question was…yes. The relationship was father Sam Coleman to son Chip Coleman; the first a Planning Commission member and Vice Chairman who sits in judgment on a zoning request and the second an individual making the same zoning request.

I want to be clear: nothing is being insinuated. What I am reporting here are hard facts derived from official minutes, news accounts and the actual video coverage of meetings. These known facts raise questions of judgment and appearances.

While there is no suggestion that there was or is any kind of inappropriate quid pro quo, hasn’t the Planning Commission Vice Chairman exposed himself to the appearance of conflict of interest? And, doesn’t this appearance undermine public trust in the resulting deliberations on the zoning matter.

From the minutes, the news coverage and the video footage, it is pretty clear that Vice Chairman Coleman is not a shy man and he is certainly not afraid to express his views. One could reasonably conclude that he is an intelligent man and a natural leader on the Planning Commission.

But there are still questions: Did the Vice Chairman forget to declare his relationship with the agent for the developer? Did he think that the public may not care about his relationship with the agent for the developer? Did he think that his relationship with agent for the developer was irrelevant and none of the public’s business?

I really don’t know the answers to these questions. So, I would like to get further insight on this situation from the readers of this article.

I am especially hopeful that I will hear from other public officials from around the state who may have experienced similar situations. How were similar situations handled? How should responsible public officials act to avoid the appearance of conflict of interest? What is the proper code of public conduct in such situations?

If Vice Chairman Coleman would care to comment on this matter, I will be pleased to post his comments complete and unedited.

Maybe we can learn something useful from this example.

PS: Thanks to my local sources in the Heart of Virginia including the Farmville Herald, the Crewe-Burkeville Journal, Prince Edward County official records, and citizens of Prince Edward County for background information on this story.

Note: The individuals pictured in this entry are not associated with this blog entry. But rather, they represent two swell guys who are really chummy!


  • At 12/12/2005 10:26 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    This may be a little tricky, but, I would suggest that the Vice Chairman get into a time machine and go back three months or so and self declare the relationship. That would certainly have been better than being outed by a citizen.

  • At 12/13/2005 11:02 AM, Blogger Will Vaught said…

    Yes good suggestion. I don't think there is anything inherently wrong with the the Vice Chairman of the PC hearing a case presented by his son IF THE RELATIONSHIP IS DISCLOSED (BY THE VICE CHAIRMAN) AT THE BEGINNING OF THE INTIAL HEARING back in September.

    But having to be have their relationship pointed out by a citizen is sad. Unfortunatley, the more research I do in regards to this story, the more pathetic it becomes....

  • At 12/13/2005 11:52 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    These situations are not all that uncommon, particularly in smaller communities, and can be dealt with quite easily. Elected or appointed officials in positions of authority such as described in this article merely declare their relationship and remove themselves from the debate and the vote. Public officials do not get paid enough to get themselves into an ethical jam over something like this.

  • At 12/13/2005 12:23 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    I would echo the last comment in that it is very common, particularly in the smallest communities. Unfortunately, at the risk of sounding trite, in these situations where there is smoke, there is just as often fire. In Haymarket, for example, one sitting member of the Planning Commission is a licensed (when not suspended) commericial realtor who often attempts to protect the interests of clients without disclosure of his/her financial interest in the decision at hand. Moreover, this "pillar of the community" on occasion submitted his/her own applications for rezoning with inadequate disclosure, documentation and even notarizations of questionable validity.

    Although some might suggest that the individual impact of these actions might be negligible in the grand scheme, they do create a negative impression of the process as a whole and call into question the validity of administrative actions, diminsh the public trust and create an atmosphere in which the actions of all public official are subject to question.

  • At 12/13/2005 5:12 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Allow me to comment about the articles you have posted to date relative to the zoning matter in Prince Edward County:

    1.No one on the County Staff, or the Planning Commission, or the Board of Supervisors has a financial interest. The principal objective of each of these bodies is to move the process along to the benefit of the overwhelming majority of the County’s citizens. To impugn the honesty of those who have honorably served, many for years, on the basis of the unfounded lies and innuendos by a few malcontents is a gross injustice.

