Wednesday, August 10, 2022

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A comprehensive look: planning board scraps moving forward with Snow Camp zoning

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During last week’s meeting, planning board votes 11-1 to halt any further attempt at establishing zoning for Snow Camp area

After two years of public hearings, steering committee meetings, and several rounds of revision, Alamance County’s planning board has decided to ditch a proposed zoning ordinance that had been in the works for the unincorporated community of Snow Camp.

The planning board formally voted 11-to-1 last Thursday night not to endorse the proposed ordinance to the county’s board of commissioners. In doing so, the planning board’s members have not only halted the continued development of this particular ordinance but may have also put the kibosh on other efforts to introduce zoning to rural areas outside the county’s cities and towns.

The planning board ultimately rendered this verdict during a well-attended meeting that drew scores of residents to the county’s historic courthouse on Thursday evening. During this two-hour confab, the planning board’s members heard from more than two dozen public speakers who were overwhelmingly opposed to the Snow Camp zoning ordinance as well as another, unrelated set of proposed regulations for RV and mobile home parks that also appeared on the agenda.

[Story continues below picture of the planning board during last Thursday night’s meeting.]

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The public consensus was certainly not lost on planning board member Rodney Cheek, who made the motion to dispense with the zoning ordinance after that evening’s 70-minute public comment period.

“We are not recommending zoning to the commissioners,” the planning board member said as he summed up his suggestion for the record, “and this does away with the zoning.”

[Story continues below picture of the audience at last week’s planning board meeting.]

Cheek also included a second part to his motion that called on the subcommittee which had worked on the zoning ordinance, instead, to “beef up” the county’s existing rules for so-called Class III heavy industries. This rider amounted to a concession to the minority of Snow Camp’s residents who had favored stiffer land-use regulations for their rural, sparsely-populated community.

 

A moment years in the making
The development of the proposed zoning ordinance had actually begun with a concerted push from these same pro-regulation residents to keep heavy industry out of the Snow Camp area.

This grassroots movement first appeared on the scene in 2018 when the county’s planning department issued a preliminary permit to a stone quarry, unbeknownst to either the project’s neighbors or the county’s top brass.

The quarry’s opponents were ultimately unable to prevent this facility from obtaining a green light from North Carolina’s state mining commission. They did have some success, however, in convincing the county to amend some of the rules that had enabled the quarry to pursue its entry into Snow Camp.

Since then, the county has amended its heavy industrial development ordinance to ensure that neighboring residents can at least weigh in on a project before it obtains a county-level permit. The county has also tightened the buffers and land-spacing requirements that the existing ordinance uses to make sure that new industries keep their distances from homes, churches, schools, and other “protected” structures.

The concession that Cheek tacked onto his motion would essentially continue this rule tightening the process for Class III heavy industries, which include everything from saw mills and stone quarries to race tracks and asphalt plants.

There are nevertheless limits to what can be accomplished through these nips and tucks to the county’s current restrictions. In particular, the county’s board of commissioners can’t legally strike down, or prohibit, a proposed development that has met all of the technical requirements in the existing rules.

The inability to veto a contentious project would still be a shortcoming of the county’s land-use regulations, in the eyes of the stone quarry’s opponents – even with “beefed up” restrictions on Class III heavy industries.

Tonya Caddle, the county’s planning director, acknowledged as much during a brief gathering of the zoning ordinance subcommittee that took place immediately before the planning board’s meeting on Thursday.

“We’ve tried to put as much teeth as we can in the ordinances,” the county’s planning director said at the time. “But it still allows the use if you meet the technical part.”

Caddle shared this admission with the subcommittee as she presented its members with a new, “bare-bones” version of the proposed zoning ordinance for Snow Camp.

The subcommittee had previously requested this streamlined ordinance the week before in light of the vehement criticism that the original had drawn since its debut in December. In response to these objections, Caddle winnowed down her initial plan’s four Snow Camp zoning district classifications to just two – an industrial district for existing heavy industries and a second, residential/agricultural category for everything else.

The subcommittee had also instructed Caddle to draw up a “non-zoning” alternative based on a submission from subcommittee member Bill Poe. This competing plan proposed to subject large subdivisions and commercial projects in Snow Camp to the same sort of buffers and land-spacing requirements that already appear in the county’s heavy industrial development ordinance. Poe’s proposal would’ve also increased the land-spacing requirements for the community’s Class III industries, forcing them to set up 2,000, rather than 1,200, linear feet away from the closest protected structures.

“My plan is not having a traditional zoning plan at all,” Poe went on to explain when copies were distributed to the rest of the subcommittee. “Using land spacing and setbacks, it would just [determine] placement for different sized developments…just like the HIDO [or heavy industrial development ordinance], and that’s something we’ve lived with and worked with for the industrial developments.”

Unfortunately, neither Poe’s plan nor Caddle’s “bare-bones” zoning ordinance were made available to the members of the general public who attended Thursday’s planning board meeting. These residents were, instead, privy to already outdated drafts of the zoning ordinance when they gathered in the main courtroom of the county’s historic courthouse to watch that evening’s proceedings.

