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No action on by-right zoning issue

 

Residents attending the March 8 Board of Supervisors meeting have been put on notice that they can expect no changes to the county’s by-right land use practices until after legal questions associated with the O’Gara Group’s presence in Westmoreland have been settled in the courts.
Monday’s agenda included a second work session on the Planning Commission’s set of recommended changes to by-right land use practices in residential and agricultural zoning districts. Commission Chairman John Felt and Zoning Administrator Robert Fink attended the session and actively participated in the Board’s discussion.
In June 2009 Supervisor Lynn Brownley persuaded board colleagues to task the commissioners with reviewing by-right land use practices and delivering a set of recommended changes. The initiative was launched in response to concerns that the county’s zoning regulations were more lax than other Virginia localities.

In January 2009 O’Gara Group successfully gained entrance into Westmoreland County after being turned away by other jurisdictions. O’Gara Group trains private sector personnel who perform policing and military taskings for DynCorp, a federal government contractor. O’Gara’s  trainees are dispatched in combat zones in countries such as Afghanistan and Iraq.
O’Gara or any other such establishment can gain administrative approval to locate in Westmoreland County without any action from the Planning Commission or Board of Supervisors. No public hearings or other public notice are needed and the county’s elected officials lack the standing to impose conditions on such an establishment’s operations.
Citizens reacted badly to the O’Gara presence and immediately expressed concern that O’Gara would expand its operation, generating an even greater impact on nearby residents.
The manner in which non-elected local government officials accommodated the O’Gara Group intentions to establish the Westmoreland County training establishment resulted in litigations that will be entertained in the county’s Circuit Court on March 29 and 30. The set of amendments the Planning Commissioners developed for implementation in residential and agricultural zoning districts would provide tighter language and, proponents maintain, eliminate the need to ask the courts to intervene in similar land use controversies.
On March 8 the supervisors were told that the Planning Commission expects to conduct a public hearing on April 5 concerning a second set of proposed zoning amendments that cover by-right practices in commercial and industrial zoning districts.
Felt and Fink explained on Monday that the commissioners ascertained that residential neighbors would be more sensitive to incompatible land use practices than commercial counterparts. A more liberal set of by-right land use practices could be better tolerated in commercial and industrial areas, optimizing economic development opportunities in those zoning districts.
Commission Chairman Felt told the supervisors on Monday that the proposed amendments to the county’s residential and agricultural zoning districts “don’t restrict anything.”
“The county should be able to grow,” Felt explained. “The Planning Commission looked at areas that might need public attention and recommended [that those by-right practices] be put in the special exception category.”
The move would trigger the public hearing process and would allow the supervisors to attach conditions to the proposed land use activity.
Felt cited research and development laboratories as “a most glaring example” of a land use activity that could impose unwanted impacts on residential neighbors.
Brownley, a former county attorney in Westmoreland, asked Felt if the commission’s considerations included a critical review of ordinance definitions. It has been widely understood that the ordinance’s broad definition of a school facilitated O’Gara Group’s ability to locate in Westmoreland without any prior notice to county residents.
Felt explained that the proposed set of amendments reflected consideration of existing ordinance language concerning sewage treatment facilities, research and development laboratories and educational establishments. Old ordinance district definitions are too broad and hold the potential of generating controversy, he advised.
Felt suggested that manner in which the existing A-1, Agricultural zoning language defines a school contributed substantially to the difficulties associated with O’Gara Group’s establishment in Westmoreland County. A tighter set of definitions might have prevented the controversy from emerging.
When the discussion ended, Board of Supervisors Chairman Woody Hynson reiterated the board’s position that no public hearing on the proposed amendments will be scheduled until the second set of Planning Commission by-right ordinance amendments are completed and presented to the board.
Visibly disturbed by Board colleagues’ reluctance to proceed with business the commission brought to the supervisors as long ago as December 2009, Brownley attempted to launch an emergency measure to patch the holes in the jurisdiction’s land use regulations.
“Since the beginning of last summer I have had concerns that the by-right status of specialized schools makes it possible to locate in Westmoreland County without any public hearing process. We have no opportunity to attach conditions or restrictions.
“I have had a number of discussions with Board members and county citizens and I am asking the Board today to consider adopting an emergency zoning ordinance amendment that would be effective for a 60-day period. After that, the amendments [the commission developed] could be permanently adopted.
“The purpose I have for doing this,” said Brownley, “is I believe we have an emergency. The emergency is a crisis in public confidence in this Board’s ability to protect the county citizens from unintended consequences that result from having inadequate land use restrictions in place.
“I feel it would be a wise move for this Board to immediately take action to protect the public’s interest. This action would give us an opportunity to exercise greater control.
“I foresee no imminent change of uses in parcels outlying the county’s Industrial park,” the supervisor commented in reference to citizen concerns that O’Gara Group may very soon purchase additional properties and expand its operations, generating ever greater impacts to nearby residents.
“The perception seems to be that there is a move to expand [the O’Gara facility],” he said.
Brownley twice read the proposed emergency legislation whose language stated that no commercial specialized vocational training establishment or any other non-public school or non-general education institution would be permitted or allowed without first meeting the county’s special exception requirement which entails a set of advertised public hearings and Board of Supervisors action.
“I certainly do not desire to push the Board of Supervisors,” said Brownley when his motion did not immediately receive a second from another member of the Board.
“I obviously have no political base. I only wanted to present a way to establish some public confidence. This action would put in place protections the public believes may be needed. The motivation is simply to introduce good zoning practices that will put back confidence so everyone can join hands and move forward with the kind of economic development that will be good for Westmoreland County.”
“I don’t see a second to your motion,” said Chairman Hynson. “I feel uncomfortable, because the Chair generally keeps quiet.
“This [matter] is under litigation and I don’t want to address it until the litigation is over with,” he said.
“I can understand your point of view,” Brownley responded. “I can also respect your determination to accept the advice you receive from our County Attorney. Although I do not concur with that position, I am not surprised. I still don’t think it’s a valid reason [for declining to adopt the emergency legislation].”
“The motion fails for lack of a second,” Hynson immediately declared.
“And as always,” said Brownley, “I thank all of you for the opportunity.”

 

Betsy Ficklin
Staff reporter

 

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