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Berkeley County to consider zoning options for future

January 26, 2006|by ROBERT SNYDER

MARTINSBURG, W.VA.

martinsburg@herald-mail.com

Hailed by some as a land-use panacea and assailed by others as the "unutterable z-word," zoning could soon be what's in store for the future of Berkeley County, one of West Virginia's fastest-growing counties.

As part of a move that some anticipate will result in the placement of a zoning question on the election ballot at year's end, the Berkeley County Commission will consider offers today to begin drafting a countywide zoning ordinance. The effort would mark the first time voters will be able to decide on the issue since 1994, when a proposed land-use question was soundly rejected.

Developer Ray Johnston said the ordinance introduced that year was overreaching and too restrictive.

"The first zoning ordinance was too detailed and did too much regulating for a developing area," said Johnston, adding farmers and some large landowners uniformly failed to support it.

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The outcome could be different this time, following passage by the state Legislature in 2004 of land-use legislation that West Virginia University School of Law professor Joyce McConnell said provides communities with more options in crafting a land-use ordinance.

"(Chapter 8A of the West Virginia State Code) allows much greater flexibility in terms of the carving up of areas and what those areas can be used for," McConnell said. "It can be a mechanism both to designate a use in a particular area, but it can also be used to create a finer control."

McConnell said one feature the law allows for is the creation of overlay zones that better guide what type of development occurs in sensitive areas, such as where water availability would be adversely affected.

The law also contains a provision for the development of planned communities that allow mixing of commercial and residential uses to create more traditional urban environments, which are less automobile-dependent, McConnell said.

Johnston said there's no guarantee that a zoning ordinance will pass this year, either. He said increasing land values in the region could bring continued opposition from landowners and farmers.

"It'll be much tougher to pass now because everybody is aware that their land has value for alternate uses," Johnston said.

A zoning ordinance would allow county officials to offset new construction costs with impact fees, a solution the leader of a local homebuilding group dismisses as an "easy fix."

Eastern Panhandle Homebuilders Association President Dwayne Wean said by increasing the purchase price, impact fees ultimately raise the cost of all housing through higher property assessments.

"What has happened in Jefferson County is that prices of housing has gotten so high that teachers and police officers are moving away," Wean said. "Before long, our children won't be able to live where they grew up."

Before county officials can address a zoning ordinance, they must first complete an update of the county's comprehensive land development plan, which last was revised in 1990.

The plan, which is intended as a guide for growth patterns throughout the county, examines issues of land use, housing, transportation, economic development, and preservation and protection of agricultural, natural and cultural resources. A 30-member advisory committee for the plan was organized early in 2005, and the group has held a number of public input meetings since.

The rate of growth in the county continued at almost the same pace as last year, with as many as 67 major new subdivisions receiving preliminary and final plat approval by the county's planning commission in 2005, said county planning director, Stefanie Allemong.

In 2004, 91 new subdivisions received approvals to develop about 2,400 acres, according to an activity report released last year by the planning commission.

A zoning ordinance is sure to fail if the county's elected leaders fail to invite discussion and help promote it, said Johnston, who serves on the plan's advisory committee.

"It's hard to persuade the public to vote for something they don't understand," he said. "Democracy is self-correcting if people understand what they're voting on."

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