Viewshed register to gauge impact of future development in scenic areas

‘The idea of preserving a view is not for somebody’s private purpose. It’s for a public purpose, for everybody in the world to enjoy’

It won’t be long before planning, zoning, and land-use officials across the state will have an innovative new tool to help preserve scenic areas and plan for appropriate development.

It’s called a “viewshed register.” Conceived by Scenic Virginia, a 25-year-old nonprofit whose mission is “to preserve, protect, and enhance the scenic beauty of Virginia,” the viewshed register would be an online collection of photos of scenic places.

According to Rappahannock County’s own Phil Irwin, a Scenic Virginia trustee, “You could take a camera and from a public location, take a picture of what you consider a valuable scenic location, a viewshed.”

These photos would be uploaded and made available to anyone, such as county planning commissions.

This scenic view from Woodville looking west into Eldon Farms and Shenandoah National Park will hopefully be preserved well into the future. The photo was taken just before sunset Sunday evening. By John McCaslin

As an example, he says, imagine standing along the side of Route 211, and photographing a mountain view. That picture would be of a viewshed. “Most cameras will record the GPS coordinates as the picture is taken. Anybody can call up the picture by its coordinates or subject.”

Then, a planning commission or anyone else considering the impact of a specific development could photoshop a proposed building, vineyard, power line, or other infrastructure onto the photo to see how the viewshed might be affected.

“If [planners] were going to be making a decision as to what and where to locate growth, they would be able to project what that growth would mean to that particular viewshed,” says Phil. “What would be the impact of it? Would it be a clear cutting for a transmission gas or electric corridor? Would it be building a chicken coop? It doesn’t matter what kind of growth you were planning. You could impose — or project it — onto that particular viewshed and see what the impact would be.”

As far as he knows, no other state has instituted a program of this type. To implement the register, Scenic Virginia has commissioned the Virginia Polytechnic Institute to develop the statewide program.

“It’s coming along nicely,” says Phil. “It’s not a cheap thing for Scenic Virginia to do, but we consider it to be one of the most effective tools that we have in our toolbox for planning what Virginia’s going to look like in the future.”

Phil introduced the concept to the Rappahannock County Planning Commission at a recent work session. At that time, he suggested that a simple change to Principle 3 in Chapter 6 of the Comprehensive Plan “would acknowledge the fact that this is going to happen statewide and we welcome it here in Rappahannock . . . as a tool for our toolbox. Many of the commissions were interested.”

He proposes this change: “Support the conduct of a [viewshed] inventory to identify environmentally [and visually] significant lands…”

Phil helped found the Rappahannock League for Environmental Protection (RLEP) almost 50 years ago and remains active. “We’ve been responsible for a lot of the way Rappahannock county is today. We were successful in two powerline fights.”

When asked why the viewshed photos should be from a public place, Phil responds. “The idea of preserving a view is not for somebody’s private purpose. It’s for a public purpose, for everybody in the world to enjoy.

“We have a unique piece of property here in Rappahannock County. We don’t have to use any of this inventory, but it’s there if we want to use it. [Scenic Virginia] is not trying to impose any future use of it. We just want to make sure it’s there if anyone does want to make use of it.”

About Patty Hardee 285 Articles
Writer, consultant, actor, director, recovering stand-up comic, Patty covers the county’s courts and other topics of interest for Rappahannock News. She lives with her grape-growing husband Bill Freitag in Flint Hill.