CHARLES TOWN - More than 100 local residents crowded into Wright Denny Intermediate School's Betty J. Roper Auditorium in Charles Town for last Tuesday night's Jefferson County Planning Commission meeting.
Most attendees were interested in the Planning Commission's public workshop on potentially allowing more recreational uses in rurally zoned areas. Approximately 85 percent of Jefferson County is zoned rural, said Jennifer Brockman, county Departments of Planning and Zoning director.
Allowing uses like boat ramps along the Shenandoah River and campgrounds in rurally zoned areas could help local businesses like River Riders and River and Trail Outfitters expand their businesses and attract more customers to the county.
Michael Cassell, a local attorney speaking on behalf of several environmental groups, told the Planning Commission that the site impacts of rural commercial recreational businesses can be large even though the businesses may not be constructing new, large buildings.
"The site impact is pretty devastating. ... I think the impact must be judged on the neighbors, the neighborhood, rather than buildings and the like," Cassell said. "... In looking at the rural district, please don't forget the rural district has a character that must be preserved if zoning is to be preserved as a viable land use tool."
River Riders owner Matt Knott disagreed with claims that businesses like his have a larger negative impact on the environment.
Knott's business has only cleared trees in about three of its 100 acres, he said.
"When people are saying that this impact that the outfitting community has on the environment is substantial, it's just simply not true," Knott said. "If you were to look at an aerial photo of any neighborhood along the Potomac River compared to any piece of property that we own, you would see that the impact on the environment is substantially more on a residential property than it is on the property that any of the outfitters own."
Others who spoke at the meeting raised concerns about possible increases in litter, traffic and crime should an expansion occur.
While some residents who spoke at the meeting were opposed to having commercial recreational uses in their neighborhoods, Brockman said in a phone interview Wednesday that nothing like that is under consideration.
"I think that some people didn't hear us say that we had no intentions of allowing (boat ramps, campgrounds, etc.) in residential communities ... that none of those were ever proposed to be in those areas," Brockman said. "Our concern is that they seem to continue to hear what they want to hear and they're not hearing what it is we're proposing, but I think that we got some good feedback on some of their concerns so we'll be able to incorporate them in ordinance language that we will be working on."
The idea of allowing campgrounds, boat ramps and similar uses in rurally zoned areas actually came about because a landowner on the Blue Ridge Mountain wanted to start a campground, Brockman said. However, because of the Land Evaluation and Site Assessment point system, creating a campground would have been problematic, she said.
"I think we'll still probably move forward with the proposal for a modified version and maybe if they see the actual ordinance language it'll be of less concern," she said. "But there was never any intention to permit any commercial recreational uses in any residential neighborhood."
The planning commission likely will conduct a public hearing on the possible zoning ordinance in May and vote on whether to send the ordinance to the Jefferson County Commission.