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Zoning repeal talk heats up

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Grayson supervisors vote 3-2 to task planning commission with repeal of zoning ordinance, but commission members say that’s not a wise course of action.

By Patrick Smith

INDEPENDENCE — One of the many controversial discussions during the Dec. 12 meeting of the Grayson County Board of Supervisors resulted in a 3-2 vote to task the planning commission with forming an ordinance to repeal the county’s zoning law.
Last week, planning commission members voted not to recommend that the board repeal zoning. Citizens spoke passionately about the topic at a hearing — with one threatening a lawsuit if the county moves forward with the zoning repeal.

Controversy over the topic arose before the meeting’s agenda was even approved. Chairman Kenneth Belton and supervisor Brenda Sutherland voted not to approve the agenda in the 3-2 vote, and both argued that the discussion of the zoning ordinance had been added to the agenda by newly elected Supervisor Glen Eddie Rosenbaum without notice or explanation and less than a week prior to the meeting, which was a violation of the board’s rules of procedure.
When he had the floor, Rosenbaum made the motion to hold a public hearing to discuss repealing the county’s zoning ordinance.
Supervisor John Brewer was quick to second the motion, while several citizens shook their heads in disbelief.
Brewer then asked County Administrator Jonathan Sweet when the public hearing could be held.
Sweet explained that the process of repealing zoning would not be quite that simple. He said the public hearing Rosenbaum motioned for would need to be more of a public input session than a public hearing, and that the county planning commission would also have to be highly involved in the process.
“There’s several things that have to take place because this would have such an impact potentially on the county, on landowners, on investments, on potential investments, etc,” he said.
“Someone may, for example, be looking to make a large investment on a parcel while zoning is in place. They need to be notified that their investment may now have to consider zoning not being there prior to making that investment.”
Sweet recommended that the first step in the process should be for the planning commission to take up the matter, develop an ordinance of repeal, conduct a public hearing, then make a recommendation to the board of supervisors.
“You could make a motion to repeal zoning tonight, and it could be unanimous; however, it could and most likely would be contested and may be a futile effort because you didn’t go through the proper process,” explained Sweet. “Just like when you adopt an ordinance, it’s not enforceable unless you properly adopted it. When you repeal an ordinance, the repeal doesn’t take effect unless you go through a proper process to repeal it.”
After Sweet’s explanation, Brewer decided to withdraw his second, and Rosenbaum withdrew his motion.
Brewer followed Sweet’s recommendation and made a new motion to task the planning commission with the repeal process.
Before a second could be made, Sweet cautioned that if the zoning ordinance was to be repealed, adjustments to related documents would also be required.
“If you repeal the zoning ordinance, then there are adjustments that would need to be made to other guiding land use documents, such as the subdivision ordinance, for example,” he said.
Following further recommendations from Sweet, supervisor David Sexton seconded Brewer’s motion to establish an ordinance of repeal to the zoning ordinance. The motion was passed by the three-vote majority of Brewer, Sexton and Rosenbaum, while Belton and Sutherland opposed.

Planning Commission Responds
At the Dec. 17 hearing, the Grayson County Planning Commission voted 5-2 to send a recommendation to the board of supervisors not repeal the zoning ordinance.
The meeting began with a report from Grayson Planning and Community Development Director Elaine Holeton, who informed the planning commission that the board of supervisors had officially approved the Grayson County five-year comprehensive plan, a guiding document for the county that includes strategies for improving economic development, education, agriculture and more. It also includes references to the county zoning ordinance, and was composed by the planning commission over the course of the past year with citizen input.
However, Holeton then informed the planning commission members of the supervisors’ 3-2 vote to task them with developing an ordinance to repeal zoning.
When Planning Commission Chairman Dr. Palmer Fant opened the floor for discussion, Vice Chairman Larry Bartlett was the first to speak on the matter.
“In consideration that the comprehensive plan is the guiding document, I contend that the planning commission has already rendered its position on the repeal of zoning,” said Bartlett. “Since the board of supervisors has chosen not to recognize that position as demonstrated within the plan, I think it appropriate to more clearly convey the position of the planning commission and request the board to reconsider its request.”
Planning commission member Robert Felicito expressed his agreement with Bartlett by motioning that the planning commission respond to the supervisors by recommending they not proceed with the repeal of the ordinance and that they reconsider their request for the planning commission to proceed with the development of an ordinance of repeal. He was quickly seconded by Bartlett, who continued the discussion.
“The comprehensive plan is the grandfather and helpmate of the subdivision ordinance, of the zoning ordinance, and supports the conservation of the New River, supports the Crooked Road,” he said. “To remove one of these things begins a downward spiral for this county.”
“Repealing zoning would be a giant mistake,” agreed Felicito.
Brewer was in attendance, and was asked why he voted to repeal zoning.
“I think if you take a poll, countywide, on where citizens stand on the zoning ordinance, I don’t think it’s quite as one-sided as some here might believe,” he answered. “In fact, I would contend that the majority of the citizens in the county, or at least many that have approached me, would like to see the zoning ordinance repealed.”
Brewer continued by adding that some citizens feel zoning played a part in the lack of economic development in the county, saying Grayson was at a competitive disadvantage compared to surrounding counties that don’t have a zoning ordinance. He also said he was concerned that the lack of high-paying jobs in the area forces many of the younger generation to move away for employment.
After further discussion and some disagreement among its members, the planning commission voted 5-2 in favor of sending the board of supervisors the recommendation not to repeal the zoning ordinance.
But, the fireworks were only just beginning.

