FOREST — A rezoning request from Liberty University, if approved, will be one of the largest rezonings of property in Bedford County in the past decade, officials said.

Liberty University has submitted a request for 467.83 acres in Forest to be rezoned from AP (Agricultural Rural Preserve district) to PCD (Planned Commercial Development). The request will have its first public hearing during the Bedford Planning Commission’s meeting at 7 p.m. March 19. The meeting will be held at the Bedford County Administration Building, 122 E. Main St. in Bedford. The meeting is open to the public and will include a comment period.

The university is requesting the rezoning to develop a general aviation facility for the Liberty University School of Aeronautics on the property surrounding the 131-acre New London Airport at 1114 Wheels Drive in Forest, off New London Road.

“This will be the biggest rezoning request in regards to the amount of land in my 11 years with Bedford County,” Bedford County planner Jordan Mitchell said. “I think the biggest I have seen before this is about 180 acres.”

Mitchell said an AP zoning is for land primarily used as farm, woodlands or scattered residential development and is designed to allow areas to maintain their rural state. A PCD zoning allows fora variety of land uses while also protecting surrounding property.

A spokesperson for Liberty University said no officials at the university were available to discuss the rezoning request or airport project before Tuesday’s public hearing.

Liberty University purchased the New London Airport 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 GIS website.

“Liberty has owned the airfield for a few years,” Mitchell said. “The university has been purchasing the surrounding property since then.”

The existing airfield was built in 1957 as a drag strip, airport operations were added in 1961 and the property served a dual purpose until 2017.

“The purpose of the proposed improvements is to allow the airport to better serve the growing needs of the community and the Liberty University School of Aeronautics,” the rezoning application from Liberty University said. “Liberty University does not intend to continue the drag racing if the rezoning and special-use permit applications are approved.”

The 467-acre property is located off U.S. 460 between New London and Bethel Church roads. Properties owned by Liberty surrounding the airport currently are either undeveloped or agricultural in nature. Those surrounding properties within a 1-mile radius of the 467-acre parcel are zoned AP or R-1 (low-density residential) and include agricultural, residential and undeveloped land.

A proposal submitted by Liberty University said the majority of the planned development will be constructed on land that has not been developed. The size of the property would allow the proposed facility to have minimal impact on neighboring properties.

“With 468 acres, the property is somewhat buffered naturally from the neighboring properties,” Liberty’s application said. “The parcels are intended to be developed with certain buffering due to the size of the property.”

The proposal said the development would be constructed in three phases. During the first phase the university would construct aircraft hangars, an airport terminal, 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.

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.

“The planned improvements have the potential to bring more aviation-related businesses and students to the airfield, as well as allow existing businesses to expand and operate in a more efficient manner,” Liberty’s proposal said. “The project furthers the purpose of the Zoning Ordinance by facilitating the creation of a convenient, attractive and harmonious community; facilitating the provision of transportation through a private airport and encouraging economic development activities that provide desirable employment and enlarge the tax base.”

Bedford County Economic Development Director Traci Blido said it is not known what the potential economic impact of Liberty’s proposed project would be on the county.

“I can’t wait to hear more about it,” Blido said. “If it helps attract new businesses I’m interested in learning more about it.”

Mitchell said his office has received a number of calls from residents during the past week expressing concern about Liberty’s proposal.

“Since the signs went up last week about the public hearing a lot of people have called to get more information,” Mitchell said. “Most people are not as concerned about the change in zoning as they are about the proposed use. A lot of people don’t like the idea of an expansion of the airport.”

Mitchell said he expects “a good crowd” at Tuesday’s meeting.

“We usually don’t get calls from people that are supporting a project,” Mitchell said. “With the number of calls I’ve received I imagine a lot of people are going to come out and voice their opinions on this.”

From the archives: Aerial shots of the Lynchburg region

With the news that Liberty University wants to develop a general aviation facility by the New London Airport, check out these photos that show a view of the Lynchburg area through the years that most people don't often see. Note: Some photo captions are presented as they originally appeared in the newspaper.

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