Many Clarke County taxpayers have questioned whether county policies are too restrictive when it comes to attracting new businesses and subsequent tax revenues. Clarke County’s land development regulations, known as sliding scale zoning, is the principle land use policy that has shaped county development over the last 30 years. Can commercial development and Clarke County’s sliding scale zoning peacefully coexist with the County’s ever-increasing need to find new revenue sources to pay for county services?
Different people see different things when they look at the economic results of Clarke County’s sliding scale zoning policies. One person may see Clarke County’s vast open spaces and limited commercial development as an island of land use sanity in an ever encroaching sea of urban sprawl. Another person may look at the same area and bemoan why Clarke County has limited shopping choices, restaurants and other urban amenities. Regardless of whichever end of the economic growth spectrum your opinion gravitates toward, one thing is certain; Clarke County’s economic development patterns haven’t developed by accident.
“Our residential zoning is unique” said Clarke County Board of Supervisors chairman Michael Hobert (Berryville). “We adopted â€˜sliding scale’ zoning in 1980. Sliding zoning applies a limited number of dwelling unit rights to every rural portion in the county. As a consequence of that limitation on rural residential development, the County has not had the level of development seen in surrounding jurisdictions. We have protected our agricultural lands for use by the farming community, and the development we are experiencing has been directed to the towns where infrastructure already exists – for example, water, sewer, and parks. One could argue that if the County had unrestrained population growth like we have seen in Loudoun County – up 84% over the last ten year – and Frederick County – up 31% – as opposed to the 10+% growth rate Clarke County experienced, there would be more customers for businesses who would then be more likely to consider locating here. But with that population explosion and sprawl comes a community and culture I believe the vast majority of our citizens do not want. In fact, many have come here to avoid just such a place for themselves and their families.”
When Clarke County’s sliding scale zoning was first adopted over 30 years ago, most people viewed the law primarily as a tool for protecting Clarke County’s vulnerable ground water supplies and for promoting clustered residential development in ways that preserved agriculture open space. At the time, with interest rates were hovering at unprecedented high levels and the US economy was mired in a severe recession, it was unlikely that Clarke’s sliding scale zoning architects could have imagined the level of urban growth pressure that Clarke feels today from Frederick, Loudoun and Warren Counties.
Even so, some have charged that Clarke County’s sliding scale zoning is nothing more than a cleverly designed law that restricts property owner’s ability to develop their land to its highest economic value and causes larger corporations, like big-box retailers and fast food restaurant chains, to steer clear of Clarke.
But does Clarke County’s sliding scale zoning really cast a wet blanket on Clarke County commerce?
Clarke County supervisor John Staelin (Millwood) doesn’t think so.
“To me the answer to this is a clear â€˜no’. One thing businesses want is predictability and Clarke has pre-zoned land so businesses will know exactly what they can and cannot do on any parcel. The main thing Clarke wants is for businesses to be located in the right places. We do not want to encourage sprawl or see large businesses located on narrow rural roads. In addition, we want to avoid polluting our groundwater. As a result of these goals the County has tried to focus new commercial development at major intersections – Waterloo and Double Tollgate – as well as around our towns. Given the current demand there is ample land zoned for commercial use now but as we look to the future we will need to work with the Town of Berryville to find new areas to add to our commercially zoned land” Staelin said.
But while Clarke County’s Supervisors have been cautious about spending tax dollars to expand water and sewer utilities in areas around commercial centers like Double Tollgate and Waterloo, they have demonstrated some willingness to revise land use zoning regulations to facilitate commercial ventures that offer a net tax advantage to the county, like a proposed 20mW solar electricity generation facility being discussed for Double Tollgate.
Supervisor Michael Hobert sees the solar power generation plant as an example of Clarke government’s willingness to collaborate with business to generate needed tax revenues from sources other than Clarke County’s citizens.
“This is not to say we do not have or want to promote zoning that would enable businesses to generate income or relocate to Clarke; rather, that there are limitations associated with smaller populations” said Supervisor Hobert. “In fact, last summer we changed our zoning to permit a solar power generation plant near Double Tollgate in response to a request by Cornerstone Power Development of Chicago, Illinois. We were told the revenue from development of the 145 acre tract will be an estimated $200K-250K in the first year. I was recently told a draft of the site plan prepared by Greenway Engineering is being reviewed by the company prior to meeting with our planning staff for discussion and submission.”
