County seeks dark skies, comp plan enlightenment

Bureau of Land Management via Flickr.comBureau of Land Management via Flickr.com

The county of Rappahannock may or may not wish to remain in the dark, but the County of Rappahannock definitely does not.

That is, the county government now apparently has two initiatives for which it is seeking, or plans to seek, significant public input. Those are:

— the required every-five-year review of its comprehensive plan, the “map” Rappahannock County leaders will use to determine its direction over the coming decade, a process to be completed by 2016, and

— a resurfaced, and slightly reconfigured, push to preserve the county’s dark skies — by investigating whether there’s support for regulating new residential lighting among the counties that border Shenandoah National Park, a tourism-focused effort that would need regional support and would be pursued in Richmond, which doesn’t now allow local jurisdictions to regulate residential lighting.

The comprehensive plan review, which has continued at a relatively slow pace since last year (and is in the hands of the county’s planning commission and now directed by Deputy County Administrator Debbie Keyser), will speed up this fall — at a planning commission public hearing in September or October, and subsequent hearings at supervisors level.

To increase the amount of public comment on the comprehensive plan, Keyser has posted a survey form on the county’s website (at rappahannockcountyva.gov, under Documents and Notices) that asks residents to answer eight questions, including several asking for which qualities “I never want to see change about Rappahannock County” and which “I want to see change,” and several that seek residents’ “vision” of the county in 10 years — physically, environmentally and socially/economically.

At the supervisors’ monthly afternoon meeting this Monday (Aug. 3), County Attorney Peter Luke and County Administrator John McCarthy made brief comments to the board on Luke’s months-long investigation of amending the county’s lighting ordinance — which primarily requires commercial establishments to use downward-facing lights that decrease “light pollution,” said by global supporters of such efforts to be a health hazard to both humans and wildlife.

Stonewall-Hawthorne supervisor Chris Parrish has been the board’s most enthusiastic supporter of dark-skies-related efforts.

Jackson supervisor Ron Frazier interrupted the discussion following Luke and McCarthy’s comments — the bottom line of which was that the supervisors ought to decide if it should go any further, since it would require finding consensus among the nine or 10 counties that border the park before any approach is made to the General Assembly.

“Why are we even discussing this?” Frazier said. “There might be some people in my district who support [expanding the current regulation of commercial lighting to residential construction], but I don’t think there’s enough of them — and now we’re already talking about expanding this to all the counties around the park?”

“I think it’s important to keep Rappahannock dark,” said Parrish, who noted that, in nighttime satellite photos of the eastern U.S., Rappahannock stands out for its lack of brightness.

“Yes,” said Frazier, a former electrical contractor, “on maps of the world, you always see dark spots in a bunch of Communist countries, and then in Rappahannock, and maybe Highland and Bath counties in Virginia.” It was not clear if he was kidding, and there was laughter after the remark. Frazier said later he wasn’t kidding, but he was smiling when he said that, too.

McCarthy pushed to see if there were three of five supervisors who supported at least moving the initiative forward; Frazier and Hampton district’s Bryant Lee seemed most opposed, but Piedmont district’s Mike Biniek and board chair Roger Welch of Wakefield district said they would support at least looking into it.

Welch briefly recalled, as a child, laying on the ground at night to look up into a starry sky — something, as Parrish pointed out, that isn’t possible any longer throughout much of the East Coast. “I don’t think this effort is going to hurt anyone,” Welch said.

A just-released annual study by the National Park Service estimated that in 2014, visitors to Shenandoah National Park spent $80.4 million “to enjoy nature and the surrounding viewsheds.” It is anticipated by some that night sky viewing within the park will become increasingly more important as visitors seek out locations where better views of the sky are available away from urban and suburban living.

Luke told the supervisors that “I could probably name right now the counties along the park that will support such an effort,” noting Albemarle and Madison counties as likely allies, and some of the counties west of the park, in Shenandoah Valley, as less likely proponents.

McCarthy said later the county will schedule and advertise an evening public “forum” — not a public hearing, since there’s no formal action on the table — on the dark-skies idea. It will most likely happen at the board’s 7 p.m. session on Oct. 5.

Permit posting; finance committee

The board tabled, without comment, an agenda item to consider creating a finance committee — a supervisor-and-staff group that would analyze the counties expenses and its budget process, starting with the fiscal-year 2016-2017 budget next July.

Keyser told the board later that the staff was also working on a salary survey — to compare county staff salaries to those in neighboring jurisdictions.

The board directed McCarthy, as he suggested, to meet with Richie Burke in the county building office to determine the overall cost of having the department’s inspectors be responsible for posting permits on properties involved in applications for zoning changes and special-exception and special-use permits.

The move to requiring permit applicants to post visible signs on the relevant properties grew out of a controversy that resurfaced this winter involving a kennel in Amissville which had been granted a permit to operate the facility even though some neighbors — because of the sometimes unreliable or outdated information available in property-tax records — had not been properly notified of the application.

McCarthy cited a recent Virginia Supreme Court decision in Nelson County which determined that jurisdictions could not require the property owner to post the signs, so he’s been looking into whether the time requirements for posting signs could be met — or should be changed from the current minimum 15 days notice by mail before a hearing date — if the building inspectors, who are out and about anyway, could take on the task. McCarthy said he would report back with a firm cost at the supervisors’ next monthly session at 2 p.m. Sept. 9 (a Wednesday, because of the Labor Day holiday).

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