Citizens Speak Out
During the meeting time reserved for public comment, two citizens spoke passionately in defense of the zoning ordinance.
First was Charlotte Haynes, who commented about the cost of both time and money to the county if the supervisors’ efforts to repeal zoning continued. She also countered Brewer’s earlier statements about the lack of employment opportunities in the county for the younger generation. “Working on the economics to keep people in this county is something that I do a lot of, and I’ve never seen zoning stop the kids from staying here,” she said.
She also reminded the planning commission of the effect that repealing zoning would potentially have on county’s agriculture economy. “Agriculture is the number one industry in this county,” Haynes continued. “If you get rid of zoning, you’re voting against agriculture. If you don’t want agriculture in this county, if you don’t want livestock, then you better have a reason to get rid of it.”
Haynes said the board of supervisors and planning commission should make it a priority to continue working to improve the zoning ordinance instead of repealing it. “Don’t get rid of it. Just keep making improvements,” she concluded.
Next to speak was Laura George, who was already well acquainted with the planning commission and the zoning ordinance after she and the Oracle Institute sued the county over a zoning dispute in 2010.
Both Haynes and George told the planning commission that no county in the state had ever repealed zoning, and George said the commission didn’t have to comply with the board of supervisors’ request.
“This body cannot be ordered to do your dirty work,” George said to Brewer. “This body, under the Virginia statute, is in an advisory position, but [the board of supervisors] cannot order you to start the process of repealing zoning. I want to make that point very clear.”
George played up the irony that the last time she spoke before the planning commission she was an opponent of zoning. “I may have been the most victimized person of zoning in this county’s history, and yet I’m here to defend it, Mr. Brewer,” she continued. “This county spent over $100,000 trying to keep my business, my charity [a non-denominational spiritual retreat] out of here. So if anyone can be sympathetic to you it would be me, and I’m not sympathetic with your position at all.”
George said Grayson’s natural beauty was one of the biggest factors in her choosing to bring the Oracle Institute in Independence.
She then threatened to sue the county if the board of supervisors continued with the repeal process of the zoning ordinance.
“I promise you, you ain’t seen nothing yet,” she said, directing her gaze at Brewer. “I’ve sued this county twice, and I will do it a third time.”
She also accused Brewer and other supervisors of having a special interest in the matter of zoning.
“I want you also to know that I am keeping records of, let’s say, unusual circumstances,” she said. “I’m learning that you have a personal interest, as well, because you have some property that you might want to subdivide, you might want to develop, and zoning kind of gets in the way.
“I want you to know you are under a microscope. So is [Glen] Rosenbaum, so is [David] Sexton. I will say again what I said to you the other night: bring it on.”
After the public comment, Holeton encouraged everyone to re-examine the land use chapter in the comprehensive plan. “What this planning commission has done — we have already identified that we want to work on our zoning ordinance,” she said. “So for anybody to suggest that we should repeal something that we haven’t even started working on yet ... we have already acknowledged that we have lots of work to do. We can do that over the course of the year.”

Zoning another last-minute addition to board agenda
This is not the first controversial issue added to the agenda this month.
Rosenbaum used a similar last-minute tactic to slip into the agenda a last-minute discussion of a plan to disband the county’s recreation board at the Dec. 12 meeting.
The committee was disbanded, in a 3-2 vote with Belton and Sutherland voting against.
On Dec. 17, Sexton and Brewer reminded their fellow board members that, while it was not a unanimous vote, the agenda had been approved.
“Numerous times the board has amended the agenda the night of the meeting, so the objection is noted, but at the same time I don’t think we’re in uncharted waters,” said Sexton. “Mr. Rosenbaum was just sworn in on [Dec. 6], so he wasn’t available on that Wednesday [Dec. 4] to ask for anything.”
Sweet said that, while some situations call for late additions to be made to the agenda, he reminded all board members to provide advance notice when discussion items are added to the agenda in the future.
“It’s important to have some documentation and reason by way of memo or some communication as to what the subject matter is about so that your fellow board members and the public have had the opportunity to prepare,” he said.
“We have to have some transparency here,” added Belton. “I know we have some things that slip through the cracks and we get it put on the agenda late, but something as important as a recreation committee and the zoning ordinance, the public needs to have a little advance and [the board of supervisors] need a little advance notice.”

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