BEDFORD — Public interest in how Bedford County officials will tackle Liberty University’s proposed expansion of the New London Airport — and future airport developments in the county — remained high Tuesday as more than 80 people showed up for a standing-room-only planning commission meeting.
Community Development Director Gregg Zody presented updates and recommendations for a proposed zoning ordinance amendment to create an Airport district, which would outline how airports could be developed in the county. The meeting did not allow for public comment on the airport and the commission took no action on the subject.
Liberty University, which owns the airport, is seeking to rezone the 131-acre New London Airport at 1114 Wheels Drive to develop a general aviation facility for the Liberty University School of Aeronautics on the property. Liberty University purchased the property 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 online geographic information system.
Neighboring property owners object because they said the expansion of the facility would have negative environmental and safety effects. Others said the university’s expansion of the airport would drive down the value of surrounding properties and is not compatible with the county’s comprehensive land use plan.
The issue isn’t cut and dry because current regulations don’t quite address this need. Tuesday’s meeting followed one last month that more than 200 people attended.
Commissioner Jeff Burdett said Tuesday he had not yet read a Federal Aviation Administration study on rural airports as it had been given to him that evening but added the commission would need time to delve into it and see what it says.
“We’re not gonna breeze through this tonight,” he said. “I’ve read some of it online and this is what the federal government gears toward rural airports. We’ve got a lot of due diligence to do on it and we need to see what’s pertinent and what’s not pertinent.”
The commission voted for Zody to bring back a revised working draft ordinance to its Nov. 19 meeting for its consideration and review.
The draft Zody presented Tuesday night said other than the Airport Overlay District, which includes the surrounding areas of an airport, the county does not have regulations addressing development standards, use and design for an aviation facility.
“My search focused on creating an Airport district that contains the fundamental elements an airport should have with consideration of existing uses and conditions,” he said.
He said he chose the FAA’s “Land Use Compatibility and Airports” study which addresses noise level, number of operations and compatibility with existing uses and environmental conditions.
“The document operates under the assumption that a locality is in the process of planning and coordinating a new aviation use with a potential owner/operator, whether that ownership is private or public,” Zody said, reading from the memorandum.
The proposal included FAA recommendations/requirements of an Airport Master Plan to guide future development, the submission of noise exposure maps and noise compatibility programs and a noise impact area map as well as compliance with federal regulations on the environment and historic preservation and the submittal of an airport layout plan, among other requirements.
He said given the scarcity of ordinances and studies addressing existing rural airports, this document serves as an excellent resource for unbiased guidance in developing a zoning district.
“With well-grounded and reasonable regulations, I feel that we, as public servants, can fulfill our duty to the citizens and taxpayers of Bedford County to ensure that the zoning district we create for any existing or future airport meets certain standards to ensure compatibility with existing and adjacent land uses with careful consideration of the natural environment,” Zody wrote in the memorandum.
At its Sept. 17 meeting, the Bedford County Planning Commission voted to table discussions about the drafting of a zoning ordinance amendment that would create the Airport district.
“In my opinion, this goes to the future of all rural airports,” Zody said Tuesday. “We have to plan for a new airport coming somewhere in the county. We have to be prepared for that, in my professional opinion.”
Commissioner Tom Woodford said when he listened to the public comments from the Sept. 17 meeting, he got the impression most residents were concerned the county would pass a recommendation to rezone the New London Airport into an Airport district where it would be allowed to do many things that are not yet defined.
“We don’t have an Airport district to rezone anything to,” he said. “It’s a prudent thing to develop an Airport district. What we’re talking about tonight and on Nov. 19 will have nothing to do specifically with New London. We’re talking about text amendments and the writing of an airport zoning district. It doesn’t mean New London will ever be a part of it. It could be anywhere in the county. We’re working on a district that we may or may not pass.”
Zody said one of the most compelling takeaways for him after the public hearing Sept. 17 was the fact the Comprehensive Plan future land use designation (Agricultural) does not address the presence or the future expansion of the airport.
He recommended discussing a Comprehensive Plan Amendment to ensure a legally-sound zoning ordinance and map amendment.
He said many of the larger public and private aviation training facilities around the nation have hundreds of students which would impact adjacent property owners given the potential exponential growth of take-offs, landings, touch-and-go’s and night flights. He said these impacts should be considered moving forward.
With that being said, Zody recommended establishing a process to permit most any suggested use aside from the General Aviation facility use to require a special use permit.
Bedford County currently has two airports; the New London Airport and the Smith Mountain Lake Airport. The New London Airport, located off New London Road about 3 miles south of U.S. 460, is zoned AP, Agricultural Rural Preserve district, and the Smith Mountain Lake Airport is zoned R-1, Low Density Residential.
According to staff reports, both airports are pre-existing, non-conforming uses containing pre-existing, non-conforming structures. If approved, the proposed zoning ordinance amendment would create an Airport zoning district for Bedford County and would change both airports’ present zoning.
Properties within a 1-mile radius of the 467-acre parcel are zoned AP or R-1 and include agricultural, residential and undeveloped land.
Liberty University’s proposal said the development would be constructed in three phases. During the first phase, the university would construct aircraft hangars, an airport terminal and a maintenance building, and expand the airport’s parking area and aircraft aprons, where planes are parked.
The second phase would include the construction of additional hangars, a fueling station, classroom space for the university’s School of Aviation and Unmanned Aircraft System School and a second, longer runway, according to the application.
The final phase would include the construction of additional hangars or commercial buildings for aviation-related businesses. The project, if approved, is expected to be completed by 2037, according to the university.
Rachael Smith covers local businesses and nonprofits. Reach her at (434) 385-5482.