For the next few weeks, the Town of Abingdon will be publishing several posts regarding the concerns of the proposed rezoning of the CEMA Corporation property. The staff has received several questions and wants to provide information by disseminating informational bulletins.
The first set of questions addresses zoning, an overview of the development project proposed for re-zoning, and the effects that the proposed rezoning would have on the Virginia Creeper Trail:
1. What is Zoning and why is it an important tool for municipalities?
· Zoning is a land use tool that originated in the late 1800’s/early 1900’s in urban areas such as New York City, to help regulate the development of land and to promote “health, safety and welfare” of the community. The constitutionality of zoning was upheld by the US Supreme Court in a landmark case in 1926. Shortly thereafter, zoning ordinances were enacted in many jurisdictions around the nation.
· In Abingdon, the earliest records related to zoning appear in the late 1940’s. The Town’s Planning Commission was established in 1947 and that board passed the town’s first zoning ordinance on December 8, 1948.
For the Town of Abingdon, just like other jurisdictions, zoning is a tool to help the town achieve certain objectives:
1) Improve or protect public health, safety, and welfare of its citizens
2) Plan for future development
3) Develop new community centers with adequate transportation, utility, health, educational, and recreational facilities
4) Recognize the need for agricultural, industry and business growth
5) Provide residential areas with amenities for family life
6) Assure that the growth of the community is compatible with the efficient and economical use of public funds
7) Encourage economic development activities that provide employment and enlarge the tax base
While these are general “objectives”, the source of the town’s zoning power resides with the Town Council. Zoning decisions are one of the most important, and often most difficult, judgments made by the Town Council. The law gives the Council the explicit legislative authority to make changes to the Town’s zoning map and ordinances. According to the Code of Virginia, zoning ordinances and districts are to be drawn and applied by reasonably considering the following:
1) The existing use and character of the property
2) The comprehensive plan
3) The suitability of the property for various uses
4) Trends of growth and/or change
5) Current and future requirements of the community as to land for various purposes as determined by population and studies
6) Transportation, utility, recreation areas, schools, housing, and other public service needs
7) The encouragement of the most appropriate use of land throughout the locality
8) And, the protection of life and property from failures of natural systems (ex – floods, fires, etc.)
2. What is the process for rezoning a piece of property in the town of Abingdon?
· Often, property owners wish to change the zoning district on property they own (or otherwise have an interest in) to accommodate a new land use. This is known as a “rezoning”. The process for changing a zoning district through either a map change (ex – from one district to another) or through an ordinance amendment (ex – adding a permitted use in a particular district) is prescribed by the Code of Virginia.
· The general procedure is as follows:
1) A request is received by the local jurisdiction (ex – Town of Abingdon)
2) Staff members process the application, including setting times/dates for public hearings (as necessary), advertising the hearing per the requirements of the Code, and providing materials and information for the various boards and commissions that may review the request.
3) Any request related to zoning must first have a public hearing to be heard by the Planning Commission, which makes a recommendation to the Town Council.
A) The Code of Virginia does allow jurisdictions to conduct joint meetings of the Council and Planning Commission.
4) Following consideration by the Planning Commission, the Council will additionally hold a public hearing to consider the request. The Council may adopt the resolution before it, reject the resolution, or it may continue the matter to another date and time for further consideration. Additionally, an applicant reserves the right to withdraw their request at any time up to the time of the vote.
5) Once the Council has voted on a matter and it has been adopted or rejected, the matter is deemed to have been completely through the “rezoning process”. There are provisions for appeal of decisions made by the Council to the Circuit Court, however these are generally appeals based on the correct application of the zoning procedure and not to reverse the outcome of the decision of the Council.
In the Town of Abingdon, there are a few nuances that are worthy of note related to this process. The Town Council and the Code of the Town of Abingdon, understanding that items such as rezoning and amendments to the code of ordinances may be complex at times, allows for two readings (or two opportunities for consideration) of such items. The purpose for two readings is to allow the public ample time to consider a proposal, as well as time for the Council to consider such items and discuss it with their constituents. The Council, at its sole discretion, may elect to dispense with the second reading if (in its opinion) the second consideration of an item is not warranted.
3. Can you provide an overview of the development project proposed for re-zoning involving approximately 30+ acres off of Green Spring Road in the town of Abingdon?
· There is a tract of land currently owned by CEMA Corporation of approximately 70 +/- acres and a local developer Marathon Corporation has an option to purchase this property for a proposed development.
· The development project currently before Council for re-zoning involves a section of land situated off of Green Spring Road and in close proximity to Exit 17 off of I-81. It consists of 30+/- acres and is currently zoned AFOS (Agriculture, Forestal, Open Space).
· The proposed development concept plan requires that it be re-zoned to B2 to accommodate a new Food City grocery store, 5 restaurant sites, and 2 hotels. (see the picture below)
· The project would also require road improvements affecting Cook Street, Cummings Street and Green Spring Road and involves the town of Abingdon as well as the Virginia Department of Transportation.
· The remaining 40 +/- acres is being considered by the town of Abingdon for the placement of a sports complex facility. This tract would remain with its designated zoning of AFOS and would provide a natural buffer between the proposed development and the Creeper Trail.
4. Why is the Creeper Trail important to the town of Abingdon?
- The Virginia Creeper Trail is a 34.3-mile rail-to-recreation trail starting in Abingdon, traveling through Damascus, VA and ending just past Whitetop Station at the Virginia-North Carolina border.
- This spectacular trail attracts over 100,000 visitors each year to partake of the natural and scenic beauty of this area.
- The Virginia Creeper Trail runs on a rail right-of-way dating to the 1880s. In the early part of the last century, the rail line carried lumber to feed the busy sawmills of Virginia and North Carolina.
- Its name was inspired by the steam engines that slowly crept up the mountainside, although some argue that the name actually comes from the native Virginia Creeper vine that can be found growing along the trail.
- By the 1970s, many railroads were abandoned so the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy began converting old railroad beds into trail systems for hikers and bikers. After the last train ran the route in 1977, the idea for The Creeper Trail was born, and it was completed in 1984.
- Much of the trail goes through private land. In many places, the public trail corridor is only 80’ wide. The trail is maintained by public-private partnerships between the U.S. Forest Service, the Towns of Abingdon and Damascus, and “Creeper Keeper” trail volunteers. In 2014, the Virginia Creeper Trail was inducted in to the Rails-to-Trails Hall of Fame. This national honor has only been given to 27 trails. The Rails to Trails Conservancy singled out the Creeper Trail for its remarkable scenery, fascinating railroad history, and excellent trailside amenities.
5. How will the Creeper Trail and it proximity to the proposed development be affected by the re-zoning referenced in Question 3?
· The proposed development is approximately 650 feet (almost the length of 2 football fields) from the center of the right of way of the Virginia Creeper Trail, one of the town’s greatest assets.
· There is no projected land disturbance of any portion of the Creeper Trail and with proper bufferings and tree plantings, it is expected that only a very small portion of a proposed hotel would be visible from the Creeper Trail.
· The proposed sports complex, currently being considered by the town, would provide a natural buffer to the proposed development and the planning commission will be reviewing the site and making recommendations to the developer to minimize the impact on the view shed of the Creeper Trail
· Further, the town’s planning commission will be reviewing the site plan and will make recommendations relative to minimizing light pollution and noise pollution that may be generated by the development and the sports complex
· The proposed development would also include a walking path around the entire tract of land which would join the Creeper Trail and provide additional parking for trail users