FOREST — Plans to create an Airport district in Bedford County have raised concerns from residents living near the Liberty University-owned New London Airport in Forest, which the university plans to expand.
The Bedford County Planning Commission on Tuesday will consider a zoning ordinance amendment to create an Airport district, a first for Bedford County. The meeting will be held at 7 p.m. at Jefferson Forest High School and will include a public comment period.
The Bedford County Board of Supervisors directed staff to draft the amendment following a closed session during its Aug. 12 meeting that, according to the board’s agenda, concerned the New London Airport and was “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.” The agenda defined “probable litigation” as litigation that has been specifically threatened or on which the public body or its legal counsel has a reasonable basis to believe will be commenced by or against a known party.
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.
In March, Liberty University submitted a request for 467.83 acres in Forest — which includes the 131-acre New London Airport at 1114 Wheels Drive — to be rezoned from AP to PCD, Planned Commercial Development, which would allow for a variety of land uses while also protecting surrounding property.
The university submitted plans 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’s website.
The refining request was scheduled for public hearing during the Bedford Planning Commission’s March 19 meeting, but the university withdrew the rezoning request prior to the meeting. LU later issued a statement saying it planned to hold meetings with residents in the area to discuss plans for the property, but no meetings have been held yet, according to neighboring residents.
In a letter to the planning commission, Bedford County Director of Community Development Gregg Zody said staff has met with representatives from Liberty University regarding the limits of the airport’s expansion. Attempts to reach Zody for comment on the ordinance draft were unsuccessful and multiple calls to Liberty University seeking comment were not returned.
However, reports submitted to the planning commission said the county’s intention in regards to creating an Airport District is to relatively maintain both facilities’ current scale of operations because of their location in rural areas and the agriculture and residential uses of surrounding properties. Staff was directed to share the initial draft with Liberty University’s outside counsel, who provided staff with suggested edits, the majority of which were rejected, according to staff reports.
Lisa Hawkins — who is building a home on property located near the airport — said she is concerned staff only have had about a month to draft the zoning ordinance being submitted to the county.
“An airport zoning document is very complex,” Hawkins said. “I am concerned that the county staff does not have the expertise to write that in less than a month. The whole thing seems hurried and that is concerning a lot of people.”
Hawkins said she also is concerned with LU’s lack of communication with residents living near the property.
“They said that they were going to meet with us and that has not happened,” Hawkins said. “The only thing we have to go on is the original master plan LU submitted and withdrew. We would like to know what the plans for the airport are.”
Hawkins said about 80 residences met Sept. 8 to discuss concerns about the potential expansion.
“We have a petition on Change.org with more than 300 signatures that we will be presenting at Tuesday’s meeting,” she said. “We are expecting a good turnout at the meeting to voice are concerns.”
David Puzzo — a resident of the Lees Mill subdivision in Goode — said he could not attend Tuesday’s meeting but sent a letter to the Bedford County Board of Supervisors with concerns LU’s intended use for the airport does not conform to the county’s land use plan.
“I am very concerned that we are going to lose our idyllic, rural setting if we have hundreds of planes flying overhead causing both environmental as well as sound issues for our area,” Puzzo said in the letter. “Liberty University’s Aviation program will make New London one of the most active rural airports in the commonwealth. The shear number of planes they will have and the increase in students in the program will exponentially increase the environmental effects and create extreme sound nuisance all day long.”
The planning commission either can recommend or approval or denial of the zoning ordinance draft on Tuesday. The planning commission’s recommendation then will be sent to the board of supervisors, which is expected to vote on the issue in October.