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Snow Camp zoning proposal sent back to the drawing board; next meetings on issue are tonight

Next meeting, of subcommittee and planning board, is Thursday night, Feb. 10

A subcommittee of Alamance County’s planning board has decided to pare down a proposed zoning ordinance that the county’s planning staff has crafted for the unincorporated community of Snow Camp.

During a special-called meeting on Thursday (Feb. 3), this five-member subcommittee instructed the county’s planning director to jettison most of this 68-page proposal, after its particulars triggered a hue and cry from many of the community’s residents. The subcommittee nevertheless chose to preserve enough of the ordinance’s regulatory framework to restrain heavy industry and other high-impact land uses, which had originally prompted the county to roll out a zoning plan for Snow Camp.

Planning board subcommittee members (from left to right): Rodney Cheek, Ernest Bare, Sandy Ellington-Graves (alternate), Eric McPherson, and Bill Poe. (Anthony Pierce came in after photo taken).

The committee’s members ultimately reached this consensus after an hour-and-a-half-long discussion at the special-called meeting, which followed a pair of tumultuous planning board gatherings in January. During those meetings, the planning board’s members heard from dozens of Snow Camp residents – many of whom were dead set against the imposition of zoning on their small, rural community in the county’s southwestern reaches.

During Thursday’s special-called meeting, the subcommittee’s members recounted some of the feedback they’ve heard from the residents who attended the planning board’s recent proceedings.

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Subcommittee member Bill Poe estimated that about half the people who’ve weighed in on the ordinance are completely opposed to any form of zoning, while the remainder want some sort of restrictions on heavy industry and other high-intensity uses. Poe attributed the latter sentiment to the lingering disaffection with a controversial rock quarry that slipped through the county’s exiting approval process in 2018.

“So, the whole concept of zoning is not acceptable for half the residents, and the other half want some regulations on the high-impact stuff.”

– Planning board subcommittee member Bill Poe

“So, the whole concept of zoning is not acceptable for half the residents,” he added, “and the other half want some regulations on the high-impact stuff.”

Ernest Bare, another member of the subcommittee, recalled some support for the regulation of other lower-impact businesses. He added that an influx of such operations may be on the horizon thanks to a manufacturing facility that Toyota plans to set up just over the Randolph County line to build fuel cells for its line of electric vehicles.

Meanwhile, other members of the subcommittee recounted the deep distrust of zoning that seemed to pervade much of the public’s response to the ordinance.

“I’m compelled to say, let’s dispense with zoning right now, because if we recommend to the county commissioners and they approve zoning. We’ve got zoning.” – planning board member Rodney Cheek

Member Rodney Cheek warned his colleagues that even a stripped-down form of zoning could be an anathema to the community’s more regulation-phobic residents.

Sandy Ellington-Graves, who serves as an alternate on the subcommittee, with subcommittee member Anthony Pierce. Alamance County planning director Tonya Caddle is in the background between the two.

“I’m compelled to say, let’s dispense with zoning right now,” he added, “because if we recommend to the county commissioners and they approve zoning. We’ve got zoning.”

“I don’t think the people in Snow Camp want all this. We’ve got to find a way to protect the people in Snow Camp without restricting the people in Snow Camp.”

– planning board alternate member Sandy Ellington-Graves

Sandy Ellington-Graves, the subcommittee’s lone alternate, pointed out that even those who want heavy industry to be regulated have little interest in the ordinance’s other provisions, which range from hyper-specific landscaping rules to a proposed loophole for property owners who want to carve out parcels for their heirs that are smaller than the county’s current subdivision restrictions allow. Ellington-Graves insisted that the vast majority of Snow Camp’s residents wanted no truck with these sundry restrictions.

“I don’t think the people in Snow Camp want all this,” she told the rest of the group. “We’ve got to find a way to protect the people in Snow Camp without restricting the people in Snow Camp.”

Eric McPherson, the owner of a tire shop in Snow Camp, stressed that the proposed ordinance would make it more difficult for companies like Edwards Lumber to expand their operations in the southern part of the county. McPherson noted that Edwards currently owns property near its existing sawmills that the prospective zoning scheme would set aside for residential or agricultural rather than industrial use.

