Hearing brings out large crowd

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Boards receive comments on zoning changes

By John Barnhart

    A crowd of about 150 people turned out for a joint public hearing, Monday night, before the board of supervisors and the county planning commission. The issue: proposed changes to the zoning ordinance.
    The hearing was moved to Susie Gibson Auditorium at Bedford Science and Technology Center to accommodate the turnout. Forty people signed up to speak, presenting arguments for or against the supervisors’ proposals.
    Representatives of the county’s agricultural board spoke in favor of the proposed changes.
    “There’s some things in this zoning ordinance we like for agriculture,” said Dr. Don Gardner, the board’s vice president. Dr. Gardner is a farmer and a veterinarian specializing in farm animals.
    Dr. Gardner said that the provision for cluster development will preserve agricultural land. He also liked the reduction   in   minimum   lot   sizes from 3 acres to 1 acre.
    Another speaker, who identified himself as a farmer, said that the current zoning ordinance forced him to sell more land than he wanted to sell. In order to sell two parcels, he ended up having to sell 6 acres instead of 2. He noted that this was timber land and he would have liked to have retained the extra 4 acres in order to harvest the timber.
    W. P. Johnson, vice president of the Bedford County Farm Bureau, called the supervisors’ proposals “a step in the right direction.”
    “I support the proposed amendments to the current zoning ordinance,” said Jeff Perkins, CEO of Boxley. Perkins said they will make Bedford County more business friendly. He applauded the supervisors and planning commission for removing unnecessary regulations.
    “I’m in favor of loosening excess restrictions,” said John Briscoe.
    “If you want Bedford to thrive again, get out of our way,” added Ricky Wilkerson.
    Jeff Giles spoke in favor of expanding the types of zones in which firearms sales is a permitted home occupation. He noted that people who do this are regulated by a federal agency, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.
    Don Slusher said that the supervisors’ changes will not result in a large expansion in residential building. He said there are already a large number of residentially zoned lots that have not been sold
    “l’d like to express my appreciation to the board of supervisors for their commendable pursuit of policies which more closely reflect the proper role of government; which is, quite simply, to preserve the rights of individuals to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, which encompasses the right of a property owner to use his property as he sees fit, as long as that usage does not infringe on the rights of his neighbor,” said Josiah Tillett.  “I support the simplifying and loosening of zoning restrictions, because I believe that such changes promote opportunity and the preservation of property rights.”
    Others opposed the supervisors’ changes.
    David Lowry criticized the supervisors for not conducting studies on the impact that the changes could have on schools and farms as well as the overall impact on county finances. He called the proposed changes a threat to agricultural lands.
    “To better understand the risk of this proposal and in the absence of any studies by the county, I was forced to develop my own analytics,” Lowry said. “Using the publicly available Bedford County GIS (Geospatial/Geographic Information System) data available online, I developed an impact analytic program using the same commercially available software the county uses to manage its GIS data. The intent of my effort was to identify and quantify the impact of the Zoning Ordinance.”
    Lowry said that he produced a GIS map, which was on display in the auditorium’s lobby, showing parcels zoned AP and AR. He said that the supervisors’ proposals expose this land to further development and subdivision by allowing farmers to sell off 1-acre tracts. Lowry said that there are better ways for farmers to get cash from their land while retaining it for agricultural use.
    Pamela Willoughby suggested that farmers can get money out of farmland without selling it by putting it under a conservation easement. They can then sell the tax credit they will get and derive income from that for 10 years.
    “Allow planning and economic development professionals to develop zoning ordinance amendments that meet the need of Bedford County citizens and not developers,” Lowry urged.
    “Finally,” he concluded, “if the board is so sure this proposal is what the citizens want, put it on the November ballot and allow the citizens to have the final say—yes or no.”
    John Lane, who owns land in Bedford County, said that the changes will allow more subdivision of the land and this will threaten the water table.
    Edmond Coffey also worried about the impact subdivisions will have on the water table. He suggested that developers be held responsible for drilling wells 200 feet deeper on neighboring properties within a one-mile radius of their development if residents’ wells go dry.
    Steve Stevick said that the supervisors’ actions limited public input. He urged a rethink of their changes with a more open, collaborative process.
    Keven Mele said that the proposed amendments destroy the balance  between development and preservation. He was also critical of the decision to expand the type of zones in which firearms sales is a permissible home occupation.
    “What is the real reason these ordinance changes are being proposed,” asked Doug Rideout. He suggested that they were done to benefit large corporations which will benefit if 40,000 or 50,000 new houses are built in the county.
    “This is just a plan to drive farmers off their land,” he said, calling the amendments “illogical and immoral.”
    The joint meeting was held as a public hearing only. No action was taken by either the supervisors or the planning commission. The planning commission will take up the supervisors’ proposals at their next meeting, which takes place on Tuesday, Feb. 19 at 7 p.m. The meeting will be held in the third floor meeting room at the county administration building in Bedford.