a letter from the editor:

Zoning's boring, unless ...

August 2007

In the days leading up to the public hearing on a massive rezoning proposal for Rockbridge County, there was remarkably little discussion of it.

There were a few letters in the papers. There was a forum in Glasgow. But the county hadn’t received many comments. The supervisors say their phones have not exactly been ringing off the hook.

There is nothing surprising about that.

For most of us, zoning laws and changes to zoning laws, and comprehensive plans and changes to comprehensive plans, are incomprehensible and boring.

For most of us, the only time when the mere mention of zoning doesn’t induce sleep is when the property involved is either ours or that of our neighbors.

Folks in Fairfield couldn’t care less about subdivisions in Fancy Hill. Folks on Long Hollow couldn’t care less about subdivisions in Collierstown. On and on.

But propose a big subdivision on the edge of Fairfield, as happened not long ago, and the folks in Fairfield will care mightily. The same can be said for Long Hollow. The same can be said for the rest of the county.

Sadly for the citizens — and happily for the developers — under the current laws, there is next to nothing that citizens, or the county, can do to stop, slow, or even modify subdivision plans.
And so, over the years, there has been a pattern to the subdivision process. A developer proposes chopping a big farm into lots, the neighbors protest, the planning commission and supervisors extend their sympathy and maybe extract a small concession, and that’s the end of that.

And slowly, piece by piece, the county that most of us love has been disappearing — turning into a suburb of nowhere in particular.

Take a drive to almost any part of the county you haven’t visited in a few years, and odds are you’ll be either saddened or shocked.

There is only one thing that has driven the changes — money. And there is one thing that has allowed the changes — the county’s antique zoning laws.

Most of the county’s developable land is currently zoned “agricultural.” But the name is a misnomer. A better name would be “developable.”

And the supervisors have shown themselves to be highly reluctant to change that.
It’s not that they’re in the pockets of developers. And it’s not that they don’t see what’s happening.

Instead, what seems to trouble the current board is a combination of things.

Some of the board members see the growth in housing and commercial development as providing a boom in taxes for the county. And it has created a small boom. But the costs to the county haven’t come in yet, and won’t come in for years. How long was it before the assorted Koogler developments in Raphine finally necessitated a $7 million sewer line which requires accelerating growth to pay for itself?

The supervisors could have had a study done to see exactly what the growth in the county has cost, and will cost the taxpayers. But they turned down the opportunity. Facts can be disturbing.

The supervisors have acted strangely about some other things that might help.

The county was the first in the valley to set up a program for the purchase of development rights. It is a simple notion: you don’t want me to develop my land, so you pay me. There are all sorts of grants available for such programs. There are some local philanthropists who have expressed an interest in the program. Instead of jumping at the chance, the supervisors have all but demolished the program. The stated reason was a fear that someone might benefit from it. (Taking that logic a few steps further, the board could pretty much abolish the county government. After all, someone benefits from schools, from jails, from the health department, from building inspections, etc. etc.)

The county could have hired someone to promote conservation easements, which pay landowners with tax credits, which they can sell, to lock up land from development. And the county could have gotten into the business of co-holding legal title to those easements, which has the potential to make it easier for small landowners to take advantage of the program.

But the board rejected that notion. The only reason the board could come up with was a bizarre lawsuit brought years ago against the local soil district board as part of some bickering between a pair of landowners claiming to own the same piece of property.

Since the board has taken to rejecting fairly painless and simple ways to help preserve land, there is no reason in the world to think it will jump at the chance to enact a complex and controversial set of changes in the zoning laws.

In a nutshell, the major zoning changes taken to a public hearing late last month would make it easier to develop land in designated growth areas, and more difficult to plop serious subdivisions out in the country.

It isn’t a perfect proposal — even the committee that came up with it admits that it represents a compromise. But it’s a start.

Clearly, relying on “the market” has done little but enrich developers at the expense of a beautiful county. And while the supervisors have resisted doing any real planning themselves, the void has been filled by development companies and engineers from all over the country.

If it keeps going, and it will, the county and all of us who live here will lose. We’ll lose the best attraction we have for businesses and jobs. And we’ll lose a chance to live in the country, because there won’t be any left.