“I have a problem making it harder on somebody to do business that’s already doing business,” he added.

“I have a problem making it harder on somebody to do business that’s already doing business.”

– Planning board subcommittee member Eric McPherson

“We don’t want industrial [operations] to be expanding without permission.” – Planning director Tonya Caddle

Under the proposed zoning ordinance, an existing business could apply for a change in zoning in order to expand its operations onto neighboring land. Tonya Caddle, the county’s planning director, insisted that this sort of approval process is necessary to check the growth of industry.

“We don’t want industrial [operations] to be expanding without permission,” she added.

The creation of new regulatory hurdles seemed like a mixed blessing to subcommittee member Anthony Pierce, who acknowledged that the process would give neighboring residents some say over a business’ plans to set up shop or expand.

“But if you want to build what you want to build, you have to go through some extra steps,” Pierce continued. “And there’s the possibility that they can say ‘no.’”

The subcommittee’s members went on to haggle with the planning director over how much could be cut from the proposed zoning ordinance without eliminating the potential checks on high-impact land uses. Along the way, Caddle ruled out the idea of simply adding a “veto” to the county’s existing rules on heavy industries. She acknowledged, however, that state law wouldn’t prohibit a regulatory system that placed industrial development into one zoning district and lumped everything else into a single, all-purpose category with fewer restrictions on use.

“That’s called ‘blanket zoning,’” the county’s planning director added. “It isn’t considered good planning. But it is legal.”

Caddle went on to emphasize that even a bare-bones zoning system will require some of the same basic elements that appear in the proposed ordinance. She said that such a stripped-down system would need zoning categories, a table of permitted uses for each zone, procedures for rezoning and enforcement, and a map that divides the Snow Camp area into distinct zoning districts.

 “We don’t want industrial [operations] to be expanding without permission.”

– Planning director Tonya Caddle

Caddle added that a system of zoning would ultimately give the county some discretion over where certain kinds of land uses can go – unlike its existing development rules, which merely require proposed projects to meet certain technical specifications. Caddle added that, under the current regulations, the county’s board of commissioners has no choice but to approve a request that meets the technical requirements. Yet, under a zoning ordinance, the commissioners could strike down a request for rezoning that seems ill-suited for the area where it is proposed.

In the end, a majority of the subcommittee endorsed some minimal form of land-use regulation that would give the county’s leaders the authority to turn down a project when it’s opposed by the community. Yet, some of its members wanted to base rules on the county’s existing heavy industrial development ordinance, which relies on progressive scale of setbacks and land separation requirements to insulate neighbors from a particular industry.

Poe even circulated his own proposed set of rules that would employ a similar sliding scale of restrictions to regulate heavy industry, commercial businesses, and residential subdivisions in the Snow Camp area.

The subcommittee ultimately instructed Caddle to hammer out a streamlined zoning, or zoning-like, system based on Poe’s recommendations. They moreover asked her to present this draft to the group shortly before the planning board’s next meeting, which is scheduled to take place in the county’s historic courthouse at 7:00 p.m. on Thursday, February 10.

Pierce insisted that the draft he and his colleagues requested may go over much better with the residents who are expected to be on hand for the planning board’s forthcoming gathering.

“I look at that as a starting point,” he added. “We don’t restrict residents from what they want to do, and we build from that.”

Caddle subsequently acknowledged that the subcommittee’s request seems like a step back from the previous zoning proposal that she and her colleagues had drawn up for Snow Camp.
Shortly after the subcommittee adjourned, the planning director told Pierce that, in terms of its sophistication, she would liken her department’s much-maligned ordinance to a one-year-old toddler who’s finally ready to eat at the table.

“Now, it’s like we’re back to the bottle,” she said in reference to the subcommittee’s request.

Previous coverage on Snow Camp zoning issue:

Snow Camp residents out in force to express concerns about zoning proposals (Feb. 3, 2022):

County readies first rural zoning, for Snow Camp (Jan. 13, 2022):

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