Where we stand with the com­pre­hen­sive plan

Rappahannock News - - COMMENT - By Rick Kohler The writer rep­re­sents the Pied­mont Dis­trict on the Plan­ning Com­mis­sion

The Rap­pa­han­nock County Plan­ning Com­mis­sion was cre­ated in 1962 to im­ple­ment zon­ing and the first com­pre­hen­sive plan was cre­ated in 1973, agrar­ian in na­ture. Farm­ing was the pre­dom­i­nant county busi­ness and the high­way and road sys­tems were not yet highly de­vel­oped. Mod­est busi­ness de­vel­op­ment was rec­om­mended to be cen­tered around sup­port of the agrar­ian econ­omy.

In 1996 the com­pre­hen­sive plan evolved and iden­ti­fied “preser­va­tion and en­hance­ment of the nat­u­ral and his­toric beauty and the cul­tural value of the coun­try­side as be­ing of fore­most im­por­tance.” This plan rec­om­mended a two-pronged ap­proach in plan­ning for a sus­tain­able agri­cul­ture and tourism-based econ­omy.

Now, 2019 finds the for­merly large and dominant cat­tle farms slowly de­clin­ing in Rap­pa­han­nock. How­ever, other agrar­ian based busi­nesses such as or­ganic veg­etable farms, a new or­chard, small niche live­stock, flora and aqua­cul­ture op­er­a­tions, vine­yards, winer­ies, brew­eries, cideries and dis­til­leries are ex­pand­ing.

The non-profit or­ga­ni­za­tion Busi­nesses of Rap­pa­han­nock lists a broad ar­ray of over 175 mem­bers. Six­ty­one non-profit en­ter­prises are based in Rap­pa­han­nock from farms to ed­u­ca­tion, food pantry, arts, an­i­mal wel­fare, af­ford­able housing and more. All of this ev­i­dences a strength­en­ing farm­ing (al­beit smaller and dif­fer­ent) and tourism based econ­omy sup­ple­mented by easy ac­cess to Shenan­doah Na­tional Park in the west­ern edge of the county. (Some may not know that the na­tional park is ac­tu­ally in­side the county to the top of the Blue Ridge).

A va­ri­ety of B&B style housing and restau­rants are slowly grow­ing to take ad­van­tage of the county’s beauty and easy ac­cess to tourists from Wash­ing­ton, D.C. en­vi­rons. Ar­ti­san and Civil War Trails are es­tab­lished. The Rap­pa­han­nock League for En­vi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion (RLEP) and The Rap­pa­han­nock County Recre­ational Fa­cil­i­ties Au­thor­ity (RCRFA) re­cently teamed and ob­tained a des­ig­na­tion for the Rap­pa­han­nock County Park on Route 211 opposite Wash­ing­ton as a Sil­ver Tier In­ter­na­tional Dark Skies Park.

In spite of this grow­ing ac­tiv­ity, many cit­i­zens and busi­nesses con­tinue to strug­gle with lack of good in­ter­net and cell ser­vice, a dif­fi­cult is­sue based on to­day’s tech­nol­ogy, county to­pog­ra­phy, provider profit mar­gins and a de­sire to pre­serve the county’s look.

The pop­u­la­tion of Rap­pa­han­nock re­mains some­what steady, yet is ag­ing while the school pop­u­la­tion is in de­cline. Many new home­own­ers are not full time res­i­dents and these homes ap­pear to make up a sig­nif­i­cant share of new con­struc­tion. This poses fu­ture chal­lenges and po­ten­tial opportunit­ies for county sys­tems, bud­gets, land use, fire and emer­gency ser­vices, schools, el­der care, ag­ing in place and af­ford­able


With these emerg­ing pat­terns of change comes a re­spon­si­bil­ity to plan 5, 10, 25 and 50 years ahead if Rap­pa­han­nock County is to pre­serve and main­tain its his­toric and cul­tural legacy and the long-term value of the county’s scenic beauty so pop­u­lar with its cit­i­zens.


