A Charlottesville planning commissioner’s tweets targeting a local business owner have prompted an apology from the planning commission’s head and a statement from the mayor calling the language used “unfortunate.”
But Tomas Rahal, the owner of the Quality Pie restaurant in the city’s Belmont neighborhood, said he is still worried that a city official is trying to drive him out of business.
In a Feb. 16 tweet, Planning Commissioner Rory Stolzenberg responded to a Daily Progress story about the difficulties Rahal’s business has faced during the ongoing construction on the Belmont Bridge by his establishment.
Rahal has requested financial assistance from the city, as the work on the bridge often blocks access to Quality Pie.
“If you sue to stop affordable housing for people with intellectual disabilities, you don’t get city subsidies. Sorry, I don’t make the rules,” Stolzenberg tweeted, which attracted dozens of likes and elicited a call to boycott Quality Pie.
The tweet references a 2019 incident in which Rahal and a group of other Belmont residents opposed the rezoning of Hinton Avenue Methodist Church that allowed the construction of multifamily housing there. Plans called for affordable housing and several units reserved for people with intellectual disabilities to be constructed on church property.
Rahal was one of 31 people who requested a judge overturn City Council’s Aug. 5 decision to unanimously approve the project, called Rachel’s Haven.
At the time, the group cited a lack of sufficient notice for public discussion and violations of the city’s Comprehensive Plan.
The lawsuit was dropped in late 2020, and construction on Rachel’s Haven is slated to start in 2024.Rahal told The Daily Progress that he opposed the rezoning, not the project itself.
“Nobody was objecting to building residences for people with intellectual handicaps. What we were against was making the neighborhood vulnerable to exploitation by unsavory developers,” he said. “Everyone dropped their objection to it, myself included.”
Rahal said he thought the past matter was just that: in the past.
That was until he was contacted by an attorney who questioned the legality of Stolzenberg’s tweets.
Rahal said he had not seen the tweets until the attorney brought them to his attention.
“He basically asked people to help us go out of business,” Rahal said.
Stolzenberg told The Daily Progress on Tuesday that the planning commission does not decide who receives money from the city and that his tweet expressed his personal opinion. He said he would not be commenting further.
The Charlottesville Planning Commission is a seven-member administrative entity established by City Council which recommends to the council land use policies in accordance with the city’s Comprehensive Plan. The commission serves primarily in an advisory capacity, making recommendations on applications for special use permits, special exceptions, subdivisions, rezonings and development code amendments.
City Council appoints members to the commission. Stolzenberg has been a member of the commission since October 2018.
After speaking with the attorney, Rahal reached out to Planning Commission Chair Lyle Solla-Yates to bring the tweet to his attention.
“This is news to me and bad news,” Solla-Yates told Rahal in an email dated Feb. 24 obtained by The Daily Progress.
Rahal asked Solla-Yates whether the commission’s bylaws allowed for Stolzenberg’s tweets.
In response, Solla-Yates quoted from the planning commission’s bylaws:
“Any views expressed or actions taken by a member of the Commission in any other forum, or as a member of another board, commission or task force shall be for all purposes considered the views or action of such member as an individual, and should be identified as such by that member.”
Stolzenberg’s tweet did not identify his disagreement with Rahal as his personal view, yet Solla-Yates said Stolzenberg had a right to his opinion.
“Any member is free to boycott your establishment if they wish, though I personally would not recommend this,” Solla-Yates told Rahal. “I hope you are well otherwise and am sorry to hear that you have been troubled by this.”
Charlottesville Mayor Lloyd Snook took issue with the tweet’s language, saying the rules Stolzenberg referred to do not exist.
“I think it is unfortunate that he made reference to ‘the rules,’ when there aren’t any actual rules,” Snook told The Daily Progress in an email on Monday.
As far as the rules that govern planning commissioner’s behavior, Snook said, they are largely toothless.
“They are at most inspirational, not disqualifiers,” Snook said.
Snook said the city’s attorney had warned City Council in the past that punishing officials for exercising free speech could be a “problem.”
“I don’t really want to get the City Council in the business of monitoring the social media posts of the hundreds of people who are members of our boards and commissions,” he said. “We have intentionally tried to be pretty wide-open in terms of what we allow people to say. They will sometimes say some dumb things. That doesn’t mean that we fire them.”
In the meantime, between the online chatter and the ongoing construction, Rahal remains concerned that his business will not survive.
There is still at least one more year to go before construction on the Belmont Bridge is completed, according to the city. Rahal said he’s lost 40% of the business he had before the work began, his staff has shrunk from 15 people to three and he hasn’t paid himself in four years.