21 April 2005

Public Hearing on Zoning Amendments

The Board of Supervisors and the Planning Commission held a joint public hearing to consider the amendments to the Zoning Ordinance proposed by the Board. The first of these is the proposal submitted in February and the other two parts were submitted in March to the Planning Commission. The effect of these amendments would be to make any structure exceeding 60 feet in agricultural zones or 35 feet in other zones a conditional use. There would be no absolute height limit. Each application would have to be considered separately by the Board, whether for a 50-foot church steeple, a group of 400-foot wind turbines, or a 1500-foot radio tower. Most of those present thought that this tore the lid completely off Pandorra’s box.

John Flora, attorney for Highland New Wind Development, led off the comment period with a brief statement in favor of the amendments as proposed. He was followed by 34 other speakers, among whom only one (David Smith of the IDA) spoke in favor of the amendments. Two speakers (Jacob Hevener and Steve Pitsenbarger) did not address the issue on the table at all nor did they address the officials. Both turned away from the microphone and addressed the audience, contrary to the rules for public comment. Hevener wants relief from taxes on land and asked why everyone was not at the hearing on the budget on Monday. Pitsenbarger started on tax relief and rambled on for well over his alloted three minutes, touching on every subject imaginable except zoning amendments. After this diversion, Chairman Rexrode allowed additional comments from several earlier speakers before closing the hearing.

Most of the 31 people who objected to the proposals did so on the grounds that a specific height limit is needed, that the Zoning Ordinance should not have piecemeal amendments added just when the Comprehensive Plan is under review, or that stronger, more definite zoning is needed rather than the uncertainty that would result from making everything conditional. Other points were raised, of course, but these were the big three as I heard them.

After a brief discussion among Planning Commission members, Jim Cobb moved to forward the amendments to the Board without a recommendation but the motion died for lack of a second. Lisa Kodger moved that they be forwarded with a negative recommendation, seconded by Tony Stinnett. This motion passed 3-2 with Cobb and Harry Sponaugle voting nay.

The Board then took up the matter. Robin Sullenberger suggested that in view of the overwhelming public opposition and the negative vote of the Planners, the Board should not rush ahead and should use at least some of the 90 days it is allowed prior to making a decision to let this sink in. Lee Blagg stated that zoning is a necessary evil and that these amendments only clarify the ordinance so he moved to approve them. This was done on a 2-1 vote with Sullenberger voting nay.

This clears the way for the approval of HNWD’s project as a conditional use. The Board will set the date for a final public hearing at their meeting on 3 May. The decision on the local level will be made by only two people with no means for appeal. I believe that Robin understands democracy and recognizes that the public overwhelmingly opposes wind development. Jerry cannot be turned from his mission to impose wind turbines on the people by statements of fact or appeals for mercy. That leaves it up to Lee Blagg. Up to this point it has seemed that Jerry has him safely in his pocket, with no trace of backbone or independent thought having been demonstrated. Still, he is our only hope. I believe it is up to his neighbors and personal friends to get his attention. I don’t believe that the rest of us have any clout at all.

Assuming that there are no grounds for legal action, and I don’t know what they would be, the final stop is the State Corporation Commission, which must approve the project. I have no idea if they will simply rubber stamp the local approval or whether they will look at the negative recommendations of the IDA and Planning Commission and the strong public opposition and say, whoa, maybe we had better take a closer look at this. Perhaps it will not even get that far but we had better plan for the worst while hoping for the best.

John R. Sweet, Mustoe, VA