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December 16, 2020

Warrenton planners delay by-right zoning decision

File Photo/Aerotog
Some town officials contend the zoning text amendment would encourage mixed-use redevelopment commercial properties, including those along Broadview Avenue, and help provide more affordable housing.
This is Warrenton’s chance to get it right . . . . As it is, the zoning text amendment is a blunt instrument.
— Julie Bolthouse, Piedmont Environmental Council staffer
By .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)
Warrenton’s planning commission Tuesday night tapped the brakes on an ordinance change that critics say would open much of the town to intense — and largely unchecked — residential development.

The proposed amendment would create “by-right” residential zoning of five units per acre on commercial property. It would apply to about 300 acres in Warrenton, Zoning Administrator Rob Walton said.

The draft zoning change would eliminate special use permits — and public hearings — for some mixed-use development or redevelopment.

But, only parcels of five acres or more would qualify — unless the town council approved a waiver. The proposed text would allow construction of one dwelling per 500 square feet of ground-level commercial space. Property owners also could qualify for 10 units per acre — “bonus density” — if at least 10 percent of the dwellings qualify as “affordable” housing.

> Staff report at bottom of story

Under the existing ordinance, commercial property owners may build apartments above retail and office space — without a stated limit on density, Mr. Walton said. Parking, traffic and other factors can, however, limit the number of residential units in those cases.

Critics — including Citizens for Fauquier County and the Piedmont Environmental Council — warn the zoning change could overwhelm Warrenton’s sewage system and want consideration of the amendment delayed until the town finishes its comprehensive plan update, in the works for several years.

Any zoning change should follow the comprehensive plan, which the commission could send to the town council early next year, dozens of citizens — in Warrenton and beyond — have said in emails to municipal officials.

“We are concerned about this coming prior to completion of the comp plan,” PEC staff member Julie Bolthouse told the commission during Tuesday night’s public hearing on the proposed amendment. “This is Warrenton’s chance to get it right.”

Officials should ensure Warrenton has enough water and sewerage capacity and that any zoning change complies with the community’s “vision” for the future, Ms. Bolthouse added.

“As it is, the zoning text amendment is a blunt instrument” that would allow more growth by appealing to the market demand for housing, she added.

Ms. Bolthouse provided the only testimony at Tuesday night’s hearing. More than two dozen opponents of the text amendment made their cases by email, included as part of the hearing record.

Before Tuesday’s 6-0 vote to delay a decision, Planning Commissioner Ali Zarabi expressed concern about the town’s water and sewerage capacity.

“As far as I know, there’s excess water, and the sewer (capacity) is pretty close if you calculate the amount of square footage or acreage in the commercial district,” Mr. Walton said. “But, it does work.”

The town plant treats about 1.8 million gallons of wastewater a day and has capacity for 2.5 million gallons, he said. With improvements, Warrenton in the next five years hopes to earn state approval for 3 million gallons of daily capacity.

Warrenton can produce 2.35 million gallons of drinking water per day, and daily consumption averages 1.13 million gallons.

“People are saying that because of the pandemic, people want to move to a place like Warrenton . . . and that by-right zoning is a tool to attract development,” Planning Commissioner James Lawrence said during a work session Tuesday morning. “We might not need by-right, because people are coming anyway.

“Is it necessary to allow Warrenton to grow smartly?”

Mr. Walton responded: “Any time you have to go through a legislative approval, it does add a little hesitation (for a developer). A special use permit does add a lot more research.”

A special use permit also gives government officials “a better opportunity” to review a land-use application, he said.

The “by-right” amendment would not represent “unleashing Godzilla” on Warrenton, as some critics have suggested, Mr. Lawrence said, but he supports a delay that would give the staff time to refine the proposal and to draft an alternative.

“I don’t think any of us is rushing to do something that we’re not comfortable with,” Commission Chairwoman Susan Helander said before the vote to postpone action.

The town council in November 2019 initiated the text amendment. Some council members have suggested that by-right zoning could help encourage redevelopment of properties along Broadview Avenue, Lee Highway and Shirley Avenue, while addressing the need for more affordable housing.

The former Cheswick Motel property at Broadview and Bear Wallow Road ranks among the top candidates for redevelopment. Composed of five parcels, it totals 3.98 acres with commercial zoning. But, the property lies across Norfolk Drive from single-family homes and across Bear Wallow from townhouses.

The commission will review the ordinance and the draft comprehensive plan in January.

An advisory body, the commission will make recommendations on both to the town council, which has final authority.

Contact “Lou” Emerson at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) or 540-270-1845.

Staff_Report_PC_12-15-2020 by Fauquier Now

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