    2.The Crestview subdivision, 44 homes, is a modest community that represents .6%, (that is six tenths of one percent) of the counties housing units. Although it is an attractive community, it is not an oasis that should be spared contrary to the property rights of others. Nor is there unanimous opposition among the Crestview homeowners in opposition to the Dunn Bros. Proposal. Only 14 homeowners signed the recent petition in opposition. I would hardly call that overwhelming support.

    3.There are a dozen hard-core members of the Crestview opposition who have badgered their neighbors, and anyone else that will listen, to the point that many are afraid to voice their support of the Dunn Brothers proposal. Frequently the charges made by letter and rumor suggests that they, the Crestview opposition, are the only people in the County with scruples. Their tactics have been successful in alienating most of the County.

    4.Yes there have been a few procedural errors. Errors of commission that have been rectified as the slow process moves forward. This not a plot.

    5.Ask yourself what are the motives of the Crestview opposition.? What is it that requires them to indulge in character assassination to this degree? Agreed that it will be somewhat disruptive during the construction phase of this development. But is it worth the price the county is paying and is it worth the price of savaging good peoples reputations?

    Finally what is the message this campaign conveys to developers who might be interested in other county sites and what does this say for the prospects for healthy economic growth?

  • At 12/13/2005 10:26 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Mmm... This is getting kind of interesting...

  • At 12/13/2005 11:28 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Yes, indeed anon contributer at 5:12 p.m. makes some insightful comment. Whatever... The problem is, we really don't give a shit about the local political dynamics with citizens groups in this particular discussion at this time (maybe some other time friend). The contributer missed the basic point here. The basic question here is about public ethics and appearances of conflict of interest. I would like to see some focused discussion on what we as public officials need to do to fulfill our obligations to the public trust. Obviously, we are not supposed to take away fat envelopes full of cash, but tell us something that we don't already know. Thanks.

  • At 12/14/2005 1:29 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Yea, lets get back to the subject.
    Annon 5:12 talks about "character assassination." But, in reality, what we are seeing is more like "character suicide." How Annon 5:12 can somehow rationalize that the Vice Chairman's misconduct is somehow sombody else's problem, is amazing. The dude who sat there for several months and failed to mention his little conflict was just out for a long, long lunch. What was he thinking?

  • At 12/14/2005 8:21 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    The analogy that might have the most relevance regards the sporting world. In decades past behaviorial, substance abuse issues, etc. went largely unreported and thus there was little public knowledge and outcry over the impact. Given the 24/7 coverage by ESPN, numerous beat writers, etc. that is no longer the case and athletes under the microscope are constantly in the headlines as more are aware of what is taking place.

    Much the same can be said of government/politics in general and at the local level in particular. There is a growing interest in such hot button issues as development and local officials have come under increased scrutiny by the citizens and the press alike. As a result, the "traditional" manner of conducting business at the local level is increasingly questioned as are the motivations and interests of the decision makers, many of them long time "public" servants. Is this intense scrutiny necessarily a bad thing, I think not. Those current in a position of authority and those contemplating holding office need to realize this dynamic and understand that when some citizens, particularly those with an agenda or a gripe, see smoke they will find or create the fire.

  • At 12/14/2005 9:14 AM, Blogger Will Vaught said…

    This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  • At 12/14/2005 9:42 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Responding to anon 1:29am, the gentleman in question, Sam Coleman, an honest man if there ever was one, and the last thing from his mind was probably any thoughts of conflict of interest.

    This is not Washington D.C. folks, everybody in this community knows everyone else and there are still people in public office that do protect the public interest and do have ethics and standards.

    Speaking of standards Will, can't you express youself without the use of the "F" word?

    "What are the residents of crestview a bunch of goons? lynch mob" ask. Close to it, look up the word intimidation.

    I repeat this is a small community, all the more reason why reputations are important and should be protected.

  • At 12/14/2005 10:20 AM, Blogger Will Vaught said…

    This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  • At 12/14/2005 10:50 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said…


    re timing, I just found out about this site so my participation had nothing to do with last nites meeting.

    I realize PE is not Utopia, but I do know the facts and you are barking up the wrong tree in this case.Strange to say I agree with many of the observations made about the potential for wrongdoing in small communities. This is just not one of them.I know that's hard to swallow.

    What about Sally G.'s failure to recuse herself???

