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Who Is In Charge Here?

March 4, 2015 by Andrea Gaines filed under Editorial, Opinion No Comments
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Five Questions The Public Should Ask Purcellville About Town Zoning And Development

In different periods of American history state, local and the Federal governments have considered it easier to proceed with the business of governing without the involvement of the governed.

All levels of government have in place rules about how government officials, commissions, legislatures, agencies and the like are required to act in relationship to the people they represent.

Due to the huge amounts of money involved in the decisions local governments make with respect to zoning and development, these calculations are at particular risk for being made out of sight of the public.

In Purcellville, citizens have been effectively shut out of the planning process, sometimes in blatant ways and sometimes in more subtle ways for years. The problem is coming to a head right now as the town council and the planning commission debate a series of massive re-zonings that would open the door to, among other things, the development of dense residential and commercial “mini communities” … floating zoning districts that could go anywhere – near an established residential community, in an historic overlay district, in places where most of the surrounding land is zoned for agriculture/ rural development.

Many members of the town council, including Joan Lehr have argued that the public is always invited to participate when zoning issues like this are discussed. But, basically, they say, the public doesn’t show up, and so the process goes on – with or without the public’s support.

This is the very definition of a town planning process gone amuck. And, this is particularly true when the zoning changes being proposed conflict with the town’s Comprehensive Plan.

Here are five questions the public should put to the Purcellville Town Council and Purcellville Planning Commission to get things back on track.

Question 1: How Does The Comprehensive Plan Relate To Zoning Regulations?

Purcellville’s Comprehensive Plan was adopted in 2006, based upon an intensive period of design and planning activity. Organizers sought and succeeded in getting broad participation in a series of very public input sessions, hearings and presentations.

The formal Town Comprehensive Plan was then adopted, complete with the zoning regulations designed to implement the plan.

Today, given the mounting pressure from property owners, developers and others to make major changes to the zoning regulations that implement the plan, Mayor Kwasi Fraser, along with Town Council member Karen Jimmerson are in favor of an immediate and thorough comp plan review. Both campaigned as change agents – elected officials intent on challenging the status quo, which had, over time, reduced the public’s influence over town zoning changes. Both want zoning changes to take place only after such a review is completed, with the full participation of the public.

Said Mayor Fraser during a recent town council session, “I [recently] attended the town sponsored 83rd Certified Planning Commission Program (CPCP) in Richmond … [The program reinforced for me that] a fundamental flaw exists in our current approach to the zoning use changes in absence of a revised Comprehensive Plan … the Comprehensive Plan was referred to as the ‘bible’ and guide … [and] Tonight, in fairness to the citizens who have appointed us to serve them, I must state that our planning commission’s current approach contradicts the Planning Commission Program’s dictates and must be stopped now if we are to meet the needs of our citizens.”

The CPCP is the most thorough and comprehensive tutorial of its kind, covering the zoning law principles that guide a municipality’s planning practices. It is designed to inform public officials – including town staff and elected leaders – of the “hows and whys” of handling the matters, requests and conflicts that come before a planning commission. The goal? Confirm the techniques that make zoning decisions and other actions taken by planning commissions, staff and towns both legally defensible and compatible with a municipality’s duly debated and adopted comprehensive plan.

Question 2: How Do The Various Zoning Changes Being Proposed Relate To The Opportunities For Citizen Input?

Individuals and corporations investing in land in a town such as Purcellville first and foremost seek maximum return on their investment, which means going for the greatest density – the maximum number of units a zoning district allows per acre, and the most profitable use given the market – adding commercial to a residentially zoned property, for example.

This push/pull – where a particular property is zoned for 50 houses and the developer wants to build 100 – is not unusual. But, the way the Purcellville Planning Commission and Town Council have approached the potential conflict between what citizens expect and developers want, is still wrong. As previously reported:

At a planning commission meeting in January, developer and attorney Mark Nelis asked to change the town’s “big box ordinance” to allow buildings up to 30,000 or 40,000 square feet vs. the 10,000 square feet currently allowed. He also asked that the zoning limits on restaurant size be increased from 4,000 feet to 10,000 feet.

At this same meeting, developer John Chapman asked that minimum acreage for PDH districts (Planned Development Housing) be reduced from 10 acres to 5 acres. He made this request to help maximize his return on a specific property he owns along Hirst Road, which is currently zoned for CM-1 zoning/office light industrial.

Both the size limits that apply to big box stores and restaurants – which address the appropriateness of large scale national chains, and the acreage limits that apply to PDH districts are zoning regulations written to deliver on the public’s intent to maintain Purcellville’s small town feel and create distinctions between residential and commercial areas. However, should changes to the PDH districts be approved in the manner proposed, the most that the citizens would get would be two brief hearings – one at the planning commission level and one at the town council level.

Most members of the town council and planning commission – siding with developers – are pushing to have such issues dealt with quickly. The public will have some input, but the question of whether zoning changes conflict with the comp plan – and they do- will never be addressed. Nelis in fact has previously asked the planning commission to effectively eliminate special use permits, also his clients do not want to have to apply for a comprehensive plan amendment nor a zoning use amendment, both of which have much more rigorous public input requirements.

This is what Mayor Fraser was referring to when he said that “a fundamental flaw exists in our current approach to the zoning use changes in absence of a revised Comprehensive Plan … “

Question 3: What Other Development Projects Have Weakened The Citizen-Driven Comprehensive Plan?

