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Public hearings set on proposed Jefferson County land-use laws

September 12, 2008|By DAVE McMILLION

CHARLES TOWN, W.Va. -- New land-use laws proposed for Jefferson County seek to keep up to 80 percent of agriculture and countryside land undeveloped but also allow businesses to operate in farm buildings and expands the county's business park zones by 30 percent.

The proposals require new housing developments to have up to 15 percent of affordable housing, they set new standards for protection of historic properties and they seek to help farmers be more profitable by allowing them to diversify into areas like warehousing, welding shops or trucking businesses, said Tony Redman, director of the county's planning and zoning departments.

While local farmer Lyle C. "Cam" Tabb III said he likes the plan and calls it progressive, Charles Town attorney J. Michael Cassell, who represents developers in the area, said the document is complicated and believes it will devaluate much land because there will be less potential uses for it.

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The public will be able to give its input on the proposed laws beginning Saturday when the Jefferson County Commission holds the first of three public hearings on the plan at 11 a.m. at Wright Denny at 209 Congress St. in Charles Town. A second public hearing will be held 7 p.m. Monday at Blue Ridge Elementary School at 18866 Charles Town Road and the third public hearing will be held Wednesday, 7 p.m., at Jefferson High School.

A public hearing on proposed new subdivision rules will be held on Sept. 29, 7 p.m., at the Charles Town Library.

The county commissioners, who have final say on new regulations, started looking at new land-use -- or zoning -- laws after experts told them the county's current regulations have not been effective in managing urban and suburban growth or protecting agricultural areas.

The commissioners, Redman and others have been working for months on new land-use laws following some initial input on them from the public in a previous string of public meetings.

The plan seeks to protect the most important rural and river landscapes by concentrating growth in the Charles Town, Ranson, Shepherdstown and to some extent the Harpers Ferry and Bolivar areas, although those two small towns have growth limits because of Harpers Ferry National Historical Park, Redman said.

In those growth areas, mixed-use development is encouraged and the development is intended to resemble established neighborhoods found in areas like downtown Charles Town, Redman said.

"Why would we want to reinvent the wheel when we have it already?" Redman asked.

Current land-use laws allow mixed use but there are no design concepts and the development that has occurred is largely residential, Redman said.

In the agriculture zone, there can be one living unit per nine acres in the new plan. In the current laws, there can be one unit per 10 acres, but entire farms can be taken up in development, Redman said.

In the new one unit per nine acres rule, all development must be within 15 percent of a farm, Redman said.

There are no protections for historic properties in the current laws but the new ones set up a process where the Jefferson County Historic Landmarks Commission reviews projects near historic resources, Redman said.

There are new environmental regulations to protect sensitive areas like sinkholes and there are four categories of home businesses allowed. This is designed to reduce the need for residents to commute out of the county, Redman said. Firms can put operations like accounting departments in an old farmhouse as long as the character of the building is maintained, Redman said.

"The notion is, let's put these resources to work," Redman said.

Tabb, a member of an agriculture task force that gave input on the proposed laws, said about the only way to make a living on county land is developing it or through traditional agriculture, "which is tougher everyday."

Now, new proposed laws that allow farmers to diversify into new areas opens a "multitude of options. We hope it's going to work," Tabb said.

Cassell said he thinks the complex new laws being considered are more suited for places like Montgomery County, Md., or Fairfax County, Va.

Zoning regulations can be put up for a countywide vote either by the commission or by residents and Cassell said "everybody's talking about an election."

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