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Town puts Comp Plan vote on hold

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AirPac owner Arthur R. Behnke converses with Mayor James Eastham during recess prior to council vote on Comprehensive plan amendments. Photo by Roger Bianchini. Copyright 2008 by Warren County Report.

Roads remain sticking point for Shenandoah Shores businesses

By Roger Bianchini
Warren County Report

(UPDATED 1/29/2008) - On Jan. 14, after hearing familiar arguments that it is being shortsighted, exclusive or at the very least sending mixed messages about its future vision, the Front Royal Town Council voted unanimously for a two-week delay on a vote to amend its Comprehensive Development Plan.

That vote came in the wake of a number of Public Hearing calls that council not rush to approve the changes without further consideration of difficulties cited by nine property and business owners, development professionals and local builders. Primary among those concerns are road improvements to industrial park areas off Shenandoah Shores Road and a determination as to whether zoning recommendations will achieve their desired effect of preserving natural vistas.

Prior to its decision to discuss the Public Hearing input at a Jan. 22 work session, council did approve a series of amendments offered by Eugene Tewalt and Bret Hrbek. Several amendments offered by Hrbek primarily suggested adding studies of transportation and affordable housing options into the language of the Comp Plan. Tewalt’s amendment focused on eliminating multiple-unit dwellings from two partially developed planning districts, Happy Creek and Leach’s Run, south of Happy Creek Road.

Petrine Construction owner Frank O’Reilly called council’s delay of a vote positive.

“I’m grateful that the town council took our comments seriously. The amendments were all improvements,” he said following the meeting. However, Reilly, a recent and somewhat controversial county appointment to the EDA board, added that he also felt the town has been lax in addressing transportation concerns in the area identified years ago.

During his Public Hearing comments, O’Reilly said the suggested Comp Plan changes appear to undervalue existing industrial and commercial development in the North East Planning District off Shenandoah Shores Road. In addition to 214 acres of EDA-developed Industrial Park town land, O’Reilly cited 117 acres of privately owned industrial land shackled by an inefficient road system.

“It would be impossible to learn from this amendment that this ‘underdeveloped’ and/or vacant area supports hundreds of jobs including one of the largest employers in Front Royal. This potentially huge source of revenue and jobs for our community is merely a footnote to its scenic and agricultural virtues,” O’Reilly said.

Following the meeting O’Reilly added, “Personally, I think that the Happy Creek Charrette process addressed the transportation needs of that area in a very comprehensive and collaborative way – and the town moved on from that three years ago and kind of deep-sixed it.”

The charrette process O’Reilly referenced was a joint town-county study of development options in the Happy Creek/North East Planning District area on the town and county’s eastern boundary. Citing existing and by-right development numbers at the time, consultants recommended rezoning facilitating an increased buildout of over 1,000 units north of Happy Creek Road in exchange for proffers to facilitate road and other infrastructure improvements. In the wake of that recommendation, the town moved to downzone land on both sides of Happy Creek Road to reduce the existing by-right residential build out.

The amendments approved by council on Jan. 14, fell short of recommending future clustered and multi-unit housing on undeveloped land north of Happy Creek Road. Last month council resurrected discussion of that option suggested in the 2004 charrette as a means of garnering builder proffers for the type of road improvements called crucial by several business owners in the Happy Creek Industrial Park area.

On Jan. 14, AirPac owner Arthur R. Behnke restated his planning commission Public Hearing remarks that road improvements were vital to keeping his manufacturing business in the community. Behnke pointed to the opportunity to expand his business, which distributes internationally. However, pointing to what he perceives as long unfulfilled promises of road improvements to accommodate truck traffic crucial to his business, Behnke added, “Do I want to maintain my business here?” He asked town officials to include the business community in its discussion before cementing a plan that further delays road improvements.

David Vazzana, whose family owns much of the undeveloped pastureland north of Happy Creek Road in what is the town’s North East Planning District, restated his belief the town is sending mixed and conflicting messages on future development.

“I don’t see any new or novel ideas here – and it does little to help me determine what it is exactly that you want me, as a landowner, to do,” Vazzana told council. “Ultimately, this amendment can only fairly be judged by history, but I believe the uncertainty contained in it will result in the remainder of town land being developed as by-right subdivisions. If that indeed is the result of this document, town taxpayers will be paying the bill for its fiscal shortsightedness for decades to come with astronomical tax increases and decreases in quality of life.”

However, it is quality of life in a rural, small town that proponents of the Comp Plan changes say they seek to preserve. One of those proponents, Councilman Stan Brooks, also said an amended Comp Plan will allow for options other than by-right development.

“He may not understand that but the Action Strategy section of the plan addresses clustering and other development options,” Brooks said of Vazzana’s comments. “And that will give property owners ample opportunity to apply for other than by-right development.”

One of the community’s few remaining farmers, Donald Atwood, suggested council act with care in considering what it was hearing from critics. Noting that his large farm lied in the county “but if you go over my fence you’re in town,” Atwood said much of the criticism seemed to be that what the town was considering was not in the best interest of the county as a whole. He asked council to consider carefully not only what was best for developers and businessmen, but for all the community’s citizens.

Seton Home School owner Mary Kay Clark, who said she has over 100 employees who contribute to the traffic on Shenandoah Shores Road, commended council for presenting an amended plan that will manage growth in a phased-in manner.

Following its work session discussion, council is expected to vote on a first reading of the changes on Jan. 28.

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