    I'm just a private citizen, not a developer, who is looking for some balanced reporting, fairness, and some protection for peoples reputations.

    Despite the outcome last nite, I doubt we have heard the last from the Crestview group.

    I'm not intimadated in the least, the facts are on my side.

    Good luck in your future bubble bursting!

  • At 12/14/2005 11:04 AM, Blogger Will Vaught said…

    Ok, I apologize for any comments that I made that used profanity. I got a little carried away. I want to say that regardless of your opionion/view of the Dunn Deal, I welcome a logical and good spirited debate on the issues.

    Thank you to everyone who has commented!

    We know that such issues can make people very emotional. I even got caught up in my own emotions, and had to take a step back!

    Regardless, as I have always stated, the intent of this blog is not to assualt certain individuals' character or ethics, but to instead point out basic facts that are docmumented in the public record and local media (Farmville Herald & CB Journal)

    I STAND BEHIND EVERYTHING I'VE WRITTEN IN REGARDS TO PRINCE EDWARD, and would love for anyone to explain to me how I have misinterperted or mistated the basic facts in regards to any entry concerning Prince Edward.

    Thus far, I haven't read a cogent fact based reply that catagorically repudiates any of the blog entries regarding Prince Edward. Instead, I've seen several "warm and fuzzy" post, that don't even attempt to analyze the basic questions at hand.

    I think Clara Pellar would ask "Where's the beef?"

    Once again, I appreciate and welcome all comments regarless if I agree with them or not! WV

  • At 12/14/2005 4:15 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    This has been an interesting discussion. But, when all is said and done, this story is more about personal ethics than about any specific legal violations. Those of us who work for the public, at least most of us, know that we are not only supposed to avoid actual conflicts of interest, but we are also supposed to avoid appearances of conflict of interest. The general rule is to keep your hands clean and on the table at all times. In this story, it is understandable that the public might perceive that a father's natural feelings to help his adult son in business, could compromise his impartiality when considering the public business at hand. It could happen quite innocently. So as others have already suggested, an up-front disclosure would probably have saved the father a lot of grief.

  • At 12/14/2005 5:19 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  • At 12/14/2005 10:32 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…


  • At 12/14/2005 11:19 PM, Blogger Will Vaught said…

    Anon 10:50:

    You stated that Sally G. should have recused herself from the vote (I assume last night, or some other time)? What would be the basis of recusing herself? Do you know an obvious confilict of interest that would warrant her doing this? Please explain..

    You also mention that "the facts in this case are on your side" (more or less) so i can assume - since you stated you are not a developer - that you find nothing troubling about this Dunn Development? really? Therefore, if the facts are indeed "on your side" please present them, you can post them here (which would be ideal) or e-mail them to me - so I could then write an entry dubunking this entry (and the other two) as a misrepresentation of the facts, which I'd be more than happy to do..I'll be waiting...

    Also, I think the last poster brings up a good point. The fact that Mr. Coleman sits on the PE Planning Commission, and his son worked for the developer (through Maxey Hines) IS NOT ILLEGAL, but rather not disclosing their realtionship gives (to some) the appearance of poor judgement, or (to some) poor ethics. That is all.

    This is in no way an attempt to assail Mr. Coleman's charater, he obviously serves his community on the PC, he just needs to undertand that he needs to properly disclose any potential "conflict" in the future in order to dispell the appearance of favoritism...

    I know the Virginia Citizens Planning Association (VCPA) holds tri-annual training sessions for members of local PC through out the state of VA. The VCPA is a non-profit that conducts training courses in order to give the "citizen planner" a base knowlege of the role and expectations of PC members. I have a friend who has attended this, and he informed me that ETHICS is the first topic covered in this course (3 day course) I wonder how many members of the PE Planning Commission have attended this training session, it might be a good idea...look into it, for sure..WV

  • At 12/15/2005 9:53 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said…


    I agree with you 100 %. A few folks have made comments that are indeed "warm and fuzzy" but do not attempt to back their assertations with hard facts. For example, comments like "this isn't D.C", or "this is a small town and folks care about their reputations", and so forth indeed have very little substance, and do not speak to the larger issues that you have pointed out in this blog.

    I would actually argue that the fact PE is relatively small is part of the problem. So far it looks as if Will's reasonable challenge for someone to produce facts that rationally dispute the article(s) have fallen on deaf ears. I am waiting too!

