A Plan, Still in Flux, Coming in for a Landing?
This updates the Foothills Forum/Rappahannock News series, “The Land, a Plan, a Future,” which was published March 9 and March 24, 2017.
Throughout its history, Rappahannock has avoided the urban sprawl and rapid development of its neighbors. The comprehensive plan – the county’s guiding document – along with land-use tax deferments, conservation easements and restrictive zoning have played a role in helping Rappahannock maintain its unspoiled natural setting, while keeping out big-box stores and even stoplights.
plan sets out a vision of a county with agriculture as its backbone, wide open spaces and a much different style of development than Warren or Fauquier, which don’t have the 25-acre zoning that has kept land outside Rappahannock’s villages from being carved up into smaller parcels.
But a question now facing residents is whether Rappahannock will be able to maintain its unique rural identity in the face of challenges related to health care, emergency service and broadband access as the rest of the world moves forward. Should it more aggressively embrace agritourism? What role can the local business community play? What adjustments does the county’s zoning strategy need?
Rappahannock is not alone in trying to forestall the influx of urban creep. Preserving the expansive, agricultural nature of the county does come with consequences, however, namely keeping the county
heavily dependent on personal property taxes and making housing and land more expensive.
Under Virginia state code, every community must adopt a comprehensive plan and review it every five years. Rappahannock hasn’t formally revised its plan since 2004. The plan has come under review several times, but changes to county administrative staff and modest input during public forums have stalled the process.
By early December, the Planning Commission had reviewed a completed revision of the plan and requested that zoning administrator Michelle Somers make a final set of edits. Somers and County Administrator Garrey Curry have worked to update the demographic data, and the commission has modified a number of goals, objectives, and policies based on the latest information as well as input from several public meetings in 2018. They’ll consider the plan for a public hearing at January’s meeting (link to the plan: https://www.boarddocs.com/ va/corva/Board.nsf/Public).
“At the highest/broadest level, the plan has not changed much,” Planning Commission Chairman Gary Light wrote in an email. “We envision Rappahannock County as a rural and scenic community with an economy centered on low-impact tourism and agriculture.”
Within that framework, the revisions attempt to address the latest challenges the county faces, including an aging, shrinking population and limited public services. They also try to account for development issues Rappahannock may encounter in the future, such as utility-scale wind and solar facilities.
Light said the commission deemed it prudent to consider this type of land use given some public concerns that Rappahannock could face proposals for solar projects similar to those in Fauquier and Culpeper counties.
There are subtle changes, like sharper language around the need for broadband and cellular technology. One addition from a 2014 review that’s been retained refers to such technologies as “essential components of the 21st century economy” and encourages the means to provide for their expansion. It also raises concerns about the deteriorating quality of landline telephone service.
The revisions include added support for venues and services that serve the county’s youth and families. While the plan sticks to preserving the county’s natural beauty and landscape, with updates on conservation measures, there is more of an emphasis on the need for economic progress and sustainable growth that encourages sensitive tourism, such as low-impact tourist housing.
“I think there is a recognition that you need a certain amount of economic activity to have a robust community. And some of that is reflected in the revisions,” Light said.
Among economic development goals outlined in the plan is adaptive use of the old Aileen factory. Curry says owner Alex Sharp and the county are looking to get the facility listed as an opportunity for development on a database the Virginia Economic Development Partnership (VEDP) maintains that helps put property owners in touch with private companies looking for space.
“We know that we don’t want factories on every corner,” Curry said. “But where we can we want to be able to provide additional opportunities for jobs and additional opportunities for revenue that is coming from somewhere other than residences.”
Curry says he has met with people at VEDP to paint a better picture of what Rappahannock is and isn’t and let them know that it has different economic development goals than localities interested in large industrial plants.
As the Planning Commission reviews county zoning regulations in the future, including those regarding short-term rentals, event facilities and the ordinance around signs, any changes to the comprehensive plan would serve as the guiding framework for addressing those matters. But ultimately, decisions related to specific issues, such as broadband access and restrictions on Airbnbs, would likely come through more targeted zoning and regulation.
While there is no major shift in the latest revision of the comprehensive plan that would impact land use in Rappahannock, it does address issues such as communications and agritourism that people are divided over, and Curry says he expects and hopes there will be community feedback.