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Jefferson committee struggles with land use

March 25, 2001

Jefferson committee struggles with land use



By DAVE McMILLION / Staff Writer, Charles Town

Harvey HeyserPhoto: KEVIN G. GILBERT / staff photographer

SHEPHERDSTOWN, W.Va. - Much of Jefferson County's land-use laws are modeled after policies that failed in other communities in the region, according to a report by a group of county residents who envision a different future for the county.

"No one likes sprawl. No one enjoys congestion. No one longs for overcrowding," reads the opening in the report titled "A Vision for the Shepherdstown Area."

"Then why are all these things happening in Jefferson County?" the report compiled by the Shepherdstown Vision 20/20 Committee asks.

Committee Chairman Harvey Heyser, a Shepherdstown resident who works as an architect in Hagerstown, says one problem is that while there are sections of the county that are zoned only for agricultural uses, there are ways for developers to build in those areas.

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Homes built in agricultural-use areas are further from central water and sewer service, which tends to force them to be built farther apart, Heyser said.

The group that put together the 192-page report wants to offer different ideas on housing construction strategies in Jefferson County.

One of the ideas is a "conservation subdivision," where up to 50 percent to 70 percent of land is set aside for open space. The open space can be used to protect areas such as Civil War-era homes and other historic sites, as well as woodlands, streams and prime farmland.

Houses in conservation subdivisions would be built on smaller lots in compact clusters around the open areas.

Heyser admits it may be tough to convince some of the people moving here to escape congestion to the east not to buy several-acre spreads to build their houses on.

If a different approach for residential development is not considered for the county, however, it could end up looking like every other suburban area, said Heyser.

"Do we really need a couple acres to mow? Given the community's other needs, this seems a reasonable approach to me," Heyser said.

The idea is not much different from the way the towns of Shepherdstown and Charles Town, W.Va., were laid out, Heyser said. The developers of the proposed 3,300-acre Hunt Field development south of Charles Town have also been talking about the benefits of laying out developments like a town.

"This doesn't seem a stretch to me," Heyser said.

The report is a spin-off of efforts to update Shepherdstown's comprehensive plan. The attractive, historic town has witnessed increasing development threats over the years, and the basic interest among town residents is to "keep things the way they are," said Heyser.

Some of the people who worked on Shepherdstown's comprehensive plan wanted to learn more about the issues that were raised in the process. Calling themselves Shepherdstown Vision 20/20, the group continued to meet and wanted to put together a report of various development approaches which they believed would reflect the character of Shepherdstown and the county.

Heyser said "A Vision for the Shepherdstown Area," released last December, is not meant to be a plan. It is meant to serve as "food for thought" for further planning efforts.

"We are not trying to jam this vision down anyone's throat," Heyser said.

Heyser said the group was happy to get the report completed in time for the re-evaluation of the county's comprehensive plan, which is still under way.

Other suggestions in the report include:

HEIGHT="6" ALT="* "> Considering land use laws that take "natural systems" into account just as they would tradition, economics, law and technical matters.

HEIGHT="6" ALT="* "> Building a community that gets better as it develops, not just bigger.

HEIGHT="6" ALT="* "> Avoiding grandiose proposals to build new infrastructure, such as utilities, because they are costly and are not in keeping with the county's rural character.

HEIGHT="6" ALT="* "> Considering the Rural Option plan, a proposal that was released about two years ago that suggests a number of ways to spur farming and save farmland in the county, such as hiring agricultural consultants to help farmers find "niche" markets, such as organic farming.

Jefferson County Commissioners President James G. Knode said he thinks "A Vision for the Shepherdstown Area" has the potential to influence the county's comprehensive plan. But at the same time, there are federal and state policies that continue to promote sprawl, Knode said.

Tax deductions that are currently available for people who get home mortgages make it attractive for people to move out of congested areas to the east of Jefferson County and come here, he said.

And highway trust funds continue to make money available for new highways so they can get here, Knode said.

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