Clarke County’s land planning regulations, designed to preserve farmland and protect groundwater, may have exactly the opposite effect when it comes to a subdivision being proposed by the Salvation Army for its “by-right” subdivision currently just west of the Clarke County High School.
The 400-acre Salvation Army tract, once considered as a potential site for the new Clarke County High School but later rejected, is now in the planning stages for a major sub-division that will span an existing farmland tract that stretches between Westwood Road and Triple J Road.
On Thursday several Clarke County Planning Commissioners met to review the Salvation Army’s plan for housing site configuration and proposed road alignment. Several commissioners didn’t like what they saw.
“This proposal is god-awful when it comes to planning” said Clarke County Supervisor Pete Dunning (White Post). Dunning represents the Clarke County Board of Supervisors on the Planning Commission.
Although the Salvation Army applied and gained approval for the site plan over six years ago no formal development plans materialized until earlier this year, in part due to the protracted negotiations with the county over the eventual selection of a different site for the new high school and due to the economic decline of the housing market.
H. Robert Showers, attorney for the Salvation Army has requested approval for a 22-lot subdivision. The property, located at 642 Westwood Road in the Longmarsh Magisterial District, is zoned Agricultural Open Space Conservation (AOC).
As the housing economy began to show tepid signs of recovery, the Salvation Army recommenced the formal approval process for the site. However, several planning commissioners at Thursday’s meeting seemed perplexed at how to best deal with the proposal given that six of the 22 approved building sites appear better suited for a “cluster” development rather than the existing configuration where site placement does not confirm to the county’s land planning goals.
Thursday’s planning discussion centered on how site changes could preserve farmland, limit possible groundwater contamination and better manage future traffic flows. While planning commissioners had many views on what should and should not be done, the final decision on any changes rests with the Salvation Army because the subdivision’s site plan has already be approved by the county.
One concern about the property centers on transportation access. The Salvation Army site is currently configured with two roads; a private easement road from Triple J road serving six lots on the western side of the site and a separate public access road, built to Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) standards, serving the remaining lots.
“If they were to move those six lots [currently sited along the already-approved private easement road] back into a cluster with the other lots it makes a lot better planning sense and eliminates the through-traffic problem” Supervisor Dunning said. “I think that we’d support that idea because it would also keep a section of the property open that could still be used as a farm.”
While the two planned roads do not connect, the terminus of the private easement street is separated from a portion of the public access road by only 700 feet prompting concern of a future connection that could allow vehicles to “bypass” Route 7 by cutting through the planned subdivision.
“If the roads are connected you’d have a situation where people going to a football game or to the school would find it quicker to cut through a neighborhood rather than getting on Route 7” Dunning said. “There are situations where roads like this are not good planning.”
Dunning’s suggestions, if implemented, would not only preserve a large section of open space and limit traffic flow through the property, it would also remove the six already approved septic fields from the property’s poorer soils, which are suspected of containing sinkholes, to the area of the property served by the public access road where soils are thought to be better for supporting septic fields.
On April 1 the Planning Commission postponed action on formal approval of the subdivision and instead requested a karst study of the property. Although, current septic fields and well sites have already been approved by the Virginia Department of Health, a karst study could complicate the Salvation Army’s plans if it were to reveal sinkholes or other problems associated with septic fields or well sites and could give the county leverage to insist on a reconfiguration of the current site plan.
At the moment, however, the Salvation Army has no obligation to change any of its plans. In fact, existing county zoning regulations would penalize the Salvation Army by reducing its development unit rights on the parcel were it to go along with the county’s vision for improving the site plan.
“Under our regulations you can only merge one lot every two years” Planning Commission Chairman George Ohrstrom (Russell) said.
Zoning Administrator Jesse Russell confirmed the restriction.
“If the landowner merged the six parcels they would lose the development rights under our zoning ordinance” Russell said. “We made the ordinance restrictive for a very good reason but in this situation it hurts because merging the properties will result in fewer development unit rights.”
Normally when a subdivision is being assembled from multiple properties, as is the case with the Salvation Army project, a developer simply “merges” the lots into a single parcel so that improved traffic flows, as well as septic and open space goals, are not limited by property boundaries within the larger parcel. However, the Salvation Army chose not to formally merge the properties prior to designing it subdivision plan.
Clarke County zoning regulations purposely limit a landowner’s ability to transfer development rights from one property to another.
County attorney Robert Mitchell, also in attendance at the meeting, confirmed that there wasn’t much authority for the commissioners to intervene given that the Salvation Army’s site plan had already been approved.
“The problem is going to be that if they start moving property lines around it’s going to limit their ability to transfer development unit rights” Mitchell said.
Mitchell also reminded the commissioners that if a subdivision conforms to the zoning ordinance then it must be approved by right.
“If the zoning ordinance wasn’t in place we could do something good like Pete is suggesting” Ohrstrom added. “But because of this we can’t do it.”
Mitchell also pointed out that the final disposition of a 71-acre parcel designated as “educational use” that has been requested by the Clarke County School Board cannot be settled until subdivision receives final approval.
“Because the 71-acres tract is not a separate parcel now, it cannot be conveyed until the subdivision has been approved” Mitchell said.
While several of the committee’s members seemed hopeful that an improved subdivision design was still possible, if not probable, at least one planning commissioner voiced opposition to getting involved in redesigning the Salvation Army’s land use proposal.
“It’s not our job to redesign someone’s subdivision plan” said Planning Commissioner Tom McFillen (Berryville). “It’s our job to vote it â€˜up’ or â€˜down’”.
But Supervisor Dunning seemed less willing to throw in the towel just yet.
“Maybe there’s room for a compromise here” Dunning said.
The Planning Commission will discuss the matter with Salvation Army representative Robert Sowers, a Leesburg attorney, at its next meeting on May 6th.