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After three hours worth of public hearings and discussion, the Bedford County Planning Commission made one decision concerning a shooting range on Va. 811 (Thomas Jefferson Road) and postponed making a second one.
Timothy Hooper owns a working cattle farm on Va. 811, about a quarter mile from its intersection with U. S. 460. According to Hooper, he has also operated a shooting range on the farm since 1983 with some breaks, as much as six months long, due to military service. The range has not been open to the general public. Hooper brings in trainers to conduct firearms training sessions for police, sheriff’s departments and the state police, including SWAT teams.
Hooper said that in the past, he has used the natural topography of the farm to serve as a backstop for bullets. More recently, he made improvements that included grading to put the range below grade and build berms to a height of 20 to 30 feet in order to make a better backstop. That’s when he found out that his operation wasn’t grandfathered in the way he thought.
The farm was zoned R2, a medium density residential zoning, when the county’s zoning ordinance was adopted in 1998. The cattle farm was grandfathered. The range ceased to be grandfathered due to the nature of the improvements he made. One speaker at the public hearing disputed whether Hooper had indeed run a shooting range for years, showing Google Earth photos to back his point. Hooper, however, countered that, until he began making improvements, the operation he had in the past would not show up on a Google Earth photo. Some people speaking in favor of the range backed Hooper’s claim that it had indeed been in operation for 28 years.
Hooper was requesting that a portion of his land be rezoned from R2 to AP (agricultural preserve). A shooting range is allowed, with a special use permit, in an AP district.
The planning commission denied this request on a 5-0 vote, with District 7 planning commissioner Curtis Stephens absent.
District 3 Planning Com-missioner Steve Wilkerson said that downzoning must be consistent with what is nearby. All property in that area has either a residential zoning or light industrial zoning, although much of it consists of working farms. Wilkerson said that the public should expect an equitable application of zoning laws.
“If it appears that anyone can change any area for any reason, there is no reason to have zoning,” Wilkerson said.
District 2 planning commissioner Lynn Barnes said that pulling one small piece of a parcel out for rezoning is not a good land use application.
District 5 planning commissioner Steve Stevick expressed concern that a lot of work was done on the range before any permits were sought. He also said that the area is slated for development.
After that vote, the planning commission had to consider Hooper’s special use permit. The range is not a permitted use in an R2 zone, but Tim Wilson, the county’s director of community development, pointed out that the special use permit only becomes a moot point if the board of supervisors denies the rezoning. The planning commission can only make recommendations. Only the supervisors can accept or deny a request.
Wilkerson wanted to delay a vote until the supervisors act on the rezoning request. District 6 planning commissioner Derrick Noell, on the other hand, said that Hooper appeared to want a decision that night. Later, however, he said that he wanted to hear from the sheriff’s office on the range before he made a decision. District 4 planning commissioner Frederic Fralick, countered that approval by the sheriff’s office is already a condition of the permit.
“I think we ought to give a thumbs up or thumbs down,” he said.
The planning commission ended up voting, in a 4-1 vote, to delay a decision. Fralick cast the lone dissenting vote.