BEDFORD — Bedford County officials on Tuesday continued discussion on the development of a proposed zoning ordinance amendment to create an airport district — which would outline how airports could be developed in the county — before the Dec. 16 Bedford County Planning Commission meeting, where commissioners will determine if they will recommend approval of the proposed zoning to the Bedford County Board of Supervisors.
Gregg Zody, Bedford County’s community development director, presented the planning commission with an update on the proposed amendment during the meeting.
“This has been quite a challenge,” Zody said. “This is one of the hardest things I have ever done and I have been doing this for 30 years.”
Zody said the proposed draft ordinance is based on the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) “Land Use Compatibility and Airports” study, which addresses noise level, number of operations and compatibility with existing land uses.
Zody said he is recommending any future proposed airport in Bedford County include FAA recommendations and requirements of an Airport Master Plan to guide future development, the submission of noise-exposure maps as well as compliance with federal regulations on the environment and historic preservation and the submission of an airport layout plan to the county.
However, if the board of supervisors adopts the zoning to create an airport district, the zoning will not impose restrictions or regulations on the current Smith Mountain Lake Airport or the Liberty University-owned New London Airport because they can continue to operate under the current ordinances.
“This isn’t being created with a specific user or facility,” Zody said. “This is something we can apply throughout the entire county for any future airports in Bedford County.”
Zody said the owners of the Smith Mountain Lake airport have said they are not interested in rezoning the property if the ordinance is passed; and Liberty University officials have not commented on whether LU will request a rezoning if the ordinance is approved.
More than 70 people came to Tuesday’s meeting, many of who have been coming to county meetings for the past three months to voice opposition to the possible expansion of the New London Airport in Forest, citing incompatible land usage with surrounding residential and agricultural properties.
In March, Liberty University withdrew a rezoning request for the New London Airport and the Bedford County Board of Supervisors directed staff to draft a zoning ordinance amendment to create an airport district following a closed session during its Aug. 12 meeting concerning the facility and “pertaining to actual or probable litigation, where such consultation or briefing in open meeting would adversely affect the negotiating or litigating posture of the public body.”
LU originally requested that 467.83 acres in Forest — which includes the 131-acre New London Airport at 1114 Wheels Drive — be rezoned from AP (Agricultural Rural Preserve district) to PCD (Planned Commercial Development). The university was requesting the rezoning to develop a general aviation facility for the Liberty University School of Aeronautics on the property, which Liberty University purchased in 2015 for $1.8 million. The total 467 acres owned by the university has a combined tax value of about $4.2 million, according to information from the Bedford County geographic information system website.
Also on Tuesday, Zody presented a proposed amendment to Bedford County’s comprehensive plan regarding permitted usage of property zoned agricultural preserve.
According to staff reports, the proposed comprehensive plan amendment would define Agricultural/Natural Resource Stewardship areas as “high resource value areas based on soil types, environmental sensitivity or other unique land characteristics” and would include areas that are preserved from development through public or private conservation efforts. The staff reports also mentioned the New London Airport in the proposed comprehensive plan amendment presented Tuesday.
“New London Airport — a privately owned, public-use general aviation facility in use since the 1950s is located in this land use area between Bethel Church Road and New London Road — has indicated future expansion efforts,” the staff report stated. “Future airport improvements shall consider the significance of the natural and built character of the area, its surrounding uses and potential negative impacts on the environment, agricultural and residential uses.”
The staff report said Bedford County would support expansion of privately owned, public-use general aviation facilities as long as “they consider their surrounding environment and demonstrate that they are minimizing potential negative impacts to surrounding uses.” Some uses — including business or trade schools, educational facilities or private aviation facilities — would require a special use permit from Bedford County, according to the staff report.
“We have to consider the rights of adjacent property owners,” Zody said. “We want to make sure that any use is compatible with surrounding properties.”
District 2 Commissioner Jeff Burdett expressed concern about whether some of the potential land uses requiring a special use permit would be acceptable in a rural area.
“I have a problem with some of these uses in a rural area, period,” Burdett said. “My understanding of a special use permit is that the use is acceptable with certain conditions. Some of these are not, to me, acceptable in a rural area because they belong in a commercial area.”
Both the proposed airport zoning ordinance and a proposed amendment to the county’s comprehensive plan will have a public hearing Dec. 16, which will be held at Jefferson Forest High School. The planning commission is scheduled to vote during the meeting to recommend approving or denying the amendments.
“We are in a bit of a pickle because we have to take action,” Burdett said. “I don’t think this zoning ordinance is the best thing in the world, but I don’t want to pass on an opportunity to hear from the public about their concerns.”