Commercial zoning change for property adjoining Morgan Grove Park
I have waited to see any public comment or disclosure of the unimaginable Jefferson County Commission decision on Sept. 3 to change the zone description of the property adjoining Morgan’s Grove Park to “Neighborhood Commercial.” Having seen none, I feel compelled to let you know what has happened.
As most readers are aware, this property has long been a subject of controversy and concern to the community. It lies along Town Run adjacent to a historic treasure and important recreational facility owned by the Shepherdstown Community Club and operated on behalf of our community by the Jefferson County Parks and Recreation Commission. It is arguably the most heavily used and widely appreciated park facility in our county. It is surrounded by undeveloped rural land and detached private homes on large and well landscaped lots. Over the years a succession of owners/developers has attempted to unrealistically exploit the property for commercial gain – most of us feel, at the expense of the surrounding property owners and the community at large. Having defended our community interests in four Federal court cases, and defeated an ill-advised attempt to obtain an industrial zone description, we negotiated after lengthy planning, zoning, and county commission meetings and requisite public hearings a Conditional Use Permit (CUP) that we believed was a reasonable compromise allowing the property owners to move forward on their concept of an “agricultural empowerment area” without adversely impacting the Park and surrounding residential properties.
Despite several extensions of the CUP, the Twin Oaks Developers failed to make acceptable progress digging holes in the ground and pushing dirt around to make it appear that they were earnest about complying with the CUP provisions and realizing their much ballyhooed dream of saving the American farming family. With little likelihood of success in this failing effort, they submitted a proposal recently to take advantage of a different zoning category provided for under the Envision Jefferson County 2035 Comprehensive Plan. In August the Jefferson County Planning Commission, after a public hearing rejected this proposal as inappropriate by a 4 to 2 vote and forwarded their decision to the County Commission. The County Commission’s own planning staff strongly agreed with the Planning Commission decision stating that the proposal was not in conformance with the new comprehensive plan. Despite all of that, at the Sept. 3 meeting, the Commissioners (with the clear exception of Commissioner Dale Manuel) bent over backwards to give the developers what they wanted.
They simply rejected the planning commission’s decision out of hand, asserting that they didn’t know what they were doing and ignored their own staff’s finding. In a protracted and confusing discussion, which was largely led by the developers, the commissioners and their staff appeared not to understand the issues or proper procedures. Legal staff present appeared to be equally confused.
The petitioners argued that they could not make progress on developing the property because financial institutions were unwilling to make loans on the basis of a CUP. The lack of a viable and credible development plan or credible professional record seemed to be irrelevant. One commissioner even argued that what the new Plan envisioned was a series of village-clusters in which residents would abandon their cars and walk to nearby shopping facilities. She argued further that it would be good to make this case an exemplar to be followed elsewhere in the county.
The procedural requirement for public notice to surrounding property owners and an appropriate public hearing on this radical change to land use in a sensitive area including property in which the County itself has a vested public interest was rejected. Points made by the Planning Commission were not even considered as was professional advice from the county planning staff. (One wonders why we even have them!) So now we will see unconstrained commercial development including residences, gas stations, and convenience stores without regard to the interests or desires of surrounding property owners or the Shepherdstown area community. Highway and pedestrian safety issues have already been by-passed through waivers.
Until now, one of the defining differences about Jefferson County has been that we had implemented a viable zoning system. The benefits were very evident when you enter from adjoining areas. This was a very unfortunate decision, based on specious logic that severely undermines the credibility of our county government. We should keep this in mind at the next election, which appears to be our only recourse.