The most striking example of a project whose approval is in stark contrast to the comp plan is the yet to be built Vineyard Square complex in historic downtown Purcellville.

As previously reported, Vineyard Square is an approximately 100,000 sq. ft. mixed-use residential/commercial project, complete with underground and above ground parking to be located in the heart of the Purcellville Historic District. A highly valued area, the district is within Purcellville’s Historic Corridor Overlay District and is also on the National Register of Historic Places, the Virginia Landmarks Registry, and the U.S. Historic Districts listing.

The comprise to the citizens’ intent as reflected in the comp plan was the move by the Lazaro Administration, in 2008, to rezone the property, giving the Vineyard Square developers (John Chapman and Mark Nelis) “by right” permission to move forward with a mixed-use residential/ commercial project at this site.

As former councilman Karl Phillips said at the time, “What came out of the charrette was protecting the historic buildings and historic character of that part of town. There was never a mention of dramatic or otherwise increases in height.” Countered Mayor Lazaro years later – defending the project, “We have put this zoning in place to see [Vineyard Square] occur …”

As town council member Karen Jimmerson previously noted, “If you give someone carte blanche zoning, you are sanctioning his or her ability to disregard the integrity of the property, the character of the town, and the voting rights of which people have a say about what transpires in and around their community. ..[this is] similar to back room Washington D.C. deals in which lobbyists write laws that benefit them and then Congressmen submit and vote to approve these laws. Purcellville’s zoning in recent years seems to benefit the developers and not the community as a whole, and this sets a terrible precedent for this town and our reputation.”

Question 4: Where Do Other Zoning Professionals, And Purcellville’s Leadership Stand On The Level Of Public Input Needed?

At least one high level court – the Oregon Supreme Court – has ruled that since a city had adopted a plan, it was required to zone in accordance with that plan. A plan, said the court, as a constitutional document for land-use planning, is superior to zoning regulations.

Purcellville Planning Commissioner Nedim Ogelman, agrees. In a recent memo to the Town Council Ogelman said: “… I disagree with the decision making process we on the Planning Commission are pursuing with respect to sweeping changes to zoning uses – mostly [by] adding significant by-right uses because we are excluding most citizens from parts of a process that could dramatically alter town development… ” Ogelman went on to say: “Citizens should know that we are in the process of proposing sweeping changes … These by-right use changes would limit the ability of Purcellville residents to shape, control, or drive future development and would give limited special interests a blank check to dramatically alter the character and feel of Purcellville … [they] are tantamount to rezoning at best and de-zoning at worst [and] do not ring true to the vision outlined in the Comprehensive Plan to value the town’s ‘natural beauty, its history and tradition, and its home town feel, … to ‘strive to sustain and enhance the quality of life in Purcellville by reflecting on the unique aspects of the Town’s location, history, and people’ … “

In a recent letter to the editor in this newspaper town council member Ben Packard, who has also served on the Planning Commission challenged the notion that the public was being excluded from zoning decisions saying, “ … all planning commission recommendations and council consideration thereof have been, and will be, open to citizen comment before recommendation or action…” He later said, “We will take it to public hearing and see what happens.”

Council member Doug McCollum, who also serves on the Planning Commission downplays the significance of the changes being made, saying “The [current] set of uses are outdated, and don’t make a whole lot of sense … “ McCollum gave the example of how in one district auto repair is allowed, but lawn mower or boat repairs are not. However, the zoning changes being proposed are clearly more consequential than whether it is logical to allow auto repair businesses in an area, but not lawn mower or boat repair.

Said Mayor Fraser at the January town council meeting, “After listening to the audio discussion of the last Planning Commission meeting, I [see that] … clarification from this Council to the Planning Commissioners is clearly needed. This Town Council has never voted to direct you to continue with this two-year effort regarding the zoning use changes. What should be occurring is directing all of our resources to complete the Comprehensive Plan review and then to approach the zoning use changes in an assessed and managed fashion with full citizen engagement and participation. This is not about stopping government, as some of my esteemed council members might suggest … I view our current path as directionless, and I urge my fellow council members to apply the brakes tonight to zoning use changes and to … engage our citizens in the process to review the Comprehensive Plan.”

Question 5: What Does Purcellville Intend To “Look Like” In 10 Years?

The short answer to this question is that not even the most in tuned citizen – the one that reviews the transcripts of every town council meeting, every Planning Commission session and every back and forth between developers and town staff – can be expected to understand where the town is going.

It is fair to say that few people would have expected a 100,000 square foot multi-use complex to dominate historic downtown Purcellville, or that Purcellville would be bringing into town a huge swath of land north of Rt. 7 (Autumn Hill/Mayfair).

On the issue of zoning changes vs. a comp plan review, the pendulum has been swinging for about eight months now, with local developers and developer representatives on the side of fast action, and more prudent planners pleading with all to apply the brakes.

“I have listened to many of the planning commission meetings and there has been much discussion on collapsing/combining zoning and uses as that is what they have been tasked with doing. I agree with the need to eliminate outdated uses or duplicative uses, but I am concerned when I hear discussion about rezoning an entire zoning district and the need to change zoning and uses in an area since any zoning use changes should only take place after a comprehensive review has taken place,” said Councilmember Karen Jimmerson.

In order to determine their future, the citizens must regain control of both the Comprehensive Plan and the ways in which it is implemented. For that reason, this newspaper stands firmly on the side of putting a halt to piecemeal zoning changes.

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