Tuesday, May 24, 2022

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County readies first rural zoning, for Snow Camp

After nearly a year of committee meetings, community surveys, and administrative revisions, a plan to introduce zoning to the unincorporated community of Snow Camp is just about ready for prime time.

This plan, which has been in the works since March of 2021, is slated to make its formal debut before the county’s planning board at its next regularly-scheduled meeting on Thursday. Should it obtain the planning board’s blessing, the proposal would then go to the county’s board of commissioners, which will have the final say over its implementation.

Although there’s no guarantee that the commissioners will approve these proposed limits on growth and development, the plan has already achieved some distinction as the first comprehensive attempt in Alamance County’s history to impose zoning restrictions in an area beyond the control of the county’s cities and towns.

Despite a long-standing aversion to zoning in the county’s rural reaches, a large number of people in Snow Camp have pressed for just a regulatory framework since 2018, when the county’s planning department signed off on a massive stone quarry unbeknownst to the community’s residents. Although this quarry has since received a nod of approval from the state’s mining commission, as well, the outcry over the project convinced Alamance County’s commissioners to have the planning department devise some zoning restrictions to prevent other industrial operations from setting up shop in the area.

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The planning department went on to hire a consulting firm called Stewart, Inc. to devise a set of zoning restrictions, tailored to an area in the county’s southwestern corner that corresponds closely to the Snow Camp rural fire district. Over the past 10 months, the firm has worked with a steering committee to hammer out these proposed rules – with copious input from residents who’ve participated in a community survey and two public forums that the planning department has held.

In order to obtain a broad cross-section of public option, the county mailed notices to every affected property owner ahead of the most recent forum, which took place at Sylvan Elementary School on the evening of Wednesday, January 5. According to Alamance County’s planning director Tonya Caddle, this gathering elicited a reasonably good turnout from the community.

Tonya Caddle during an earlier meeting with the county commissioners as they set out of the idea of providing zoning in the Snow Camp area.

“We had about 60 people show up,” she recalled in an interview Tuesday, “and we responded to some of the comments with changes [to the proposed zoning ordinance].”

In addition to soliciting public feedback, Caddle and her colleagues also had an opportunity to explain the ins and outs of the proposed ordinance during last week’s public forum. These details were ultimately laid out by Jake Petrosky, a consultant with Stewart, Inc., who has been intimately involved in the zoning plan’s composition.

During the forum, Petrosky tried to give the audience a better sense of what the proposed zoning framework will, and will not, mean for property owners in Snow Camp.

“It’s really focusing in on high impact land uses,” the consultant explained. “It establishes a decision making process…for development approvals for more intense development types.

“It outlines four zoning districts – each with allowable uses…as well as some basic dimensional and signage requirements,” he added. “This is not your typical city or town ordinance. These are not really stringent design requirements.”

The zoning plan, as it was presented during the forum, would assign every parcel in the Snow Camp area to one of four zoning districts. The land in these districts would be respectively reserved for agricultural, rural residential, rural business, and industrial uses.

A zoning map that accompanies the proposed ordinance shows precisely how these districts would be distributed across the area. According to this map, the most widespread of these four zones would be the agricultural district. A modicum of territory would also be designated for rural residential use, while the rural business and industrial districts would cover another 16 parcels between them.

Petrosky noted that, under state law, farms are exempt from zoning restrictions, although the county can still designate agricultural districts to prevent other uses from creeping in to these areas.

The consultant added that certain low-intensity uses, such as home businesses, could be approved administratively under the proposed zoning ordinance. Other, more transformative proposals would go through the full zoning process, with hearings before the county’s planning board and the board of commissioners.

“The zoning ordinance only kicks in if there’s major changes of usage or expansions,” the consultant explained during last week’s public forum. “Anything over 10,000 square feet can go through the conditional zoning process, which means that during approval, there can be discussions between the property owner and the planning board or board of commissioners about conditions of approval that mitigate impacts.”

The consultant also touched on several other proposals that were inspired by feedback from property owners and other interested parties. One such provision calls for buffers to insulate agricultural uses from other forms of development, including residential subdivisions. The consultant noted that the ordinance also offers “credit” to developments that exhibit particular features, such as the preservation of existing vegetation.

“We encourage residential development that matches what’s out there and also protects some things that we think are important,” he explained.

Petrosky told the audience at last week’s public forum that “consistency” with existing uses will be one of the chief factors which county officials would have to consider before they approve any rezoning request. The ordinance would offer a different approval procedure for projects that fail this test of consistency. These irregular proposals would necessitate special use permits, which would be evaluated based on criteria like a project’s quality, its compliance with land use regulations, and its value to the community. Another key consideration will be the adequacy of roads and other public infrastructure in the area around such a project.

Once he had finished presenting the proposed zoning framework, Petrosky opened the floor to questions and suggestions from audience members. According to Caddle, some of these comments have since been incorporated into a new draft of the zoning ordinance, which is currently available for public perusal on Alamance County’s website.

During last week’s forum, Petrosky conceded that these revisions may not be the final set of nips and tucks that the ordinance will see as it makes its way through the approval process.

“The planning board will review the draft ordinance and discuss changes based on the feedback,” he added. “It will be on the planning board’s agenda next week (he said during the forum), and then it will go to the board of commissioners. But it might take a few months to work through the details.”

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