The multifamily issue: postponed

Supervisors remove highway commercial amendment, ask planners to study further

The Rappahannock County Board of Supervisors, at its afternoon session Monday (Dec. 1), put off indefinitely making any zoning changes that would allow the community-action organization People Inc. to pursue a proposal to turn the vacant Sperryville Emporium building on the county’s western edge into an affordable apartment complex.

Though the organization applied for the special-use permit and got an initial public hearing (well-attended, not well-received) from the planning commission last month on a hastily conceived plan to put 28 units of below-market housing in two new two-story structures on the 11-acre site, it turned out that multifamily housing of such density is not permitted in the county’s highway commercial zone.

After sending a memo of apology to the supervisors for misinterpreting zoning amendments made by the supervisors 25 years ago, County Administrator John McCarthy again apologized at Monday’s meeting, saying his error meant the People Inc. proposal was “effectively dead.”

But McCarthy also included on Monday’s agenda consideration of a resolution to hold public hearings in early 2015 on that same zoning amendment (among others related to state code and flood-plain requirements) — to allow multifamily housing in the highway commercial zone. Highway commercial was a designation the county created in the late 1980s to promote tourism-related businesses along U.S. 211, primarily from the Lee Highway/Sperryville Pike intersection in Sperryville west to the Shenandoah National Park boundary.

Jackson district supervisor Ron Frazier, echoing complaints of the several dozen fiscal-conservative citizens who attended the November planning commission session to raise alarms about People Inc.’s plan, made an immediate motion — on the supervisors standard, start-of-the-meeting resolution to approve its own agenda — that the board only approve the agenda on the condition that the zoning amendment item be removed.

It took a while, mostly in a rapid-fire back-and-forth between Frazier, McCarthy, Stonewall supervisor Chris Parrish and Wakefield representative Roger Welch, the board’s chair, before the resolution came to a vote — and was defeated 3-2, with Hampton supervisor Bryant Lee joining the majority and Piedmont supervisor Mike Biniek joining Frazier.

The issue eventually came up on the agenda — after another half-dozen citizens, some of whom also spoke at the planning commission, rose during the public comment period to reiterate opposition to the People Inc. plan, this time primarily on the grounds that (as former planning commissioner Tom Junk put it) “you can’t change the zoning ordinance to allow one application to go forward,” but also with repeated worries over its potential impact on traffic, crime, schools and the viewshed.

And the board, at McCarthy’s suggestion, then voted unanimously to remove the highway commercial paragraph from the lengthy zoning amendment document and to schedule the remaining changes for a public hearing before the planning commission at its January session. (If the commission recommends approval, it will be heard at a supervisors’ public hearing in February.)

The supervisors agreed to pass on the highway commercial zoning issue to the planning commission for “further study.”

Before the eventual unanimous decision to not decide, McCarthy spoke at length about the project and the larger worry he said he’s always had that the county’s zoning could be eventually challenged in court for being “exclusionary.”

“To defend People Inc. . . . they’re honest brokers, they have a very high reputation for building quality housing, and they do not [as several citizens worried] sell any of the projects they build,” McCarthy said. “They’ve been in business for 50 years and have owned housing developments for 30 years. They’re not in the business of building, and flipping, developments. They’re a quality developer, but . . . yes, they are a developer.

“I think this particular site has a lot of warts and is probably going to die of its own weight,” he added, “because of the water issues, because of the sewer tap rates, because, frankly, as was observed, the very high purchase price,” considering the demolition and building that would be required.

But McCarthy reiterated that the supervisors need to reassess what the highway commercial zone will allow, and under what conditions. Since most of the two-lane portion of U.S. 211 is on Sperryville’s sewer system, it makes multifamily housing more of a possibility. Moreover, considering the county’s already “pretty tight” zoning and the demographic and property-value changes that have raised the median income and land values dramatically over the last 25 years, McCarthy said, the board should consider making changes that would preempt any challenges to a zoning system that “is not necessarily exclusionary in intent, but may be in practice.”

Park patrons — and pests — on the rise

In other actions, the board heard a report from Shenandoah National Park superintendent Jim Northup, who said the park’s visitation is up 13 percent since last October (when a federal government shutdown closed the gates for most of a month). He also reported that the park is focusing on problems caused by the emerald ash borer’s arrival — the nonnative insect preys on ash trees, which Northup said comprise 4 percent of the park’s trees, most of which he said are not expected to survive the infestation in the long run.

Northup said the park is also working on a plan to stem the tide of feral pigs, a fast-growing population on the park’s undeveloped edges that appears to be a combination of escaped domestic stock and wild boar originally imported for hunting purposes. If established in the park, Northup said, the animals would have a “devastating effect” on foliage and ground cover.

Finally, Northup said, the park has developed proposals to deal with the threat of chronic wasting disease, an affliction that kills white-tailed deer and has been now reported within five miles of the park’s northern border. (The always-fatal ailment is spread through saliva, but also through long-lasting soil contamination through urine and feces.) The park’s most likely plan, he said, would deal with the “population-level impact” the disease’s imminent arrival would have, primarily by reducing the density of deer herds in the park, Northup said. Among the park’s estimated 6,000 to 8,000 deer, he said, possibly 200 to 300 would be culled.

Roger Piantadosi
About Roger Piantadosi 544 Articles
Former Rappahannock News editor Roger Piantadosi is a writer and works on web and video projects for Rappahannock Media and his own Synergist Media company. Before joining the News in 2009, he was a staff writer, editor and web developer at The Washington Post for almost 30 years.