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Beware of unintended consequences

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By John Barnhart


    After some initial fussing and fuming because their recommended zoning ordinance was set aside last year, the Planning Commission got down to work and made recommendations on the Board of Supervisors’ proposed revisions to the existing zoning ordinance. A 90-day clock began ticking after a public hearing in early November, but the Planning Commission expects to have completed its work by Feb. 6, just in time. One item that came up in a work session last week was the possibility that some of the supervisors’ changes could have unintended consequences.
    District 1 Planning Commissioner Rick Crockett, who has served on the planning commission for 18 years, pointed to a provision for private road access easements. He warned that an unintended consequence of this could be the return of private road subdivisions.
    District 2 Planning Commissioner Lynn Barnes warned that another unintended consequence of changes in agricultural districts could be unlimited subdivision of agricultural land.
    I don’t know if they are right about this, but the the supervisors’ proposed changes to the zoning ordinance are quite extensive and it’s possible that some unpleasant surprises could lurk therein. I’m sure that the supervisors don’t intend to open the county up to an explosion in residential development. District 3 Supervisor Roger Cheek has told me that their intention with regard to one change in the agricultural zones is to preserve farmland by making cluster development possible. The intention is that farmers could still farm, while selling one-acre lots on marginal land, instead of selling the entire farm to be sliced up into five-acre lots. Nevertheless, the supervisors would do well to take a close look at the possibility that some of their changes could yield results that will be very different from what they have intended.
    As Mr. Crockett pointed out, education is expensive and every 12 new homes will mean a new public school classroom. He was using as a rule of thumb calculation that assumes two additional school age children for each home. Of course, some of these homes would be occupied by people with no school age children at all. Other homes, however, would be occupied by families with twice that many, so an average of two per household is probably close to reality.
    A study some years back showed that residential development consumes more in public services than it generates in tax revenue, and the two school age children per household is the reason why. Commercial and industrial development are net tax revenue generators. Agricultural land, even with land use in place, also generates more tax revenue than it consumes; cows do not ride school buses. This would also be true of households with no school age children. However, at the current 50 cent tax rate, a family with two school age children would have to live in a mansion to pay enough in taxes to cover what educating their children costs taxpayers. The county is spending approximately $6,400 per year to educate those two children.
    At present, there are about 10,000 children and teens attending Bedford County Public Schools and the county provides $32 million in local tax revenue to educate them. Last year, the Bedford County School Board used $2 million in Obama Claus “stimulus” money to close a hole in its budget due to cuts in state funding. That money is now gone and they are also facing a probable reduction in state funding due to a less favorable local composite index (LCI) which determines how state school funds are divvied up.
    The zoning ordinance, like all county policies, needs to be business friendly as commercial and industrial growth will provide the tax revenue necessary to pay the county’s bills while keeping tax rates low. These policies also need to encourage owners of agricultural land to keep it agricultural as this is an important way to help keep the county’s bills reasonable. The Board of Supervisors would do well to carefully revisit their zoning ordinance changes and ask themselves “what if...?” questions without assuming anything. Some extra time, and caution, now may save the supervisors from some unpleasant surprises down the road.