To tweak or not to tweak, that is the question

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By Stephen Stevick,
Bedford County Planning Commissioner
District 5, 2005 to 2011

    Bedford County Board of Supervisor member Ms. Tammy Parker and various members of the Bedford County Planning Department staff have announced that they were at odds with senior staff on the issue of whether or not the updating of the county’s zoning ordinance to bring it in line with the Comprehensive Plan should be comprehensively rewritten or simply “tweaked.”
    This controversy was not brought to the attention of the Planning Commission at the time the Commission decided to prepare a comprehensive rewrite of the zoning ordinance. For reasons explained below, it is not clear that their recommendation would have made any difference, nor is it clear why the Planning Department staff fails to note that the Supervisors’ extensive gutting of the current zoning ordinance far exceeds any standard of “tweaking.”
    And, it is even less clear what that has to do with the current controversy, which is the Supervisors’ failure to meet minimal standards of sound planning (e.g., cost and impact studies, County citizen surveys, conformity with state law, and being responsive to extensive concerns raised by the Planning Commission and planning staff) in preparing its proposed zoning ordinance.
    To be sure, the controversy began with the county’s effort to update its Comprehensive Plan, a long term document counties must produce for planning purposes as mandated by the state. Per the state’s mandate, the Comprehensive Plan was produced by the Planning Commission after exhaustive surveys, studies, and public hearings and approved by the Board of Supervisors in 2007. The plan defines a vision, goals and objectives for the year 2025, setting the stage for a community with quality services (schools, polices, etc.,), protected open space (farms and scenic beauty) and smart and planned development.
    Per state mandate, the Planning Commission set upon the task of bringing the zoning ordinance in line with the Comprehensive Plan. The Planning Commission also received the charge from the Board of Supervisors to 1) simplify the zoning matrix, reducing the number of districts types, 2) encourage commercial opportunities by expanding and more strategically locating commercial and industrial zones, and 3) protect agricultural areas, particularly prime farmland. In addition, the county was also in need of bringing its zoning ordinance in line with new state mandates, such as the use of clustering options, providing for adequate safety from fire and flood, striking a fiscally sustainable balance between population growth and a healthy commercial environment while fostering its agriculture base and preserving its unique natural qualities.    
    And, pursuant to the Comprehensive Plan, the Planning Commission added a conservation district to protect the county’s scenic beauty and preserve the water shed. It was decided that these charges could be best accomplished in a comprehensive effort at one time.
    Clearly, this was not a simple task of “tweaking,” but a comprehensive effort to bring the county zoning in line with state law, the Comprehensive Plan and in accord with the charge of the Board of Supervisors. The result was an effort of nearly two years, involving numerous work sessions (including joint meetings with the Board of Supervisors), public hearings, and special studies. All along the Board of Supervisors was kept informed with status reports, minutes of meetings, etc. During these months, the composition of the Board of Supervisors changed, veering radically to an antigovernment, no new taxes stance, with members that had little interest in the intricacies of county zoning issues.
    The newly constituted board proposed broad and radical changes in the zoning that ran counter to the vision of the Comprehensive Plan, undermined the distinction between zones. The Board entirely overlooked the need to study the consequences of their proposals and rushed through a process of review that is being challenged in court.
    To be sure, the zoning proposals of the Board of Supervisors represents an effort far greater than the “tweaking” reported to be supported by staff. Those changes not only ignore state mandates but carry with them changes far more radical than those of the Planning Commission. In response, the Planning Department staff produced a comprehensive review of the zoning proposal that can best be described as alarming.
    What is puzzling now, six months later, is the fact that the Planning Staff, while quick to point out how it disagreed with the extensive work of the Planning Commission, is silent about the extensive changes proposed by the Board of Supervisors.