The planning board had requested use of the courthouse in lieu of the county’s own meeting chambers in anticipation of a capacity crowd that evening. Nor were their expectations disappointed as the courtroom’s floor seats began to fill up shortly before the meeting, with later arrivals grudgingly making their way to the second-floor viewing gallery.

In addition to the packed audience that night, the planning board witnessed an unusually large turnout for the public comment period that customarily kicks off its meetings. The members of this appointed advisory board ultimately heard from 25 people during this 70-minute block, including 10 who addressed the previously mentioned proposal regarding RVs and mobile home parks.

The people have spoken
Of the 15 public speakers who weighed in on the Snow Camp zoning ordinance, a mere four were unambiguously in favor of the proposed land-use restrictions. These zoning supporters included Stephanie Thurman, a Snow Camp resident whose home is currently squeezed between the aforementioned quarry and a solar energy farm. Thurman insisted that the proposed zoning ordinance could prevent other residents of Snow Camp from finding themselves in the same unenviable predicament as herself.

Stephanie Thurman

“No one wants someone they love to be near a toxic heavy industry like an asphalt plant or a fertilizer plant,” she said during the public comment period. “My point is protect yourselves, your families, and your properties from the industrial invasion that is heading our way.”

The planning board also heard a call for tougher restrictions on industry from Laura Corin, who nevertheless discouraged the group from pursuing the same tack with other land uses.

Laura Corin

“I really like that you’re toning down that stuff,” Corin added. “I think all that we really need is to say ‘no’ to that Class III.”

But for most of the evening’s other speakers, the potential incursions of heavy industry paled in comparison to the more immediate threat of tighter land-use restrictions.

Many of these regulatory opponents were dead set against any form of zoning for Snow Camp, including the “bare-bones” proposal that Caddle had unveiled earlier that evening.

“Any zoning that is put in can always be amended to stricter zoning,” Jeff Allred, a self-identified surveyor and “small-time developer” told the planning board, “and that’s what a lot of people are afraid of.”

Jeff Allred

“I still believe that the ultimate goal is to zone all of Alamance County,” agreed Snow Camp resident Jane Majors, “and I am more than willing to take the chance of having possible development over having zoning in Alamance County.”

Jane Majors

“I’m all for having Snow Camp secede from Alamance County with the kind of communist crap that’s going on,” hollered another zoning opponent Jerry Wall.

Jerry Wall

The planning board’s members also heard from several speakers who urged them to base their decisions on the will of the general public. Ike Holt, a one-time chairman of the planning board, encouraged the group’s current lineup not to get unduly distracted by the opinions of lawyers, public planners, and other professional experts.

Ike Holt

“It’s a balancing act,” Holt insisted, “and you need to listen to your neighbors as well… If you decide to send this [zoning ordinance] to the commissioners, allow the property owners in the southern part of the county to vote on it.”

“You need to listen to your neighbors,” agreed Robert M. Smith. “I’m definitely opposed to zoning in our county. If we’re going to do that, there need to be committees set up to really look at what’s going on.”

Robert M. Smith

The county’s planning department had, in fact, set up a steering committee to help guide the composition of the zoning ordinance for Snow Camp. The department had also held a series of public workshops and conducted online surveys before it started to draft the proposed document with the assistance of a hired consultant.

But these community engagement efforts seemed to fall flat with critics like Mike Owens, who called out Caddle by name for allegedly failing to take the community’s pulse before she retained the consultant.

Mike Owens

“Ms. Caddle, I have a problem with you,” he declared. “She doesn’t want to hear from us. She wants zoning.”

In the end, this outpouring of opposition was enough to compel a majority of the planning board to scrap the proposed zoning ordinance in its entirety. The only board member to dissent from this motion was Poe, the author of a subcommittee’s zoning alternative. Poe later said that he felt the subcommittee still had viable options to explore, had its work not been derailed by the planning board’s vote to drop the rezoning effort altogether.

 

Unhitching RVs from mobile homes
Poe nevertheless joined the rest of the group in a subsequent vote to have the full planning board address a proposed set of rules that the planning department had drawn up for both RV and mobile home parks.

During that evening’s comment period, the planning board heard from several mobile home park proprietors who argued that it made no sense to equate their own facilities with those that cater exclusively to recreational vehicles. This conclusion was later echoed by several of the planning board’s members.

“How did we go from looking at the RV…to screwing with the mobile home part,” board member Eric McPherson asked his colleagues rhetorically.

“The intent was to take care of the RVs, not the mobile homes,” agreed Rodney Cheek.

“I’m just not convinced that those two need to be combined in the same ordinance,” the planning board’s chairman Ray Cobb concurred.

“I’ve stayed in RV parks, and they are different from mobile home parks,” added fellow board member Anthony Pierce. “If the restrictions that are in place are strict enough for the mobile home parks, there’s the old saying that ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.’”

The planning board went on to vote unanimously to reconsider the planning department’s proposed marriage of these two kinds of development. While they did not take final action to uncouple the two components of the ordinance, it seemed clear there was little to no interest among planning board members in pursuing regulation of mobile home parks.

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