John Staelin agrees. “The solar generation facility is a good example of how Clarke is â€˜open for business’ as long as the business wants to locate in a well-suited location” added Supervisor Staelin.” We did not know much about this new industry before Cornerstone Power Development came to town to explain what they wanted to do. However, once we learned about their industry, what they wanted to do and saw that they had picked an ideal location, we worked closely with the applicant to quickly revise our zoning to allow the desired use.”
Staelin pointed out that an added benefit of the solar power generation facility is its unlikeliness to substantially add to the cost of local government services. And even though long term tax revenues will fall as Cornerstone’s equipment depreciates, Staelin said that the facility will continue to be a good source of revenue for years to come.
While Clarke County does have a few convenience stores, antique shops and service businesses scattered throughout the county, some citizens have voiced the desire for modern strip malls like the ones that are so prevalent in Loudoun, Frederick and Warren County. But if strip development were to come to Clarke County in the near future it will only most certainly end up in existing commercial areas rather than a “green-field” development along Route 7, US 340 or Route 50.
“I do hear complaints about this issue but generally those complaints come from people who do not believe, as I do, that commercial businesses should be located near major intersections or around our towns” said Supervisor Staelin. “Sometimes these people own property outside these designated commercial zones and want to have their land rezoned to a higher value commercial purpose. Other times they just feel that they should be able to use their land as they see fit. Both groups have the right to express their opinions but I feel it is important that businesses be located in the most appropriate places. I also believe we have ample land that is properly zoned and â€˜open for business’”.
However, attracting new commercial investment is only one strategy for creating a strong county tax base, As commercial development has increased in neighboring counties, traditional agricultural land uses have decreased as land is converted from farm fields into office parks. Tourism – often nothing more than a daytrip from Washington’s urban areas to explore nearby rural counties – has also deceased as Loudoun, Frederick and Warren have begun to look more like Fairfax, Montgomery and Washington DC. But unlike in neighboring counties where city visitors may be finding less to travel for, Staelin says tourism is a key part of Clarke’s economic strategy.
“Clarke is taking steps to add to its commercial tax base but given the weak economy and tight county budget we have focused our spending on the things that are likely to help our existing businesses expand or help new small businesses become successful” said Staelin. “For example, we have improved the tourism section of the County’s website. It is not yet complete but it is already doing a much better job of promoting our restaurants, attractions, Inns and bed and breakfasts. We also joined the Commonwealth’s American Civil War Sesquicentennial program to have greater access to the hundreds of thousands of tourist who will be visiting the Commonwealth over the next few years to relive key moments of the Civil War. Our Director of Economic Development has also started working with small business owners to help them organize weekend packages for tourists, like a combination golf game and stay at an Inn. Additionally, Clarke recently received designation as a Foreign Trade Zone to help attract businesses actively involved with the import and export goods. We also funded the Small Business Development Center and joined with neighboring jurisdictions to get a Federal grant that will provide advice and funding to help entrepreneurs set up new businesses.”
Overall, the biggest benefit and original vision of sliding scale zoning may be its preservation of large tracts of farmland and Clarke County’s resultant diverse agricultural economy. According to Staelin, Clarke’s farmland reserves continue to provide a positive counter-balance to the financial calamity caused by the implosion of the US housing market.
“Clarke is also examining ways it can help agriculture become more profitable. Last year we helped organize a local hay auction that has helped many local farmers sell their product. We also reduced the cost of starting a private â€˜Farmer’s Market’ and helped fund the â€˜Buy Fresh, Buy Local’ program. However, much more may be possible. Agriculture is one of the top industries in Virginia and is a major component of Clarke’s economy. A strong agricultural economy is good for Clarke. In the last real estate assessment agricultural lands increased in value while the value of residential properties fell. That meant farmers took on a larger share of the real estate tax burden. It is important that we do what we can to continue that trend.”