Will the Town of Hallwood, Virginia settle back into the dust from which it came?
There are a number of small towns and villages all around the Commonwealth that are doing OK. Hallwood is not among them. The diminishing population is now below 300 and shrinking.
A stone’s throw from Chincoteague Island and the Wallops Island Flight Facility, hard times have most definitely settled in on the people of Hallwood.
To be sure, the economy has a lot to do with issues there. Un-Incorporation looms large in the very near future. Jobs are virtually non existent and property values have plummeted. Townsfolk who would like to move find their houses will not sell. Even at the depressed prices they are asking. Some have simply left their houses and moved on, hoping for better times in the near future.
But beyond the obvious problems suffered by many towns, Hallwood has a nasty problem that is draining money and time from the town, making an already bad situation far worse.
Not only is the town using tax money to pay for a police officer and equipment to watch over the two hundred and some residents, trash pickup and assorted functions and expenses, it is carrying on a nearly three decades old feud with one of the residents, and former Town Counsel member John Smith.
Like the Hatfield and McCoy feud, no one is exactly sure when or why the Hallwood – Smith feud started. Everyone agrees that Mr. Smith’s purple bus is probably at the heart of the more recent events in the feud, but not the original cause.
Before we get into the bus incident, a small bit of background would be helpful. John Smith has been around longer than many in town. He was on the Town Counsel and helped write the Town Code and Ordinances. John Smith is a very intelligent man, but underestimated by almost everyone. Which is how he has managed to outsmart the Town for all these years. He knows the laws and stays within them, with the occasional minor fine the town has managed to exact from Smith on a couple of occasions.
Tim Raynor is the Town Mayor. He is also the Chairman of the Accomack Republican Party and a very decent man. Smith and Raynor each speak highly of the other. I spoke to Tim, former counsel member James Dean and a few others familiar with the situation. Delegate Lynwood Lewis has acted as Town Counsel, but may no longer be acting in that capacity.
Now for the bus.
It seems that Smith has a big bus that has been converted into a camper, or mobile home. He painted it purple for sentimental reasons. One of his neighbors complained, but Smith remains within the laws he helped write. As long as the vehicle moves from time to time, has tags and is road worthy, he is perfectly within his rights. But the town tried. Citations, court, and frequent visits by the town cop failed to intimidate Smith.
And Smith painted a big pair of eyeballs on the bus. Was it retaliation? Some think so, but there was an old store on the property that Smith demolished. This store was purple and had eyeballs painted on it. So, Smith was just recreating the theme, which he says many in town were fond of seeing.
But that did not stop the town. They began looking at everything on Smith’s property. He had several trailers (from 18 wheelers) sitting on the ground with the wheels removed, so they were storage sheds. These are a fairly common site in rural Virginia and the Eastern Shore is no exception. Several of the Hallwood residents used them. Smith was not alone.
Smith had some truck tires stacked up on his property. He began to receive complaints about these tires, as his property was zoned Residential. He made arrangements to store them on some land zoned for Agriculture. The owner of this property allegedly began receiving pressure from the town, so he asked Smith to move the tires. Smith then bought a piece of Commercially zoned property on the Main St. When the town began going over his property with a fine tooth comb, looking for anything, Smith began taking pictures of other resident’s yards, including the Town’s officials that are after him.
From these photos, it is clear Mr. Smith has a very good case for selective prosecution, as none of the other residents have been subjected to the level of scrutiny Smith has seen. When you add in the five 3 ring binders and meticulous notes and evey bit of correspondence and numerous recordings over the past few years, it appears to me that Smith is one good attorney away from owning the town of Hallwood.
Now, the latest bit of hoops Smith is having to jump through is concerning a business license. He has applied for and received a business license for several years until recently. The Town refused to give him a business license, then proceeded to take him to court for not having one.
In the court transcript, the court determined that the town could only deny Smith’s Business license if he owed back taxes, which he does not. He was, however, convicted of conducting business without a license because he did not file an application (after being told he would not be granted the license). So, the court clearly stated the Town must grant the license, as it is strictly a revenue vehicle, and has nothing to do with compliance with Town zoning regulations. But since Smith had not filed the application, the Town could not grant the license.
So, Smith recently completed the application, and has received a letter telling him he must first obtain a zoning variance because he is operating a “junk yard”. Smith insists it is a flea market and has requested an appeal to the zoning board, which has so far not happened.
Clearly, the Town is ignoring the court by refusing to give Smith the Business License, and by failing to grant an appeal to the zoning board. Smith is considering his options at this point, which include a writ of mandamus to force the Town to grant the Business License and the hearing by the zoning board. And since the business license issue has already been ruled on by the court, and the transcript is proof, Smith will likely win both the case and his fees and expenses, costing Hallwood residents even more money.
One can understand the Town wanting to keep up a good appearance and the need to enforce ordinances, but this has gone on for years, and with the exception of a small fine or two, Smith has been in compliance with all laws. He has been subjected to microscopic examinations of everything he does, including the town comparing the serial numbers of various parts of his purple bus, and attempting to use a mismatching serial to force him to get rid of the bus. However, since the bus is a salvage (legally), the conflicting serials are also legal.
I doubt many of us could escape the type of scrutiny John Smith has been subjected to and escape with only a couple of small fines. He has had the EPA looking for raw sewage, professionals looking for asbestos from his building demolition, has been accused of storing dangerous chemicals (it was saw dust), and taken to court for stalking because he put up surveillance cameras on his own property to protect himself from intruders and possible tampering. HE was cleared of the charges because the cameras were decoys – filled with concrete.
To be fair, there is more to the story than the Town going after one resident. John Smith is the type of man that when pushed, he pushes back. He has lived within the law, but he knows exactly where the edge is located. When he moved his tires from a residential area to an out of the way agricultural area, the Town was not satisfied. As a result, the tires are now located on Main St. beside the Post Office. Most of the townsfolk would probably have settled for the out of the way field.
One gets the impression that those pushing Smith are likely to wake up one morning with a big purple bus parked next door or across the street from their own property, on a parcel of land Smith recently acquired. Perhaps it will be a double-decker next time.
The only thing that is certain in this feud is that Smith will give as well as he gets. And then some. There is no question that the amount of hideous articles that Smith can legally pile up on his property is nearly unlimited. And there is no question that every time Smith is singled out for prosecution by the Town, they should expect an escalating and antagonistic response from Smith. Right up to the edge of the law.
And this will finally be over once and for all when the Town bankrupts itself, or the residents get tired of paying money to be a Town with the single mission of running one John Smith out of town.
Hopefully, the town of Hallwood, Va. will wake up and see that it is in an expensive battle that cannot be won. At this point, rather than acting like a town, Hallwood seems rather like a Neighborhood Association running wild. It would be far cheaper for the town to revert to unincorporated status rather than continue the Smith vs. Hallwood feud.
If Hallwood is smart, they should simply end this thing right now. But somehow, I believe the battle will continue.
The smart money is on Smith.