“This looked like a horse until we got up close and it looked like a donkey.”
That was District 1 Supervisor Mark Johnson’s assessment following a public hearing last Tuesday that included more than a dozen citizens speaking out against proposed changes to definitions for camping, campground and recreational vehicles in the county zoning ordinance.The board unanimously voted down the proposed changes.
In the current ordinance, “camp, campground and recreational vehicle park” are all uses allowed with a special-use permit. Meanwhile, the current definition of “camp” requires some sort of instructional component, while “campgrounds” must contain a minimum of five acres of land and accommodate paying guests in tents or travel trailers owned by guests.
Three months ago, Albemarle County resident Rusty Speidel approached the county with an idea to create upscale rural lodging (“glamping”) opportunities in Orange County. He pitched the idea of “proximal lodging,” that would allow tourists traveling to the county to stay at the very places they came to visit.
Essentially, he (or another applicant) would partner with a local landowner, business or agritourism operation and enter into a contract for a period of years where an upscale “tiny home” or other such recreational vehicle would be located on site. It would require water and septic connections, as well as power. While he didn’t have any specific sites or projects in the works, he first needed definitions in the ordinance to reflect what he is hoping to do. Any proposed camps, campgrounds and recreational vehicle parks still would require special-use permits.
The proposed changes sailed through the planning commission, which passed it unanimously following a public hearing last month where there were no speakers.
That wasn’t the case last week when the matter came before the board of supervisors.
The board meeting room in the basement of the Gordon Building was nearly filled—with many opposed to the proposed changes.
Of the 16 citizens who signed up to speak, most spoke fervently against the proposed changes. They cited concerns about protecting the county’s rural character, noise, trash, sanitation, traffic, safety and incompatible zoning uses, among other objections.
“If you allow permanent structures with water and septic, television, air conditioning and Wi-Fi on agricultural land, what you have is a hotel or motel. I don’t know what’s camping about that,” said Somerset resident Jim Collins. “Ag is ag and should be kept free of commercial enterprises. Even with a special-use permit, once approved, a precedent is set. At this point, there are no standards set, nor criteria to either approve or deny a special-use permit, no provision for traffic or noise or crowding.” He called the special-use permit protection “weak.”
Bruce Gupton of Gordonsville warned of “unexpected consequences” if the definitions were approved. He said the changes would “be destructive to what we’ve worked hard for.”
“This definition change looks like anything goes,” Rapidan resident Tracy Laughlin added. “The definitions do not provide for criteria or restrictions. The proposed changes are ripe for abuse.”
Rapidan-area farmer Bob Wilbanks reminded the board that the county comprehensive plan charges them to “sustain the rural character of Orange County.”
He suggested the proposed changes would not.
“This could harm us a great deal. You need to do a lot of research. Dig into this on density, location, the size and the units per acre. There are any number of reasons to look hard at this, not just from the comp plan but from common sense.”
Somerset’s Mark Warren said the supervisors were the only ones who could bring common sense to this equation. “Once again, someone from outside the county has come up with an idea to make a buck, but before he can make his buck, he invokes the magic words of ‘economic development and jobs,’ ” he said.
Agriculturally zoned lands should be exclusively for agricultural activities. Other uses should be off limits, Warren said. “There are no agricultural uses tied to campgrounds.”
Speidel got up to speak and introduced himself saying, “This was my idea. I appreciate and agree with most of what’s been said.”
He said his goal was to help rural landowners and tourists benefit from heretofore unavailable lodging options in this part of the country. He said he was interested in partnering with existing agritourism operations, tourist attractions or rural businesss where adequate buffers and infrastructure exist while offering accommodations for guests already traveling there.
“I’m extremely sensitive to everything you’re saying because that’s all what makes this part of the country beautiful and I have no interest in destroying that.”
Piedmont Environmental Council (PEC) land use officer Chris Hawk spoke carefully about the proposed changes, noting PEC recognizes the benefits of tourism in Orange County and that tourism relies on scenic, natural and historic resources. He said that camping and campgrounds are examples of tourism that could be beneficial to Orange County in the proper circumstance and could enhance economic development.
Still, he said PEC had identified six primary areas of concern it hoped the supervisors would address if they approved the definition changes. Those included: total maximum occupancy (of people and RVs); maximum occupancy density per acre; water and septic impacts (as related to maximum density); setbacks, noise and increasing the size of land required to greater than a five-acre minimum.
David Laylin of Orange said he’d been involved in rural life and recreation throughout his life, including 15 years’ experience in the outfitting of hunting, fishing and ecotourism activities. He said he strongly supported outdoor tourism in Orange County and the right of agricultural land owners to make money from their land, so long as doing so does not infringe on the rights of others and/or change the rural character of Orange County.
Rather than oppose or support the propose definition, he recommended the board study the matter more.
“The idea is good, but this would take careful planning,” said David Scibal, who owns the Inn at Willow Grove. “I’m invested in tourism here and tourism is very important to Orange County, but we would have to do this right. We’d have to plan for this much better than what we’re doing now. This wording opens the door and once it’s opened, we can’t close it.”
Scibal agreed with Hawk and the PEC’s concerns and added, “If we take our time, we can do this right.”
Initial discussion among the supervisors suggested they were willing to table the matter for further research. Ultimately, though, the board decided to reject the proposed definitions outright and unanimously voted them down.
“Are we ready for this?” District 4 Supervisor Jim Crozier asked rhetorically. “Most likely not. The PEC hit on most of the questions I’m looking at myself.”
Still he acknowledged that while the “glamping” tourism trend didn’t suit those attending Tuesday’s public hearing, it was a viable trend among affluent younger tourists. He also expressed his faith in his fellow supervisors that they could balance the concerns of preservation, property rights and economic development through the existing special-use permit process. His concern, though, was what future boards might do (or not do) if these definitions were approved.
District 5 Supervisor Lee Frame said the county wants to promote agritourism, but how the proposed changes fit in with that is yet to be defined.
Johnson said a lot of camping can occur legally in the county already, but acknowledged the proposed changes “open it up.”
“I’m not opposed to camping just as long as someone else is doing it,” he added.
District 2 Supervisor and board chair Jim White said he tried to apply the proposed definitions to the county’s agriculturally zoned land and didn’t find them compatible. “We need to stop this train and look at definitions like these and see if they’re a fit with our comprehensive plan as it lays out the vision of the county moving forward.”