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Jefferson zoning plan should be simplified

December 23, 2007|By LYN WIDMYER

Back in 2002, a planning consultant described the Jefferson County, W.Va., zoning ordinance as unwieldy, obscure and in need of major changes to become user-friendly.

In February 2006, the Jefferson County Commission hired zoning experts to address these concerns. The result of the $130,000 study is a proposed zoning ordinance that is unwieldy, obscure and in need of major changes to become user-friendly.

The new ordinance is being presented for comment at community meetings across the county. The Jefferson County Commission is sponsoring the meetings and listening to people's questions and concerns.

As a professional planner myself, I am used to negotiating my way through Euclidean zones, floating zones, mixed use zones and Transferrable Development Rights ordinances. Want to know how housing types differ by density? Ask me. Impervious caps got you down? I can help.

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My knowledge of land-use regulations doesn't get me invited to a lot of cocktail parties. After all, this stuff is pretty boring.

Even I dozed off while reading the 276-page Proposed Zoning Ordinance for Jefferson County. Other people are having a different reaction: They are frustrated by the convoluted structure and befuddled by some of the consultant's recommendations.

For example, pastures in open space areas having more than one animal per acre must be fenced.

This is probably a good idea, but why is it in a zoning ordinance? One farmer at the Shepherdstown meeting said he would be happy to enforce this requirement for an annual salary of $60,000 and a county car.

I admit to being confused myself. After more than six hours of study, I still am not sure whether mixed-use neighborhoods and mixed- use employment centers are allowed and if so, what standards apply.

The challenge facing the County Commission is how to thoroughly and thoughtfully review a Proposed Zoning Ordinance that is very long, very complicated and very confusing.

The only solution I see is to focus on one or more districts at a time. A major concern in Jefferson County is the continuation of farming and preservation of the rural countryside.

Why not just focus on that element first? Members of the farming community have clearly spent a lot of time reviewing the proposed ordinance. Addressing their concerns and recommendations should be the highest priority of the County Commission.

The key to this approach is to have a reasonable schedule for moving through the ordinance revisions. The County Commission should take action after each major section is reviewed. Information and education sessions should be part of the process. I don't mean public forums; I mean work sessions where provisions of the ordinance are explained and debated in a meaningful way.

I would also suggest responsibility for the zoning consultant's contract be transferred from the county manager to the new county planner, Tony Redmond.

Redmond has inherited a zoning proposal created long before he arrived. I think Redmond has the professional ability and community outreach skills needed to guide the consultant in further revisions.

Zoning should provide a predictable, understandable and reasonable regulatory framework. The Proposed Zoning Ordinance for Jefferson County is only producing fear, confusion and resentment.

Lyn Widmyer is a Charles Town, W.Va., resident who writes for The Herald-Mail and is a candidate for Jefferson County Commissioner.

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