FOREST — The Bedford County Planning Commission on Monday recommended denial of three recommendations from county staff concerning the Liberty University-owned New London Airport in Forest, which the university plans to expand.
The Planning Commission voted unanimously to deny recommendation of a draft proposal creating an Airport district in the county; a proposed amendment to the county’s comprehensive plan regarding permitted usage of property zoned agricultural preserve; and a rezoning application from the Bedford County Board of Supervisors to rezone 467.83 acres in Forest — which includes the 131-acre New London Airport at 1114 Wheels Drive — from AP (Agricultural Rural Preserve district) to A (Airport district).
Monday’s meeting — which was held at Jefferson Forest High School and attended by more than 100 residents — was the latest in a series of meetings held since the university announced plans to expand the facility.
“These actions are the culmination of more than four years of conversations between the county and Liberty University,” Bedford County Administrator Robert Hiss said Monday. “We think this is something that will protect the rights of all property owners.”
In March, Liberty University submitted — and then withdrew — a rezoning request for the New London Airport 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 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.
During its Aug. 12 meeting, the board of supervisors directed staff to draft a zoning ordinance amendment to create an airport district following a closed session 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.”
Hundreds of residents have attend both the Planning Commission’s and the Board of Supervisors’ meetings to voice concerns about the proposed expansion of the facility, citing incompatible land usage with surrounding residential and agricultural properties.
Dozens of residents spoke during the public hearing on Monday in opposition to the county creating an Airport district because it would allow LU to expand the facility more than its current non-conforming use.
“This is just opening Pandora’s Box,” Bedford County resident Paul Lancaster said. “You can’t close it once you open it. This is just allowing Liberty University to do whatever they want with no regards to anyone else.”
Former Lynchburg Regional Airport Commission Chairman Stewart Hobbs agreed.
“This to me looks like a bureaucratic answer that is looking for a problem,” Hobbs said. “LU bought the airport, which had uses grandfathered in. The additional property they bought did not.”
“There is no problem if you just leave everything alone,” Hobbs said. “Do not give LU anything else.”
Several members of the planning commission spoke in opposition to the proposed draft ordinance during the meeting.
“I don’t think this is a good area for an airport district,” District 7 Commissioner Tom Woodford said. “I have a lot of concerns about this.”
District 2 Commissioner Jeff Burdett agreed.
“I think the county at some time should have an airport district,” Burdett said. “Now is not that time. This has been shoved down the commission’s throat and I have a problem with that.”
Burdett also spoke out against county staff’s recommended amendment to the 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 preserved from development through public or private conservation efforts. The staff reports also mentioned the New London Airport in the proposed comprehensive plan amendment.
“New London Airport — a privately owned, public-use general aviation facility in use since the 1950s located in this land use area between Bethel Church Road and New London Road — has indicated future expansion efforts,” according to staff reports. “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.”
“I have been working with things like this for about 30 years,” he said. “I have never heard of a change in the comprehensive plan that was made without public input. I also have never heard of a proposed change that specifically named a particular business of entity like Liberty University and that concerns me.”
Bedford County resident Bill Stafford said he felt county officials are simply attempting to avoid a lawsuit by Liberty University.
“This airport will not promote economic development or benefit transportation or our infrastructure,” Stafford said. “It is exactly the opposite. This strategy is an effort to avoid another lawsuit and it should be rejected.”
Since the planning commission voted to deny recommendation of establishing an Airport district, the commission could not approve a recommendation to rezone Liberty University’s property from Agriculture Preserve to Airport.
The board of supervisors is scheduled to vote on the zoning and comprehensive plan recommendations and rezoning request during its January meeting.