As an anal­ogy, the Com­pre­hen­sive Plan is a fun­nel of sorts, with speci­ficity and date of im­pact rather broad, but only those items that can pass through the wide end of the fun­nel (the comp plan end) can make their way out the spout or nar­row end of the fun­nel to the speci­ficity of zon­ing or­di­nances. The comp plan should be vi­sion­ary with re­spect to land use (ie: zon­ing and sub­di­vi­sion) and is­sues that have a nexus to land uses. Items that do not have a con­nec­tion to land uses or zon­ing and sub­di­vi­sion are not ap­pro­pri­ate in a com­pre­hen­sive plan.

The plan should iden­tify what the cit­i­zens want for the fu­ture with re­spect to land uses and how that vi­sion may im­pact our com­mu­nity sys­tems such as ed­u­ca­tion, fire and res­cue, courts, polic­ing, housing, broad­band, cell ser­vice, re­tail etc. A lim­ited growth strat­egy such as Rap­pa­han­nock’s is much dif­fer­ent than a high growth strat­egy that re­quires more and more lo­cal govern­ment ser­vices, so our plan is quite dif­fer­ent from most, par­tic­u­larly those coun­ties sim­i­lar in size but seek­ing growth to in­crease their tax base.

Any time we con­sider a new or mod­i­fied zon­ing or­di­nance (which is very spe­cific in time and de­tail) we must first ask is it sup­ported by the comp plan. That is, does the new idea fit within the vi­sion of the plan, the open­ing of the fun­nel? If not, it would not be sup­ported and the idea would need to be re­shaped or we would need to ask our­selves if our vi­sion shifted. If our vi­sion shifted, the comp plan can be mod­i­fied af­ter prop­erly ad­ver­tised pub­lic hear­ings at the Plan­ning Com­mis­sion and Board of Su­per­vi­sors.

For ex­am­ple, if the comp plan stated the fu­ture land use vi­sion for the county was to have no area where util­ity scale so­lar (de­signed to serve more load than what is lo­cated on the par­cel) was ap­pro­pri­ate, then sub­se­quently pass­ing an or­di­nance stat­ing util­ity scale so­lar was a good use of agri­cul­tural land would not be sup­ported and the re­sult­ing or­di­nance could be chal­lenged. The com­pre­hen­sive plan has a role in the de­ci­sion of whether a par­tic­u­lar par­cel is an ap­pro­pri­ate place for a Spe­cial Use Per­mit (SUP) or a Spe­cial Ex­cep­tion (SE). For ex­am­ple, a mul­ti­fam­ily dwelling is only per­mit­ted via a SUP in cer­tain zon­ing dis­tricts. In de­ter­min­ing whether a multi-fam­ily use is ap­pro­pri­ate for a spe­cific par­cel, zon­ing or­di­nance 170-52 lists sev­eral Gen­eral Stan­dards that must be con­sid­ered. In­cluded in these gen­eral stan­dards are 170-52. E&J re­quir­ing the comp plan to be used in as­sess­ing the fu­ture im­pact of the pro­posed use. We know the plan speaks of sup­port­ing res­i­den­tial de­vel­op­ment in the vil­lages, so if a SUP was sub­mit­ted for a mul­ti­fam­ily use in a vil­lage area, that would be im­por­tant.

The Plan­ning Com­mis­sion is tasked with pre­lim­i­nary re­view and rec­om­men­da­tions to the ul­ti­mate gov­ern­ing bod­ies for SUPs (even­tu­ally ap­proved or dis­ap­proved by the Board of Zon­ing Ap­peals) and SEs (ap­proved or dis­ap­proved by the Board of Su­per­vi­sors). The process rec­og­nizes some uses are not ap­pro­pri­ate ev­ery­where in a given zon­ing dis­trict, but are in some ar­eas. When the ap­prov­ing agen­cies con­sider SUP's and SE's they do so by tak­ing many fac­tors into con­sid­er­a­tion as driven by zon­ing or­di­nances which are also writ­ten by the Plan­ning Com­mis­sion.


There are 8 chap­ters to the plan. At this time the plan is out of date and also does not ad­dress items now re­quired by state statute, those be­ing af­ford­able housing and broad­band ser­vice.

Chap­ters 1-5 of the plan pro­vide up­dated county statis­tics from cli­mate to pop­u­la­tion, housing, school at­ten­dance, farm­ing, soils, income, po­lice, med­i­cal fa­cil­i­ties, waste dis­posal and more and is sup­ple­mented by statis­tics, graphs and maps.

