The following article is written by Mary Miller and appears in this month’s Shoreline Magazine. For many of us, the Northampton zoning ordinance can be confusing. Mary provides information that clears up much of the confusion surrounding the hamlet designation.
The hamlets in Northampton County have always been those very small residential enclaves formed over decades, sometimes centuries – that have specific place names. They grew up at intersections, around churches with small cemeteries, or alongside a general store/post office/family home – the original multi-use building – a one-room schoolhouse, a railroad stop, or maybe a pub or social hall. Extended family groups sometimes formed part of these multi-generational neighborhoods. Hamlets are often where culinary and other cultural heritage is kept alive. But until just a few years ago, these communities went without any county designation, with no certainty of compatible neighboring development.
For nearly a year, community meetings were held to receive public input for the 2009 review of the county’s Comprehensive Plan and subsequent Zoning Ordinance. Legal support was provided by well-known Virginia land-use attorney Randall T. Greehan. It became apparent then that the legal framework for rural residential zoning was so imprecise as to leave many homeowners without a reasonable status for their homes. The planning professionals went over county maps, tax maps, soil maps, GPS, etc., and found many existing small enclaves of homes in Agricultural (AG) Districts. Some were clusters around road intersections, others were linear – houses clustered on rural roads, with acres of farmland behind them. Many of the grandfathered lots were much smaller than permitted in AG Districts, and they had no protections from uses incompatible with a residential area. Most of the named Hamlets still contain infill lots for further development.
A Hamlet, Defined
The Hamlet/Residential District (H/R) developed from this research. A definition was adopted, the existing Hamlets were identified by name and mapped, and residential, neighborhood commercial, and community service uses were established. When the documents were adopted by the Northampton County, property owners in the existing Hamlets then had certainty that infill development would be compatible with a residential neighborhood, instead of with an AG district. The county’s Hamlet district is specifically defined as existing rural settlements – a dictionary definition is not used if the county’s documents contain its own.
Comprehensive Plan 2009 – 2.2.3 Hamlet: Hamlets are existing, unincorporated, small rural settlements, typically of 10 to 30 houses designated on the Future-Land-Use Map.
Comprehensive Plan 2021 – Rural Settlement Hamlets: Hamlets are existing, unincorporated, small rural settlements, typically of 10 to 30 houses. They are often of local historic or cultural significance.
Zoning Ordinance 2016 – (C) Hamlet/Residential District (H/R): The intent of this District is (1) To recognize the county’s small rural settlements of historic or cultural significance, often located at crossroads, and which have, over the years, taken on the form of primarily residential neighborhoods.
The county’s existing Hamlets are mapped H/R Districts on the 2009, 2016, and 2021 county documents. There are no criteria in the Zoning Ordinance for creating new Hamlets. They are not considered Floating Zones like Mobile Home Parks (MHPs). MHPs are a Floating Zone and there are criteria for establishing new ones. That was in recognition of the fact that many of the existing MHPs were full and there might be a need for more.
The current Comprehensive Plan and Zoning Ordinance are very clear that the Hamlet H/R District consists only of existing residential enclaves and there are no criteria for creating new ones. If new Hamlets are to be created, there would need to be amendments to the Comprehensive Plan and Zoning Ordinance first – and would require support by studies and from community input.
An application to rezone agricultural land to a new Hamlet near Kiptopeake has been submitted to the county. The Hamlet District H/R currently is comprised only of existing rural enclaves. There are no criteria for establishing new Hamlet Districts. Despite the lack of criteria, and apparent lack of compliance with adopted county policies, a Public Hearing by the Planning Commission has been scheduled for its regular meeting on February 20 at 6 PM.