Planners Tighten Reins on Institutional Land Use

In a split decision on Friday, the Clarke County Planning Commission moved to amend the county’s zoning ordinance by tightening rules governing institutional uses in rural sections of the county. The proposed changes, in part, are intended to refine the zoning ordinance language that allowed Georgetown University to win zoning approval for a retreat center to be built in an area of the county that the board deems to be poorly equipped to handle the large volume of people and traffic that the facility will attract.

While the proposed zoning changes must still be reviewed and approved by the Board of Supervisors before becoming law, it is unlikely that the amended ordinance will encounter any serious resistance because the revision was initiated at the request of the Supervisors.

A proposed change in the Clarke County Zoning Ordinance will provide stronger control over future institutional land use applications like the Georgetown University retreat center

The proposed changes will restrict what county officials view as overly permissive land uses in Agricultural-Open Space-Conservation (AOC) and Forestry-Open Space-Conservation (FOC) Zoning Districts by reclassifying building uses like schools, fire and rescue and churches from “institutional use” to “community service use” and limiting permissible overnight lodging in such facilities. If adopted, the zoning changes would make facilities like Grafton School and Holy Cross Abbey, each with long-standing traditions of overnight lodging,” non-conforming” uses.

While yesterday’s approval came after many work sessions and discussions between both the planning commissioners and the supervisors, several planning commission members used the public hearing for one last opportunity to voice dissension.

Planning Commissioner Chip Steinmetz (Berryville)described the zoning amendments as “a solution in search of a problem”. “For me, before we limit land uses there has to be a present and immediate concern that we are trying to address. I don’t see an immediate problem here and I have a real problem in limiting someone’s use of their land.” Steinmetz said. “I’m not sure what we’re doing here. If you want to sell your land in the future some of your rights will have been taken away. I don’t see a justification for doing this. Why did we ever go down this road?”

“We went down this road because we were asked to by the Board of Supervisors” Planning Commission Chariman George Ohrstrom replied to Steinmetz. “After Georgetown came in, having a retreat center on the books creates the potential for a much larger useby someone else. With the changes on spetic use at the state level it makes things even more complex.” Orhstrom, who later voted against the amendment, conceded that

In May 2010, the Clarke County Board of Supervisors voted to allow Georgetown University to proceed with plans to build a retreat center on the Blue Ridge in the eastern section of the county. The settlement, reached after Georgetown pressed its land use application in court, restricted the facility to seven acres of the 55-acre site. In addition, the supervisors limited the number of occupants allowed at the retreat center and the number of vehicle trips allowed to the site annually.

The Georgetown decision came after more than a year of legal and political posturing between the Board of Supervisors and the university. After the Supervisors initially rejected Georgetown’s application for a special use permit in May 2009, Georgetown responded with a civil complaint  in Clarke County Circuit Court arguing:

“The retreat center would have minimal impact on the surrounding community, and on public infrastructure and services […] Georgetown has also expended significant funds in pursuit of the Application which have effectively gone to waste because of the Board’s decision.”

The threat of Georgetown’s litigation ultimately resulted in a 3-2 vote to allow the application. Several supervisors later said that they were concerned that the county would have lost the issue in court and subsequently weakened the county’s zoning authority.

On Friday, Commissioner Richard Thuss (Buckmarsh)said that he was concerned about the same fundamental issue as Steinmetz. “It seems like we are limiting people’s rights without any reason” Thuss said. “This appears to be based on a fear that the supervisors have about possible future land uses.”

Clarke County Planning Adminstrator Chuck Johnston countered that the threat of additional Georgetown-esque development   in Clarke County was unfounded. “I believe that the supervisors think that Clarke County could become an attractive place for similar retreat applications by large organizations seeking a quiet, rural area. If there were several of these uses in Clarke County it could impact the low-density characteristic of the area and have an impact on adjacent properties.”

Commissioner Thuss then asked why the county could not, instead, “deal with each land use application as it comes up.” Planning Commissioner Brumback (White Post) supported Thuss’s position.

“I kind of go along with Richard [Thuss] on this”Brumback said. “What if a farm wanted to have an overnight country get-away camp for kids from the inner-city? As it becomes harder to make a living in traditional agriculture there are going to be more of these kinds of issues” Brumbach said alluding to the proposed restrictions on applications that support over-night lodgers.

Friday’s Planning Commission public hearing included a public comment period. Although there were no public comments offered and only one member of the general public present at the public hearing, Clarke County Board of Supervisors chairman Michael Hobert (Berryville) was in attendance. Seeing Hobert in the meeting room, Planning Commission Vice Chairman Anne Caldwell (Millwood) directed a hypothetical question to the Board of Supervisors chairman.

“Several planning commissioners went to the meeting with the Board of Supervisors” Caldwell said to Hobert. “The sense that we had was that several of the supervisors are adamantly opposed to allowing overnight facilities in Clarke Coutny under any conditions. If this amendment doesn’t fly would the Board of Supervisors approach change?”

“The best way for the Planning Commission to be effective would be to make a recommendation to the Board of Supervisors rather than simply taking and up-or-down vote” Hobert replied. “Many of the supervisors are concerned that if we leave the door open on a case-by-case basis we could be inviting major expense, public hearings and other problems for zoning applicants. The Board of Supervisors wants to clearly state where are as a community so that organizations don’t spend a lot of money on land use applications that Clarke County doesn’t want.

The Planning Commission went on to approve the zoning changes on a four-to-three vote with commissioners Brumback (White Post), Caldwell (Millwood), McFillen (Berryville) and Nelson (Russell) in favor. Commissioners Orstrom (Russell), Thuss (Buckmarsh) and Steinmetz (Berryville) were opposed.

Supervisor Pete Dunning (White Post) and planning commissioner Beverly McKay (White Post) were not present for the meeting.

The proposed changes must still be approved by the Clarke County Board of Supervisors before becoming law.

Other Planning Commission News

As part of its new year duties, the planning commissioners unanimouslyre-confirmed George Ohrstrom as chairman and Anne Caldwell as vice-chairman.