County residents, other officials question the need and purpose
Proposals for the most sweeping amendments to the county zoning ordinance in decades are before the county’s Board of Supervisors and Planning Commission. If adopted, these amendments would drastically change the process for consideration and approval of applications for permits for such uses as tourist homes, B&Bs, family apartments, and event venues.
The action comes in the wake of several controversial and contested permit applications in recent months for conference and event centers, wedding venues, and big-crowd festival sites around the county.
A resolution presented at the Sept. 6 BOS meeting by Commonwealth’s Attorney Art Goff and then-Zoning Administrator Dave Dameron states that the amendments would “eliminate the distinction between special permits and special exceptions in favor of a single process of applying for a special exception….”
After review and consideration by the Planning Commission, a final decision would be up to the Board of Supervisors, says the resolution, and “the Board of Zoning Appeals would no longer be involved” in hearing and approving permit applications.
The amendments are reflected in a marked-up copy of the 191-page ordinance posted on Boarddocs before the Planning Commission’s Oct. 18 meeting. Included in that document are several other provisions, that, if adopted, would:
- Change the minimum acreage requirements for tourist homes and boarding houses and eliminate acreage requirements for B&Bs.
- Seemingly expand the authority of the BOS.
- Allow the Zoning Administrator to waive the requirement of a zoning permit for zoning permit for certain kinds of construction on existing structures.
- Limit the BZA to hearing only zoning variances and appeals.
At their Oct. 18 meeting, the planners opened a public hearing which was recessed to be continued at its Nov. 15 meeting.
In the meantime, the BOS is scheduled to hold a public hearing on the amendments next Monday, Nov. 6, at its regular meeting. (At press time, the agenda for Monday’s BOS meeting had not yet been posted on Boarddocs.)
If it chooses, the supervisors could vote at that meeting to adopt the amendments. However, at the Oct. 25 BZA meeting, Hampton supervisor John Lesinski “speaking as a citizen tonight,” said “I do think the Board of Supervisors wants to take the time to be deliberative about it and not rush to judgement on it.”
Lesinski also stated at that meeting that he is a sponsor of the amendments.
At both the Oct.18 Planning Commission meeting and the Oct. 25 BZA meeting, county residents questioned the need for the amendments in light of other needed modifications to the zoning ordinance, as well as the speed with which they seem to be moving through the system, and expressed frustration with the permit process in general.
Arguments for and against
Proponents of the amendments argue that eliminating the BZA from the permit review and approval procedure would streamline the process and make it less confusing. After Lesinski expressed at the Oct. 25 BZA meeting that the permit process is “confusing for applicants,” BZA member David Konick pushed back.
“I’ve heard this argument before,” said Konick. “If someone is confused… there’s only one place where that blame belongs and that’s the office of the Zoning Administrator. There was never confusion when [former County Administrator] John McCarthy was here because he knew the zoning ordinance. Unfortunately, after he left, we had a person who had no experience on zoning.
“As for streamlining the process, it doesn’t streamline anything,” he said. “You still have to go through the flaming hoops.” Currently, applicants still have to go to the Planning Commission and then to either the BZA or the BOS.
In addition, Konick said that the application forms themselves, which have not been updated in decades, are confusing and incomplete. If the forms were updated with all the requirements applicants need to fulfill, as well as a guide to help them complete the forms, much of the confusion would go away. Neighboring counties, can serve as an example, he said. Fauquier County’s application forms spell out the documents and other evidence applicants need to produce before their applications can be considered.
Opponents of the amendments ask if the BOS can realistically take on all the work involved in reviewing and hearing permits. BOS meetings already run late into the night. The Board’s Oct. 2 meeting to consider the Multi-Use Trail ran until after midnight.
A review of Planning Commission actions between November 2016 and September 2017 show the planners heard 18 applications. Of those, 11 were special permit applications that were recommended to the BZA for consideration.
Under the proposed zoning amendments, those 11 applications would have gone to the BOS instead. In the same time period, the Planning Commission also recommended four special exception applications and two zoning applications to the supervisors.
Another argument is around the idea of accountability. At the BZA meeting, Lesinski posited that because the BOS is an elected body, it’s accountable to the citizens. If citizens don’t like BOS decisions, he said, they can voice their opinions at the ballot box.
By contrast, Konick said that the BZA members are appointed by the Circuit Court judge. Because the BZA is not elected, it is above politics. Applicants who disagree with BZA decisions can take their grievance to the courts.
Konick also compared the level of zoning experience between the members of the BZA and the supervisors.
“Look at [the BZA],” he said. “[Among the members] we’ve got [a combined] 75 years of experience” with zoning, planning, and land use issues. And, he went on, everyone on the BZA has also served on the Planning Commission and gone through extensive training.
Lesinski offered another rationale for adopting the amendments — many other counties in Virginia have also eliminated the special use permit. He told the BZA that Dameron had suggested that Rappahannock County follow suit.
To that both BZA chair Alex Sharp and Konick objected.
“We’re different from other areas,” said Sharp. “We don’t have the development pressure of other counties and we don’t have to do things like other counties.”