  • At 12/15/2005 10:21 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said…


    I am a resident of Prince Edward and have been interested in this story, both here and in the Herald since it began.

    If you will indulge me, I would like to make a point responding to Anon 10:50 who asked the question: "What about Sally G.'s failure to recuse herself?"

    While I did not attend the particular meeting in which this issue came up, I know people who did. I understand that the issue of Supervisor Gilfillan's "conflict" was, in fact, brought up by Planning Commission Vice Chairman Sam Coleman moments after he was revealed to be the father of the engineer representing the Dunn Brothers, seemingly as an attempt to deflect attention from his own digression.

    The difference here is that Supervisor Gilfillan has made no secret of the fact that she lives in close proximity to the Dunn Brothers project. In fact, by election law, all Supervisors are supposed to live in their own election districts. The idea of an elected Supervisor recusing themselves from an issue because they live in the district they represent is a ridiculous concept.

    Anon 10:50 appears either not to fully understand the election laws of residency requirement or the concept of appearances of conflict of interest.

  • At 12/15/2005 10:52 AM, Blogger Will Vaught said…

    Good post. It appears that Anon 10:50 am attempt to insinuate that Supervisors Gillifan had a conflict of interst in the Dunn Development because she lives in the neighborhood that would be directly impacted by the 270 townhouse units is a "paper thin" argument at best, and and at worse a silly/feeble attempt to create a "controversy".

    I guess this is why my question about Supervisors Gillifans "conflict" was never answered. Thanks for enlightining me to Supervisors Gillifans "confilict", how does she sleep at night? WV

  • At 12/15/2005 2:18 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    It seems unlikely that anything I have to say, counter to your position, would fall on "deaf ears".

    Let's shorten the debate by accepting the notion that Sally G. and her minions will try to gain relief in the courts. That's provided the charges of any malfeasasnce will stand up.

    So I'll spare you any further comment. Time will tell and we will wait for the passage of time to decide the issue, and, oh yes, reveal whose facts are the more correct.

    I am glad that this site exists even if we are on opposite sides of the issue.

  • At 12/15/2005 3:43 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Anon 2.18 p.m., who has made some astonishing non-charges, says when all the "facts" come out, we will see that (s)he was in the right. How would we know? The writer has not given us any facts to evaluate.

  • At 12/15/2005 8:06 PM, Blogger Will Vaught said…

    i would argue that sally's "minions" are the people who voted her into office. once again the "we shall see when the facts come out" is really, not an arguement at all. it sounds like sour grapes...but thanks for the comment!

    and as far as the citizens of PE "gaining relief in the courts", this is very unlikely. legal presidence in virginia essentially makes overturning a local government land use decison based on substantive grounds virtually impossible, though there could be a fairly solid case in the Dunn Deal...

    whereas court's in virginia are more likely to rule in favor of the plantiff based on issues concerning due process (like makeing sure citizens where properly notified, signs, adertising hearings etc.)...not following procedural guidelines is more likey to get a local government's ruling overturned...but (and here's the catch) all the local governing body has to do then is go back through the process, advertise, pay attention to procedural matters and then approve the land use change...easy enough..why else do you think Chariman Fore sent the Dunn Deal back to square one? because someone - maybe even PE befuddled legal council - advised the county that not following proper procedure would indeed be a sure way to get their decision thrown out, even if only for a short time...

  • At 2/09/2006 9:54 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Will Vaught, do you have a job?
    Do you work night shift?
    Do you blog at work?
    Are you violating employers trust?
    Is this illegal or unethical?
    Shine that light baby!!!
    It is a noble calling.
    Thank you Will.

  • At 4/24/2006 11:20 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    You are not the only ones with problems with the Dunn Brothers. Try Culpeper County. We think they have a county inspector in their pocket. Several decks that the Dunn Brothers have built onto houses they have constructed have FAILED inspection and the country has been lax in going after them for corrections. How many other officials have they paid for favors???

  • At 6/30/2006 1:01 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    We still have big problems with the Prince Edward Board / Remax question. Lost bid documents in the Courthouse. How convenient? Big fees paid to realtors for no services. Money for nothing. Who gets the money? This problem is not going away until there are answers.


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