The following article is written by Mary Miller, and was published in this month’s CBES Shoreline Magazine. Mary is the foremost expert on local zoning issues, and always provides a succinct and elegant interpretation of how these issues affect life in Northampton County.
Two recent applications brought before the county Board of Supervisors both appeared to attempt to sidestep the zoning’s density standards – the number of dwelling units per acre allowed in a zoning district. The first, which has been turned down by the Board, sought to put several cottages and a single-family home in the Agricultural/ Rural Business (A/RB) District on a parcel zoned for 2 houses. The second, an application brought forward and funded by the county, sought to add an Adaptive Re-Use, with a Minor Special Use Permit, which would allow an unspecified number of apartments in almost any building, in many zoning districts, without regard to the underlying dwelling-unit density.
The applicant contended that the cottages, all with cooking, sleeping, and bathing facilities, were not actually dwelling units. He stated that the cottages were instead a rural business, operated as occupied rental units for up to 30 days at a time, and should not be counted in the 1-per-20 density rule in an agricultural district. Extra income for land owners was touted, “to save the family farm” with this arrangement, since short-term rental cottages could then be built on farms all over the county.
The opposition addressed to county Supervisors was vigorous and immediate. A petition to turn down the plan, with over 400 signatures, including many farmers and farmland By Mary Miller owners, was presented to the Board. Several citizens spoke in opposition at the Public Hearing, particularly about the hazards of tourist accommodations in the middle of a working farm. The Planning Commission had already recommended disapproval of the application. After discussion about what constitutes a “dwelling unit,” and the lack of conformity with the agricultural density standard, the Board unanimously turned down the application.
Adaptive Re-Use in the county Zoning Ordinance was designed as an incentive for businesses to reuse, and transform, existing buildings into a wide variety of small businesses and service firms. The Use has no residential density standard, since the category did not include residences, only businesses.
The application to include apartments as a new Re-Use category was presented to the Planning Commission as an application by the Board, hoping to encourage workforce housing. It wasn’t until the Public Hearing that both the Commission and the public discovered the Board’s action to add apartments was to accommodate a specific company. Community Investment Group (CIG), a holding company registered in Leesburg, VA, planned to buy and reuse the old Kiptopeke Motel, owned, according to county records, by Peacock Holdings VA LLC of Andover, NJ. However, the change
to add apartments as a new Use would affect not only the motel, but buildings all over the county – at any rental price point, short- or long-term rental, with authorization to increase building square footage by 50%, all with no guarantee of either workforce or affordable housing, and all evading the underlying zoning standards.
The motel under consideration is in an Existing Business/Commercial (EB/C-1) District, where apartments are allowed with a Special Use Permit. That raises several questions:
- Why didn’t CIG go through the process already available to them – apply for a Special Use Permit for apartments, allowed in the motel’s zoning District?
- Why did the Board propose this open-ended application, which would affect buildings all over the county, and which now appears to
be for the convenience or benefit of a single real estate transaction?
- Why did the Board’s proposal have no mention of low-cost housing?
- Why did the Board word the application in a way that appears to evade its own Comprehensive Plan/Zoning Ordinance density standards?
- How did the Board intend to enforce any “workforce housing” promises?
Does the County Need Workforce Housing? More Tourism Accommodations?
YES, to the workforce housing need. But approving a county-wide Adaptive Re-Use for apartments, and hoping for workforce price-point housing, may not be an effective plan. Since there’s no legal definition for workforce housing, nor any established price-points, it would likely be impossible to enforce any promises made by the developers.
The county has no Ordinance in place to address this issue. The current application, if approved, could produce market-rate apartments, or more vacation rentals, or federally funded subsidized affordable housing, for which many in the local workforce would not be qualified.
What about more tourism accommodations? The county could first commission a professional “needs assessment” to determine the type, quantity, and location for any new vacation rentals. The sizeable opposition to the plan to put cottages on farmland may have revealed some local dissatisfaction with the results of increasing tourism in general – lack of long-term rentals due to the increase in vacation rentals, the rising costs of homes or rental apartments, increased traffic and congestion, etc. Careful planning for the growing tourism industry, to include local input, might be indicated.
Establishing Neighborhoods Removing the density of dwelling units appears to be at the center of both applications. The number of houses or apartments on an acre of land determines the concentration of population in Villages, Hamlets, Agricultural, and in the Town Edge Districts. The higher densities in the towns are controlled by those towns – rural neighborhoods and farmland are much less crowded. This population distribution has been supported by public input, and is a major feature in the Northampton County’s Comprehensive Plan. The Zoning Ordinance reflects this concept.
Abandoning this density concept, in favor of development applications, runs counter to the community’s support for established population distribution.