Committee recommends changes to zoning ordinance

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By John Barnhart

A committee charged with looking at Bedford County's zoning ordinance language on religious assemblies held its final meeting last week.

The committee consisted of District 2 Planning Commissioner Lynn Barnes, District 1 Planning Commissioner Rick Crockett, George Nester, director of community planning and several church representatives. The committee has recommended making a religious assembly a use by right in all zones, except for industrial zones. It would also be allowed in industrial zones, subject to a special use permit.

There was some concern that a church in an industrial zone could take industrial real estate off the tax rolls. However Barnes noted that there could be a reason for a ministry in such a zone, although he wouldn't want to see space in an industrial park taken up permanently for a non-industrial use.

Not being able to use an available facility in such a zone on a temporary basis could cause problems for some churches. Freedom Baptist Church, which now has land on which it is going to build a permanent church building, meets in temporary quarters.

"My church would have to meet in an open field," Bob Nixon, the church's treasurer commented.

"We can show you how to do that," commented the Rev. Raymond Bell, of the Cowboy Church of Virginia.

Bell said that property in an industrial zone should be used to generate tax revenue. The Rev. Bill Moore, pastor of Bedford Christian Church, added that the real issue is new construction, rather than using a vacant structure. Bell agreed, noting that vacant property is not generating tax revenue.

Nixon brought up a further point. He noted that a church would use property in such a zone that it could get for free, but would not be inclined to build in a commercial or industrial park. A long-time member of the Campbell County Planning Commission, he recommended that religious assemblies be permitted in commercial and industrial zones with a special use permit.

Barnes made the recommendation, which all accepted, that a special use permit only be required in an industrial zone because of potential health and safety issues.

"I'd be comfortable with that," Barnes said.

Along with coming up with a recommendation for a change to the zoning ordinance, the meetings cleared the air on a couple of issues. One issue discussed concluded that there are no restrictions in Bedford County on non-profit organizations holding an outdoor event. The zoning ordinance's language on special use permits for outdoor events applies only to for-profit ventures.

The second issue is that holding worship services in a building used for other purposes does not constitute a change of use for that building. The Cowboy Church initially ran afoul of Bedford County's zoning officials when it started holding worship services in a horse barn in 2006. County officials initially determined that this constituted a change of use for the barn, which was normally used as part of a horse auction facility. That problem was eventually resolved in the Cowboy Church's favor and the county admitted its original interpretation was in error. That incident is what prompted the planning commission to set up a committee to look at how the zoning ordinance treats religious assemblies.

County planning staff will write up revisions to the zoning ordinance, retaining the term "religious assembly" as it is currently used. It will, however, use the term "worship facility" to distinguish a physical structure in which worship occurs to prevent misapplication of the zoning ordinance on acts of worship.

Nester expects the changes to be ready to present to the planning commission at its July 21 meeting. A copy of the changes will also be circulated to committee members so that all can be sure that the changes are what they agreed to include.

The planning commission will have to hold a public hearing on these changes to the zoning ordinance prior to passing them to the board of supervisors with a recommendation. The board of supervisors, after holding its own public hearing, will have the final say.

"This has been an outstanding committee," commented Barns. He noted that its members were able to be open with each other and hold a constructive discussion without upsetting each other.