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Officials hope changes to the land-use ordinance will make the county more business friendly.
Sunday, June 23, 2013
The Roanoke County Planning Commission last week completed the first phase of proposed changes to the county’s land-use ordinance, a months-long effort to eliminate red tape and redundancies.
The changes, which are scheduled to go before the board of supervisors for approval in August, reflect a simplified set of rules designed to cut down on time and streamline the process for special-use permit applicants. In addition to paring down the ordinance, county officials say they hope the effort also will make the county more business friendly.
According to Philip Thompson, the deputy director of county planning, the several-hundred-page ordinance had not undergone any significant change since 1992. With that in mind, Thompson and a handful of county staffers set to work on amendments to pass along to the commission for review. The effort is expected to roll out in multiple phases across the next year.
In this phase, staffers tackled special-use permits. They asked commissioners to question how the uses are defined, where they are allowed, and what standards are currently in place.
Commissioners said the number of applications for special-use permits dropped after the recession hit, freeing the commission to review the ordinance for inefficiencies. Gene Marrano , a commissioner from the Cave Spring district, said he was surprised to find so many peculiarities embedded in the current ordinance.
“There were some things that didn’t make a lot of sense,” Marrano said. “And then there were some places where there were some restrictions that didn’t need to be there.”
For example: The county allows a businessperson to establish a gas station without a special-use permit. It allows a person to open a retail sales business without a special-use permit. But if the two are combined, such as a grocery store with a fueling station, the developer must undergo a lengthy and potentially expensive process of obtaining a permit from the commission.
Another situation required a home day care owner to get a special-use permit if he or she cared for more than five children — even though the state allows up to 13.
“Isn’t that enough regulation here?” Thompson asked. “Do we really need to let them go through this process?”
There were two such applicants in the past year. Not one person showed up to participate in the public hearings, and both proposals were rubber-stamped by the commission.
In Catawba, April Caudle had her home day care approved earlier this year. She said she has operated a home day care without a special-use permit since 2008 but was told she needed to obtain one after the state “dusted off some rules that never were enforced.”
She filled out her application, attached the $40 fee and submitted her application. Through the process she also spent about $600 for two mandatory legal ads to advertise the public hearings.
“At the end, they approved and it just seemed like a lot of trouble for nothing,” Caudle said.
Thompson said Caudle’s situation was akin to some of the permit requests in which people want to run single-seat home beauty salons. Under the current setup, a homeowner must supply reasons why they can’t run such an operation outside of their home. The idea was meant to protect neighborhoods from traffic and other nuisances.
“If it’s only one chair, well, how many people will you do in a day?” Thompson asked. “Will that actually change traffic? Why would we want to limit people’s opportunities?”
If the changes are passed, the method by which residents can voice their concerns about individual projects also will shift. Instead of working directly with county staff, complaints will be handled through litigation.
Thompson said most of the proposed amendments are simple housekeeping matters and include clarifying certain definitions. If approved, the ordinance amendments will also make it easier for landowners to increase the size of buildings on their properties, provided they meet all the necessary qualifications overseen by county staffers.
“If you wanted to increase the size of your building by a certain amount, you had to go back and ask for a special-use permit,” Marrano said. “There were some cases where it just didn’t make sense to do that. As long as you meet all the other standards — setbacks, parking, stormwater — you won’t have to come back and do a special-use permit.”
Commissioner Gary Jarrell echoed Marrano’s sentiment.
“The land has changed, the county has changed,” Jarrell said. “Face it, in Roanoke County, a lot of our new building is becoming challenging because a lot of our flat land has been built up, so we need to be more creative. I think it’s more user friendly now.”
County residents will have an opportunity to voice concerns about the proposed changes as the amendments are introduced to the board of supervisors in August.
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