Chap­ter 6 is the heart of the plan. It ad­dresses the goals, prin­ci­ples and poli­cies of the plan.

Chap­ter 7 ad­dresses fu­ture plan­ning.

Chap­ter 8 ad­dresses the im­ple­men­ta­tion of the plan through zon­ing, sub­di­vi­sion or­di­nances, ag/fore­stal Dis­tricts, land use and ease­ments.

The Plan­ning Com­mis­sion is cur­rently fin­ish­ing up work on a new draft plan adding af­ford­able housing and broad­band ser­vice to chap­ter 6, along with other items in­clud­ing so­lar farms, cell tow­ers, min­ing and drilling, pro­tec­tion of wa­ter sources, pro­tec­tion of moun­tain ridges and more. These amend­ments will soon be avail­able for re­view and even­tual com­ment at pub­lic hear­ings be­fore the Plan­ning Com­mis­sion and even­tu­ally be­fore the Board of Su­per­vi­sors, at which time the su­per­vi­sors will ei­ther ac­cept the changes, amend them or re­turn the plan to the com­mis­sion for fur­ther work.

It is im­por­tant to un­der­stand the Plan­ning Com­mis­sion meets once a month and has no staff. The seven Plan­ning Com­mis­sion­ers con­sist of one ap­pointee from each mag­is­te­rial dis­trict, one mem­ber of the BZA and one from BOS. All have reg­u­lar jobs and are ba­si­cally volunteers. Each month they hear pre­lim­i­nary SUP and SE ap­pli­ca­tions which typ­i­cally re­quire site vis­its and doc­u­ment study. Some of these ap­pli­ca­tions are heard and moved on to BOS or BZA, but some must re­turn to the com­mis­sion for a sub­se­quent pub­lic hearing, as the com­mis­sion­ers must make a rec­om­men­da­tion for ap­proval or de­nial to the BZA or BOS. Plan­ners are fur­ther tasked with re­view­ing, and amend­ing as nec­es­sary, the en­tire com­pre­hen­sive plan every five years, with any amend­ments to be sched­uled for pub­lic hear­ings be­fore be­ing presented to the BOS. Fi­nally, they are re­spon­si­ble for writ­ing amend­ments to zon­ing or­di­nances and writ­ing new zon­ing or­di­nances as may be re­quired by state statute or fed­eral laws. For in­stance, the sign or­di­nance for the county is not in com­pli­ance with First Amend­ment re­quire­ments and needs to be rewrit­ten, as do sim­i­lar or­di­nances through­out Vir­ginia.

Last month, the BOS agreed to fund $5,000 for a pro­fes­sional plan­ning com­pany to re­view Plan­ning Com­mis­sion changes to the comp plan, iden­tify any po­ten­tial prob­lems, sug­gest po­ten­tial changes and con­firm we are in com­pli­ance with state statutes and the plan meets the county goals. For this fund­ing the plan­ners are deeply grate­ful. This is a good and wel­come start of staffing needed to as­sist the com­mis­sion with its vast ar­ray of du­ties.

To con­clude, the com­pre­hen­sive plan is pro­gress­ing. Up­dates and pro­posed amend­ments are much bet­ter than be­fore and it will be in com­pli­ance with state statutes. Also, it is im­por­tant to re­mem­ber the plan can be up­dated as needed. There is no ne­ces­sity to wait five years be­fore mak­ing an­other change. The plan is al­ways open to im­prove­ment as cir­cum­stances and is­sues dic­tate, but any change re­quires study, rec­om­men­da­tions, writ­ten lan­guage to fit the plan, re­view and pub­lic hearing by the Plan­ning Com­mis­sion, a pub­lic hearing and fi­nal de­ter­mi­na­tion of ap­proval by the BOS.

With these emerg­ing pat­terns of change comes a re­spon­si­bil­ity to plan 5, 10, 25 and 50 years ahead if Rap­pa­han­nock County is to pre­serve and main­tain its his­toric and cul­tural legacy and the long-term value of the county’s scenic beauty so pop­u­lar with its cit­i­zens.

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