Planning staff preferred revising existing ordinance

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By John Barnhart

    Two weeks ago District 7 Supervisor Tammy Parker read a statement asserting that the county’s planning staff supported revising the existing zoning ordinance over writing a new one.
    Parker was a member of the planning staff at the time of her election last fall and resigned the position prior to being sworn in to her elected office. Last week, four members of the county’s planning staff went on record in phone interviews supporting Parker’s contention.
    Those statements contradict what some former members of the planning commission have alleged the county’s staff wanted done with the issue.
    “When I came on board, that [writing a new zoning ordinance] was what I was told was going through,” said Jordan Mitchell, a planner with the county.
    Mitchell was hired in 2008.
    “George [Nester] was driving that project back then,” he said.
    Mitchell said that a consultant, based in Blacksburg, had been hired to produce much of the proposed new zoning ordinance. This work was based on another county’s ordinance, but Jordan said that this approach is common.
    “We take a look at how other localities are doing things,” he said.
    Mitchell cited recent action by the planning commission on a text amendment to the zoning ordinance that will allow people to keep chickens in residential neighborhoods. The members of the planning commission were given copies of similar ordinances from other localities and liked what Salem did this summer. They then proceeded to revise it for Bedford County’s use.
    At a point, however, planning staff came to the conclusion that replacing the current zoning ordinance with a new one was not a good idea.
    “At a point in time, in this process, we certainly believed as staff that it would be simpler to revise the ordinance rather than go with a rewrite,” Mitchell said.
    Mitchell believes what is currently being done with the zoning ordinance is what should have been done all along.
    “A year after I started we began work on a new ordinance,” said Mark Jordan, who started working on Aug. 31, 2006, as a county planner.
    “The more we got into it, the more I saw I was not in favor of the way things were going,” he said. “I was not in favor of the way the new ordinance was being written and the content of the new ordinance.”
    “I think it was too cumbersome and restrictive,” he said, saying that it was “not really Bedford County. I don’t think it was indicative of what people were looking for in Bedford County.”
    He said that the proposed new zoning ordinance would work well in California, or New York, but not here. Jordan believes the existing zoning ordinance is more in tune with this county.
    “I think tweaking it, rather than rewriting it, would be a better way for staff to spend its time,” he said.
    Brad Robinson also favored tweaking the existing ordinance, which he said needed to be updated after the county’s new comprehensive plan had been adopted.
    “We expressed concerns along the way,” said Robinson, a planner with the county. “We expressed concerns over the drafts we were given.”
    Robinson said the intent had been to simplify the zoning ordinance and make it easier to understand, but what the county staff saw did not do this.
    “The portions of the drafts we saw were not easy to understand,” he said, adding that some parts of the new ordinance would have been more restrictive than what the county currently has.
    Staff was not given the option of tweaking the existing ordinance.
    Planning/Zoning Technician Janet Daniels said that, while the zoning ordinance needed updating, it didn’t need to be replaced because it’s a good fit for Bedford County. After the staff expressed their concerns about a writing a new ordinance, they were called into a meeting. Kathleen Guzi, the former county administrator, came in to give them direction.    
    “She told us there would be a new ordinance,” Daniels said.
    Each staff member was then assigned a portion of Article 5, the new ordinance’s use and design standards to write.
    “That was the only part of the ordinance we were actually directed to write,” she said. The rest had already been written.