Where we stand with the comprehensive plan

Rick Kohler

The Rappahannock County Planning Commission was created in 1962 to implement zoning and the first comprehensive plan was created in 1973, agrarian in nature. Farming was the predominant county business and the highway and road systems were not yet highly developed. Modest business development was recommended to be centered around support of the agrarian economy.

In 1996 the comprehensive plan evolved and identified “preservation and enhancement of the natural and historic beauty and the cultural value of the countryside as being of foremost importance.” This plan recommended a two-pronged approach in planning for a sustainable agriculture and tourism-based economy.

Now, 2019 finds the formerly large and dominant cattle farms slowly declining in Rappahannock. However, other agrarian based businesses such as organic vegetable farms, a new orchard, small niche livestock, flora and aquaculture operations, vineyards, wineries, breweries, cideries and distilleries are expanding.

The non-profit organization Businesses of Rappahannock lists a broad array of over 175 members. Sixty-one non-profit enterprises are based in Rappahannock from farms to education, food pantry, arts, animal welfare, affordable housing and more. All of this evidences a strengthening farming (albeit smaller and different) and tourism based economy supplemented by easy access to Shenandoah National Park in the western edge of the county. (Some may not know that the national park is actually inside the county to the top of the Blue Ridge).

A variety of B&B style housing and restaurants are slowly growing to take advantage of the county’s beauty and easy access to tourists from Washington, D.C. environs. Artisan and Civil War Trails are established. The Rappahannock League for Environmental Protection (RLEP) and The Rappahannock County Recreational Facilities Authority (RCRFA) recently teamed and obtained a designation for the Rappahannock County Park on Route 211 opposite Washington as a Silver Tier International Dark Skies Park.

In spite of this growing activity, many citizens and businesses continue to struggle with lack of good internet and cell service, a difficult issue based on today’s technology, county topography, provider profit margins and a desire to preserve the county’s look.

The population of Rappahannock remains somewhat steady, yet is aging while the school population is in decline. Many new homeowners are not full time residents and these homes appear to make up a significant share of new construction. This poses future challenges and potential opportunities for county systems, budgets, land use, fire and emergency services, schools, elder care, aging in place and affordable housing.

With these emerging patterns of change comes a responsibility to plan 5, 10, 25 and 50 years ahead if Rappahannock County is to preserve and maintain its historic and cultural legacy and the long-term value of the county’s scenic beauty so popular with its citizens.

Enter the Comprehensive Plan and Planning Commission

As an analogy, the Comprehensive Plan is a funnel of sorts, with specificity and date of impact rather broad, but only those items that can pass through the wide end of the funnel (the comp plan end) can make their way out the spout or narrow end of the funnel to the specificity of zoning ordinances. The comp plan should be visionary with respect to land use (ie: zoning and subdivision) and issues that have a nexus to land uses. Items that do not have a connection to land uses or zoning and subdivision are not appropriate in a comprehensive plan.

The plan should identify what the citizens want for the future with respect to land uses and how that vision may impact our community systems such as education, fire and rescue, courts, policing, housing, broadband, cell service, retail etc.  A limited growth strategy such as Rappahannock’s is much different than a high growth strategy that requires more and more local government services, so our plan is quite different from most, particularly those counties similar in size but seeking growth to increase their tax base.

Any time we consider a new or modified zoning ordinance (which is very specific in time and detail) we must first ask is it supported by the comp plan. That is, does the new idea fit within the vision of the plan, the opening of the funnel? If not, it would not be supported and the idea would need to be reshaped or we would need to ask ourselves if our vision shifted. If our vision shifted, the comp plan can be modified after properly advertised public hearings at the Planning Commission and Board of Supervisors.

For example, if the comp plan stated the future land use vision for the county was to have no area where utility scale solar (designed to serve more load than what is located on the parcel) was appropriate, then subsequently passing an ordinance stating utility scale solar was a good use of agricultural land would not be supported and the resulting ordinance could be challenged.

The comprehensive plan has a role in the decision of whether a particular parcel is an appropriate place for a Special Use Permit (SUP) or a Special Exception (SE). For example, a multi-family dwelling is only permitted via a SUP in certain zoning districts. In determining whether a multi-family use is appropriate for a specific parcel, zoning ordinance 170-52 lists several General Standards that must be considered. Included in these general standards are 170-52.E&J requiring the comp plan to be used in assessing the future impact of the proposed use. We know the plan speaks of supporting residential development in the villages, so if a SUP was submitted for a multi-family use in a village area, that would be important.

The Planning Commission is tasked with preliminary review and recommendations to the ultimate governing bodies for SUPs (eventually approved or disapproved by the Board of Zoning Appeals) and SEs (approved or disapproved by the Board of Supervisors). The process recognizes some uses are not appropriate everywhere in a given zoning district, but are in some areas. When the approving agencies consider SUP’s and SE’s they do so by taking many factors into consideration as driven by zoning ordinances which are also written by the Planning Commission.

Where the Comp Plan stands today

There are 8 chapters to the plan. At this time the plan is out of date and also does not address items now required by state statute, those being affordable housing and broadband service.

Chapters 1-5 of the plan provide updated county statistics from climate to population, housing, school attendance, farming, soils, income, police, medical facilities, waste disposal and more and is supplemented by statistics, graphs and maps.

Chapter 6 is the heart of the plan. It addresses the goals, principles and policies of the plan.

Chapter 7 addresses future planning.

Chapter 8 addresses the implementation of the plan through zoning, subdivision ordinances, ag/forestal Districts, land use and easements.

The Planning Commission is currently finishing up work on a new draft plan adding affordable housing and broadband service to chapter 6, along with other items including solar farms, cell towers, mining and drilling, protection of water sources, protection of mountain ridges and more. These amendments will soon be available for review and eventual comment at public hearings before the Planning Commission and eventually before the Board of Supervisors, at which time the supervisors will either accept the changes, amend them or return the plan to the commission for further work.

It is important to understand the Planning Commission meets once a month and has no staff. The seven Planning Commissioners consist of one appointee from each magisterial district, one member of the BZA and one from BOS. All have regular jobs and are basically volunteers. Each month they hear preliminary SUP and SE applications which typically require site visits and document study. Some of these applications are heard and moved on to BOS or BZA, but some must return to the commission for a subsequent public hearing, as the commissioners must make a recommendation for approval or denial to the BZA or BOS.

Planners are further tasked with reviewing, and amending as necessary, the entire comprehensive plan every five years, with any amendments to be scheduled for public hearings before being presented to the BOS. Finally, they are responsible for writing amendments to zoning ordinances and writing new zoning ordinances as may be required by state statute or federal laws. For instance, the sign ordinance for the county is not in compliance with First Amendment requirements and needs to be rewritten, as do similar ordinances throughout Virginia.

Last month, the BOS agreed to fund $5,000 for a professional planning company to review Planning Commission changes to the comp plan, identify any potential problems, suggest potential changes and confirm we are in compliance with state statutes and the plan meets the county goals. For this funding the planners are deeply grateful. This is a good and welcome start of staffing needed to assist the commission with its vast array of duties.

To conclude, the comprehensive plan is progressing. Updates and proposed amendments are much better than before and it will be in compliance with state statutes. Also, it is important to remember the plan can be updated as needed. There is no necessity to wait five years before making another change. The plan is always open to improvement as circumstances and issues dictate, but any change requires study, recommendations, written language to fit the plan, review and public hearing by the Planning Commission, a public hearing and final determination of approval by the BOS.

— The writer represents the Piedmont District on the Planning Commission.

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