What you want to know about the Rappahannock County comprehensive plan
For the first time in a long time, Rappahannock County might greet the new year with a fully up-to-date comprehensive plan. Next week, the Board of Supervisors could make the long-awaited decision to approve updates to the county’s guiding vision document — updates that are more than a decade overdue.
Last month after several members of the public expressed opposition to the plan’s maps delineating boundaries around each of the county’s five villages, the supervisors agreed to remove the maps from the proposed plan and arranged to revisit the issue in a future revision.
In preparation for the landmark vote, the Rappahannock News and Foothills Forum compiled comments from prominent county leaders and former officials to provide answers to some of our readers’ most pressing questions.
What is the comprehensive plan, and what is it for?
Virginia state code compels every local planning commission in the commonwealth to prepare a plan for the purpose of “guiding and accomplishing a coordinated, adjusted and harmonious development of the territory” within its jurisdiction. By statute, the comprehensive plan is meant to be general. And as many local officials point out, it is meant only to inform present and future activity, not to establish new enforceable ordinances.
Jurisdictions are encouraged to update their comprehensive plans at least every five years, but Rappahannock has not fully updated its plan, first written in 1973, since 2004.
“[The comprehensive plan] should be our guiding star that we look to and consult in our future decision-making processes. It’s supposed to be a loose document, an overarching general plan … not a zoning document.” — Christine Smith, Chair of the Rappahannock County Board of Supervisors.
“It is a protective document. … What are we protecting? We are protecting Rappahannock County the way we all know and love it.” — Keir Whitson, Hampton District Supervisor.
“At its base the comprehensive plan is really just supposed to outline and lay out the vision of the jurisdiction, whether it’s a town or a county, in terms of how they see development … and where they see opportunities for growth, whether that be development growth or economic growth or anything else.” — Patrick Mauney, Executive Director of the Rappahannock-Rapidan Regional Commission
What is the relationship between the comprehensive plan and zoning?
While there is nothing in the Virginia code that requires a governing body to adhere to its jurisdiction’s comprehensive plan, the plan is generally thought of as a guardrail for planners making zoning and subdivision ordinances.
If a newly-revised comprehensive plan designates an area for industrial growth and development but it is not currently zoned for such activity, for example, then zoning and subdivision rules should be amended to align with that objective. Each time the comprehensive plan is amended, a review should follow to determine how the changes will be reflected in county policies and which governing body will have oversight.
“I always thought of [the comp plan] as the skeleton and the zoning regulations are like the flesh on the skeleton.” — Sharon Pierce, former Chair of the Planning Commission.
“Any time we consider a new or modified zoning ordinance (which is very specific in time and detail) we must first ask: is it supported by the comp plan? That is, does the new idea fit within the vision of the plan, the opening of the funnel? If not, it would not be supported and the idea would need to be reshaped or we would need to ask ourselves if our vision shifted. If our vision shifted, the comp plan can be modified after properly advertised public hearings at the Planning Commission and Board of Supervisors.” — Rick Kohler, Piedmont District Representative to the Planning Commission.
Some residents object to the wording in Principle 4 of the comp plan, which reads: “Encourage residential development within the designated village areas, infill development to be preferred; to allow for the broadest possible range of housing opportunities, styles, configurations, and affordability within the context of a rural, agricultural community.”
Why “encourage” and not “accommodate”?
Planning Commission Chair David Konick has correctly emphasized on a number of occasions that the word “encourage” has been in the comprehensive plan since the 1980s.
The term and phrase are intentionally broad. One goal of Rappahannock’s comprehensive plan has been to preserve the county’s rural character. To accomplish that, former (and some present) county planners have believed that Rappahannock needs to allow some higher density development in the village areas to protect against legal challenges that could argue low-density zoning is exclusionary.
“The focus of encouraging growth was from the standpoint of defending the comprehensive plan as a whole. And everything changes -- political wills change, legal statuses change — but at the time the intent of that [phrase] was that the growth would occur around the villages. … So ‘accommodate’ is maybe a better word than ‘encourage’ but ‘encourage’ was there because the intent [was] to say if growth happens it should happen around the villages. I could even argue that the villages do need an amount of growth to be economic units.” — Sharon Pierce, former Chair of the Planning Commission.
Can the Sperryville sewer accommodate growth, and if so, how much?
The short answer? No one really knows.
Water and sewer services allow for higher commercial and residential density than private septic systems, but their purpose is not to designate village boundaries. Sperryville’s sewer system was built in the late 1980s to respond to state and federal environmental clean water protection mandates that prohibited the dumping of waste into the Thornton River. (Similarly, the Town of Washington put in its sewer lines in 2010 largely to protect the Rush River watershed.)
The Sperryville sewage permit is specified to an amount of effluent, not a number of households. The plant was built to process 55,000 gallons of wastewater per day. Currently, the sewer serves roughly 180 connections that produce notably less effluent than the maximum allowed by the permit.
The authority has engaged a Luray-based firm, Racey Engineering and Surveying, to analyze the sewer’s true capacity.
“It would be better for the authority and the system to have more users helping to share the burden of the cost. It is a source of revenue so a reason we might want more users is not necessarily because we’re promoting growth, but if it is in our legitimate service area it would be nice if we could get that additional revenue.” — Alex Sharp, Chair of the Rappahannock County Water and Sewer Authority
Why were the comp plan maps removed?
At an October public hearing to discuss the comprehensive plan, Board Chair Christine Smith observed that the maps “seem to have taken on a life where they are seen as encouraging and including more growth.”
The village area maps were intended to improve upon the aerial photographs that were previously included in the 2004 comprehensive plan, but the proposed maps met with unexpected resistance from county residents and even the Piedmont Environmental Council.
Patrick Mauney, executive director of the Rappahannock-Rapidan Regional Commission, told the Rappahannock News that the maps had been devised by superimposing the county’s zoning maps onto digital maps of the villages. The initial maps were “just village boundaries with no designation of what the zoning was,” he said. And the regional commission drew those boundaries, Mauney continued, based on where parcels naturally seemed to have fence lines and tree lines.
Nonetheless, the myriad objections to the maps included fears that development and growth might increase traffic dangers; burden Sperryville’s sewer system; tarnish the rural charm of the historic villages; and burden the villages with unwelcome sprawl.
Chris Parrish, vice chairman of the Board of Supervisors, put it succinctly during a November session: “I have yet to talk to anybody personally that is in favor of the maps.”